Sudan-Israel: a Change of Course Sparks a Political Crisis

Prepared in utmost secrecy, with the active support of the Trump administration, February 2 meeting in Uganda between Khartoum strongman General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu has shuffled all the cards in Sudan. This normalisation reveals a split between military and civil power within a regime challenged by street protests and reawakens old resentments harboured by Sudan towards the Arab World.

The Entebbe meeting was very discreet. No joint communiqué, no official photo, but news of the event caused a great stir, and aside from the more or less sincere clamours of amazement, it caused a genuine political crisis in Khartoum. Because indeed the tête-à-tête on 3 February 2020 between the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu, signals an unprecedented sea change in the relations—or rather the non-relations—between the two countries.

Sudan is a member of the Arab League and ever since its independence in 1956, has been hostile to Israel, and for Tel Aviv belonged to the galaxy of its “enemies.” Following Omar Al-Bachir’s 1989 coup, influenced if not engineered by Hassan Al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front, the country allied itself with Iran. The dictator general intellectual mentor advocates a pan-Islamism not confined to Arab countries. Each year, at the beginning of the nineties, in the heyday of the Islamic World Congress, Iranian delegations could be seen in the streets of the Sudanese capital.

Khartoum also supported Hamas and was accused of financing and arming the Gazaoui Palestinian movement on behalf of Iran. On at least two occasions, in 2009 and 2012, the country was hit by Israeli strikes. Tel Aviv also strongly encouraged the South Sudanese separatist movement since its inception in 1955. Once independence was achieved, it sent military advisors to assist the new Southern authorities in Juba.

However, during the last years of Omar Al-Bachir’s regime, open hostilities were no longer the order of the day. And to seal its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates, Khartoum broke with Iran. However February 3 meeting has brought about a major change, of course. If only because it took place. And above all because of a mutual determination, if we are to believe Netanyahu’s indiscretion, only too happy to violate the secrecy of the tête-à-tête, to “undertake a cooperation which will normalise relations between our two countries”. In Khartoum, the first reaction was to deny that General Burham had any mandate or had consulted with anyone, especially not with the Prime Minister, Abdallah Hambok.

“Stabbed in the back”

Back in the country, and after meeting which took all day Tuesday 4 February and part of the following day, General Burhan declared in a press release that he had acted in favour of “security and the national interest” and that Sudan’s position regarding Israel remained unchanged. Minister of Information Faisal Mohamed Salih then condemned a “violation of a firm and ancient stand taken by Sudan: no normalisation of relations with Israel so long as that country does not recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to establish an independent State, with full sovereignty.”

The Communist Party, for its part, denounced “a stab in the back for the Sudanese people’s anti-imperialist struggle and its support for the Palestinian people.” And the same opinion was voiced by Sadik Al-Mahdi, head of the National Umma Party. On the social networks, the followers of the National Congress Party, the backbone of the former military-Islamist regime, dissolved in November 2019, also speak of a betrayal of Islam’s Holy Places. The Director of Foreign Relations with the Sovereignty Counsel of—and thereby one of General Burham co-workers—also condemned a possible normalisation with “the entity occupying the Al-Aqsa mosque” resigned his office.

These stances often seem conventional. Sudan’s attitude towards Israel is not the key to this political crisis. The Entebbe meeting actually raised a much more important issue in this period of transition: how is power actually going to be shared?

“Laying hands on foreign relations”

This was theoretically provided for in the Constitutional agreement, signed on 17 August 2019, between theTransitional Military Council (TMC) and the civilians of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition which led the revolution. It assigns, on paper, definite prerogatives to each of the institutions meant to conduct the democratic transition. Thus, the Sovereignty Council, composed of five military and six civilians, presided over during the first 18 months by Adel Fatta Burhah, has a role which is both advisory and representative. The Prime Minister, head of a cabinet composed entirely of civilians with the exceptions of the defence and the interior affairs portfolios, is to pilot the State. The Legislative Council is not in operation and in fact is yet to be appointed.

According to both the government and the FFC, it is the former which is responsible for foreign affairs. “The head of the Sovereign Council has laid his hands on foreign relations taking decisions on his own. This is in violation of the constitutional document and is an encroachment on the competencies of the executive body”, Faisal Mohamed Salih has written on a social network.”He is overstepping his prerogatives and we condemn this fait accompli policy conducted by the military with an eye to weakening the Premier’s authority and undermining the country’s civil bodies” was how Mahdi Rabih chimed in, a member of the political bureau of the Sudanese Congress and of the FFC.

“The same inclination to use force”

On the Athénée, a small square in the centre of Khartoum, revolutionaries of all ages hold a permanent agora. Sitting in little groups, they discuss politics, culture, economy and the future, follow closely the tiniest new developments, lay plans for the speedy advent of the revolutionary “New Sudan.” Their analyses are no different from those of the government or the FFC. “Burham was just trying to stir up controversy, he wanted to put himself in the limelight, come across as the country’s strongman in the eyes of the rest of the world,” says Khaled, a militant Communist who wants to remain anonymous. “Why should we talk to Netanyahu? He never said anything when we were being massacred by the army! He and Burhan have the same inclination to use force.”

A bit further along, Mohamed, just as reluctant to give his last name, hammers out: “It wasn’t a mistake, it was a fault! Changing our foreign policy is a strategic decision, it’s up to the Sovereignty Council to make it. A transitional authority, which was not elected, has no business doing that.”

But neither Benyamin Netanyahu nor Donald Trump nor the Sudanese authorities can afford to wait for the elections meant to be held at the end of the transitional period, in a little under three years. As General Burham himself has admitted, Washington was indeed active behind the scenes to organise that meeting, for three months previous there were preparatory contacts between the Israeli Premier and Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State.

Donald Trump does indeed need to isolate the rare members of the Arab League who still oppose his “deal of the century”, and so he can boast of this achievement to his Christian evangelist electorate whose counterpart had risen up en masse against the Omar Al-Bachir regime at the height of the Darfur war. And Netanyahu will be able to add another “trophy” to his new electoral campaign. As for General Burhan, he has indeed gained in stature, being the first Sudanese official invited to Washington for the last thirty years. An invitation which, as he declared to a handful of Sudanese journalist had been indeed “part of the deal.” He also hopes to plead the Sudanese cause with the competent US bodies to lift the sanctions which penalise a battered economy and get his country taken off the list of States sponsoring terrorism.

“Our future is Africa”

An achievement which Abdallah Hamdok, who has been making tremendous efforts since his appointment as Prime Minister, would have greatly appreciated taking credit for. Because, under cover of anonymity, many rejoice over this imminent “normalisation.” “If it’s going to open up the world for us, help us break out of our isolation and attract foreign investors who, up to now, have been afraid of US sanctions, well frankly, so much the better!’ one businessman exclaims. And another goes him one up: ‘To pull the country out of this economic disaster, I’d be willing to talk to the Devil!’ This is the price to pay to break with the old regime: ‘We’re not going to be the last country, with Yemen and Libya, to have no relations with Israel, it wouldn’t make sense’ is the justification put forth by one official. In the course of our conversations, issues of Sudanese identity and the wounds that have not healed also came up. Although Arabic is this country’s language but it includes so many different ethnic groups, Arab and Black African, that it has never felt itself a full-fledged member of the ‘Arab Nation’. ‘When we got our independence, our leaders decided to enrol Sudan in the Arab world’, an FFC member explains.” They wanted us to adopt all its characteristics, including the hatred of Israel. But we were never really accepted by the Arabs, our skin is too dark. Nor did we ever notice the Palestinians supporting us when we were oppressed. We must turn to Africa.”

Sudan’s affiliation with the Arab world was an issue of intense debate during the revolution and especially at the Khartoum sit-in of April and May 2019. The old national flag, blue, yellow and green, colours felt to be more African than those of the present flag, has come into fashion. It can be seen painted on walls, worn on bracelets or earrings, carried in demonstrations. “We don’t want to stay with the Arab world, it has no future, it isn’t moving forward. Our future is Africa. And as Africans, we have no issues with Israel.”

A fortnight after the Entebbe meeting, the social networks are humming with the “stages” of the normalisation announced by Netanyahu, when in fact no discussions appear to have begun. Already, however, it has produced one tangible result: the civilian leaders are even more distrustful of the military.