The Conflict in Sudan: Between Personal Agendas and External Interventions

The Conflict in Sudan: Between Personal Agendas and External Interventions
Smoke rises during clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) despite the ceasefire in Khartoum, Sudan - 28 April 2023. © Ahmed Satti - Anadolu Agency

The war in Sudan, which has been ongoing since 15 April, is primarily driven by the personal agendas of Burhan and Hemedti. The two generals are seeking to obtain absolute power and eliminate each other's influence. Over the years, both were able to peacefully negotiate their conflicting ambitions, before their interests reached a point of no return, compelling them to initiate a war for survival, with no room for negotiation, ceasefire, or retreat. Despite the evident personal motives behind this conflict, the October 2021 coup, the external interventions from multiple countries, and the presence of agents associated with the former Al-Bashir regime have all played significant parts in fueling the war and accelerating its outbreak. These factors may also hinder any potential future solutions to end the conflict.

The Different Components of the 25 October 2021 Coup

On 25 October 2021, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan orchestrated a coup d'état against the transitional government led by Dr Abdallah Hamdok. This coup effectively disregarded the constitutional document and plunged the country into a new era of military rule, marked by the suppression of public space and the enforcement of authoritarianism. Contrary to expectations, the putschists and their supporters were met with a courageous, resilient, and prolonged civilian resistance that was not quelled by arrests, killings, or intimidation.

Despite the arrest of numerous individuals, the unarmed civilians bravely confronted the armed forces but were tragically met with live ammunition in the streets of Khartoum and various provinces, resulting in over 100 deaths. Despite these events, the coup regime failed to solidify its authority and struggled to even form a functioning government for nearly a year and a half, marking a remarkable precedent in Sudan's history where a military coup failed as a result of mass popular resistance.

The composition of the 25 October coup forces was characterized by contradictory components and conflicting interests. It brought together primarily two generals vying for power, both of whom sidestepped their obligations as outlined in the constitutional document, particularly the requirement to relinquish leadership of the Transitional Sovereignty Council to a civilian body. Furthermore, a shared apprehension between the two generals and remnants of the former regime regarding the potential exposure that was ensuing from the process of “empowerment removal” which started to unveil networks of corruption, public asset theft, and extensive economic interests, highlighting the deep entanglement between the security apparatus, the military establishment, and the defunct regime.

The composition of the coup also included the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), led by Jibril Ibrahim, and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), led by Minni Arko Minawi, through whom the coup regime searched for more political and possibly economic influence, although Minawi had been appointed governor of the Darfur region and Jibril as Minister of Finance. In both movements, the influence of the former regime cannot be ignored, as many leaders of the Al-Bashir era were seen ascending the ranks of leadership within JEM and the SLM. The components of the coup also included several traditional and tribal entities that both Burhan and Hemedti competed to use for political ends whenever needed.

These various parties, under the leadership and coordination of the coup forces, set the stage for the current war. The coup also received support from Muhammad Al-Amin Turk, the head of the Supreme Council for Beja Native Administration in eastern Sudan, who blocked the national highway leading to the ports of Sudan for approximately a month before the coup.

While these actors have distinct motives, they all conspired to bolster the coup, disrupt the democratic transition process in Sudan, and thrust the country into a dark and uncertain path. Each of these groups contains remnants of the former regime and its network of interests, extending from the official military and security establishments to the influence and exploitation of certain civil and tribal groups.

Egypt, the UAE, and the War in Sudan

Continuous interference from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has significantly contributed to fueling and accelerating the outbreak of the war. Following their support for the 25 October coup against the government of Abdallah Hamdok, both countries have continued to pursue their interests by sponsoring and backing conflicting military factions.

The UAE has been a staunch supporter of Hemedti and provided him with weapons, financial aid, and media propaganda. Meanwhile, Egypt has hosted remnants of the defunct regime that have aimed to obstruct the transition process. Since the war began, the Sudanese Armed Forces have repeatedly stated that Hemedti's forces are using weapons and equipment provided by the UAE, while Hemedti has accused the army of employing Egyptian aircraft and pilots. Additionally, both Egyptian and Emirati media outlets have engaged in blatant interference in news coverage, displaying clear bias in their editorial lines, with some resorting to war propaganda.

In line with its historical behavior throughout post-independence Sudan, Egypt supports the Sudanese Armed Forces and seeks to create a scenario where the army and its commander, regardless of identity, maintain full control over the country. To achieve this, it has made significant efforts to suppress and impede any path that could lead to the resumption of the democratic transition in Sudan and – surprisingly – has even coordinated with the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the former regime. Egypt has hosted numerous leaders from the Al-Bashir regime, who continued to plot and support endeavors to sabotage the Sudanese revolution. Thus, Egypt seeks to preserve its influence by ensuring the presence of an authority that aligns with its interests, particularly concerning regional matters such as the Renaissance Dam, and prevent the emergence of a successful democracy on its borders that could influence and inspire movements for freedom and democratization among the Egyptian people.

On the other hand, the UAE, a relatively new player in Sudan, found in Hemedti and his forces what it desired. The UAE has a history of supporting militias in the region at the expense of official institutions. Since the outbreak of the revolution, it has explicitly attempted to influence the situation in Sudan, initially as part of its competition with Qatar, its regional rival and a close ally of the Al-Bashir regime, before moving to adopt a full agenda. At the top of this agenda are substantial economic interests the UAE seeks to protect and expand – ranging from the uninterrupted flow of Sudanese gold to UAE territories to exerting influence over the Red Sea and agricultural projects like al-Hawad. Moreover, the UAE has a larger project in East Africa focused on controlling maritime trade and ports. Hemedti offered the UAE what it needed – a person with financial resources, influence, and access to weapons. Consequently, the UAE spared no effort in providing Hemedti with more weaponry and funds to achieve its objectives. The UAE, therefore, fears the reestablishment of exclusive authority within the army, which includes affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Congress, against whom it has been waging a comprehensive ideological war for years.

Egypt and the UAE have gambled with the security and safety of the Sudanese, the security and safety of their countries, and the entire region, while they engage in a conflict without moral ceilings in Sudan. Both are fighting for their interests, and, to that end, they exploited extreme internal fragility, be it military, institutional, or civil.

Hemedti and the RSF, Against the Sudanese Armed Forces

Hemedti and his Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have boldly engaged in a war against the Sudanese army, following a long history of chaos and manipulation initiated by al-Bashir and his regime. It was under al-Bashir's rule that the RSF was established and given legal, political, and economic support. Al-Bashir legalized the use of mercenaries in the army and RSF through the Yemen war, providing them with substantial financial resources outside the state's authority. Al-Burhan and other army generals later supplemented these decisions, allowing the RSF to expand in recent years. On the other hand, civilian forces, even at the peak of their unity and capability during the approval of the constitutional document, lacked the right and ability to dismiss any officer from the various security forces.

Hemedti’s audacity to wage war against the army has been nurtured thanks to the unlimited support of the UAE and other countries with which he formed a complex network of relationships and interests. This was taking place under the eyes of the army generals, who only paid attention to how to seize power and obstruct the democratic transition.

The other parties involved in the war are remnants of the al-Bashir regime. Motivated by bitterness, anger over the revolution that undermined their influence, and the preservation of their interests, they continuously fueled the flames of conflict. They perceive the success of the democratic transition as the end of their control over the state, its crucial positions, and its resources.

Furthermore, at the lowest moral and patriotic depths are those who, amid all this chaos, are willing to sacrifice the truth for cheap political gains. They attempt to shift blame for the outbreak of war onto the civilian forces or incriminate them for calling for an end to the conflict. Recent history shows these civilian forces have consistently advocated for the dissolution of the RSF and other armed groups in favor of a unified national army. They have chanted in the streets, "No militia shall rule the state." In contrast, the remnants of the defunct regime and army generals staunchly defended the RSF and Hemedti. Claims that the war occurred because of the Framework Agreement are baseless. Despite its shortcomings, the Framework Agreement established the agreed-upon foundations for governing Sudan, restructuring the military sector, and addressing other aspects of the democratic transition. The fiery rhetoric from the remnants of the defunct regime, blaming the agreement signed by Burhan and Hemedti for the war, is merely an attempt to exploit the conflict to attack and eliminate their political rivals and civilian forces.

An All-Out Civil War Looms

As a result of this political chaos, the country is burdened by a severe security crisis, with weapons proliferation and the presence of numerous armed actors leading to an unprecedented increase in violations and the escalation of fighting. The RSF has a well-documented history of violating human rights and liberties, while the Armed Forces have repeatedly failed to uphold the human rights and dignity of the Sudanese. Compounding this context is the presence of armed robbery gangs who take advantage of the prevailing security chaos in Khartoum.

The signs of an imminent civil war are becoming increasingly evident. There is a disturbing rise in hate speech, and both warring factions are starting to classify citizens based on ethnicity and tribe. In such a situation, a civil war needs nothing more than the arming of local and traditional factions and the solidification of alliances. With weapons scattered throughout Sudan, tribal, clan, and regional groups aligning themselves with one of the warring parties is the final step towards a full civil war that will spare no one. This is particularly alarming especially since the current war is also driven by deep-rooted grievances and decades of accumulated tensions, particularly in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and Kordofan regions, with communities coexisting closely without clear borders. It is a war that no individual or party can control or easily halt and its outcome will change the state of Sudan as we have known it.

Furthermore, while external interference has exacerbated the internal conflicts, it may soon make the issue of ending the war out of the hands of the Sudanese themselves. This is significant given the documented contribution of Haftar, backed by the UAE, in supporting Hemedti, and indications of the intervention of the Wagner Group to support Hemedti, their ally, especially in Central Africa and the Sahel. As the war drags on, it is only a matter of time before other parties step in to support one of the warring parties.

What Can Be Done?

Numerous parties, particularly the two main warring factions, have capitalized on the war to target and dismantle civilian political forces. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Forces of Freedom and Change, resistance committees, and trade unions have faced relentless campaigns aimed at criminalizing them and diminishing their influence over Sudan's overall situation. These campaigns are led by individuals associated with the defunct former regime in both the civil and military sectors.

A proper response to the current conflict entails unequivocally condemning the blatant interventions of Egypt and the UAE, as well as their overt rivalry playing out within Sudan. A patriotic and national stance that upholds sovereignty should also call for an immediate cessation of this senseless war and advocate for a political solution. It is important to recognize that this is not a conflict that can be swiftly resolved, as some have suggested. It has already endured for nearly two months, and even if it subsides in Khartoum, it is likely to persist and escalate in different regions of Sudan, particularly in Darfur. Without appropriate measures, it could drag on for years, fueled by irresponsible mobilization based on tribal and ethnic divisions, inflicting suffering upon millions of Sudanese.

A political solution necessitates the alignment of various civil and national forces around the establishment of a unified, professional national army and the dissolution of all armed militias through a comprehensive reform process. This includes disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) initiatives, under the supervision of a civil and democratic transitional authority. This alignment must call openly on the international community to exert significant pressure on Egypt, the UAE, and any other external actors to cease support for the warring factions and stay away from Sudanese affairs. All political and economic coordination between external powers and any Sudanese security force must be terminated.

The right stance should also assert as the foremost national priority the establishment of a civil democratic state in Sudan through an inclusive democratic transition process. This goal must be achieved without resorting to armed coercion or reliance on militias and should seek to establish a sovereign state that serves the interests of the Sudanese people. It is essential to acknowledge that the military rule that has dominated the country for much of its post-independence history, particularly in the last three decades, has weakened national institutions and undermined sovereignty under the influence of an Islamist ideology. It is this structure that has nurtured and facilitated the rise of militias, and it is high time for it to be permanently abolished.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.