Continued standoff between military, rallyists may slide Sudan into deeper chaos

Supporters of Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the military council, cheer at a meeting in Aprag village, 60 km from Khartoum. (Reuters)
Updated 04 July 2019

Continued standoff between military, rallyists may slide Sudan into deeper chaos

  • It was the biggest show of determination by the protesters since security forces dispersed their main sit-in outside the military headquarters on June 3

CAIRO: The mass marches held in Sudan this week breathed new life into the uprising that toppled long ruling president, Omar Al-Bashir, but the protesters and the ruling military council remain at an impasse amid fears the country could slide into further chaos.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and other areas on Sunday, vowing to complete the revolution they launched in December. 

Nearly a dozen people were killed in clashes as security forces prevented the demonstrators from reaching the military headquarters and the Nile-side presidential palace.

It was the biggest show of determination by the protesters since security forces dispersed their main sit-in outside the military headquarters on June 3, killing at least 128 people. That triggered the suspension of talks on forming a transitional government just as the two sides seemed on the verge of an agreement.

Ethiopian and African Union (AU) mediators are working to restart the talks, but both sides have hardened their demands since last month’s violence, with the generals saying earlier proposals are off the table and the protesters calling for an immediate transition to civilian rule and an investigation into the killings. Here is a look at where things may be heading.

Protests first erupted in December in response to price hikes but rapidly escalated into near-daily marches calling for an end to Bashir’s nearly 30-year rule. Troops largely refused Bashir’s orders to fire on the protesters, and the military removed him from power on April 11. Bashir now languishes in a Khartoum prison where his forces once jailed and tortured his opponents.

But the protesters remained in the streets, fearing that the military would cling to power. When the military announced it would govern for up to two years until elections could be held, the protesters demanded an immediate transition to a civilian body that would govern the country for four years.

After several rounds of talks the two sides appeared to be closing in on a power-sharing agreement in which the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which represents the protesters, would hold 67 percent of the seats in an interim legislative body and appoint a Cabinet. But the two sides remained divided over the makeup of the sovereign council, which would hold executive power for three years.

The process came to a screeching halt on June 3, when security forces attacked the sit-in. The generals annulled all previous deals but announced to hold elections in nine months.

An unwieldy coalition

Sunday’s marches provided a powerful show of unity, but internal divides among the protesters threaten to undermine their struggle going forward.

The initial uprising was led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of independent unions, which later joined forces with the country’s various opposition parties.

The parties appear more eager to cut a deal with the military. Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the head of the Umma Party and Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, opposed calls for a general strike after the June 3 crackdown. He has also agreed with the military on expanding the negotiations to include other political groups that many protesters view as too close to Bashir.

The Sudanese Revolutionary Front, a rebel group that is part of the protest movement, meanwhile threatened to negotiate separately with the military council, the English language Sudan Tribune reported Monday.

Gibril Ibrahim, an SRF leader, was quoted as saying that decision-making within the coalition has been “kidnapped” by a small committee “formed in vague circumstances with limited representation.”

Mediation efforts

Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with both sides in Khartoum last month, and his administration along with the AU has sought to mediate the crisis. The White House has expressed support for those efforts and has appointed a special envoy to Sudan.

Last month, the AU and Ethiopia offered a joint proposal based on previous agreements that left the makeup of the legislative body open for negotiations. The generals welcomed it as the basis for future talks, but the protesters refuse to meet with the military until it fully accepts the roadmap.

“We are back to square one,” said Amany El-Taweel, a Sudan expert at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I believe they are playing for time, especially after the pressure from the street decreased due to the breakup of the military headquarters sit-in.”

Fears of civil war

The deadlock in the negotiations has stoked fears that Sudan could slide into civil war, as Yemen, Libya and Syria did after their own uprisings.

Sudan has been at war with rebels in Darfur and other regions for decades, and the centrifugal forces that have convulsed the country since independence could tear it apart in the absence of a stable central government.

“Civil war is a terribly distinct possibility,” Sudan researcher Eric Reeves said. “The failure of the international community to push harder for civilian governance — for various reasons — is proving deeply counterproductive.”

Osman Mirghani, a Sudanese analyst and the editor of the daily newspaper Al-Tayar, said resuming negotiations offers the only hope of avoiding the “Libya model.”

“If the impasse continues, Sudan could become a new Libya, which means a set of militias control parts of the country and each militia has its government.”

Sudanese novelist Hamour Zyada blamed the impasse on the military, calling it a threat to the country’s peace and stability.

“In the near future, I am not optimistic. I do not expect that the military council will relinquish its grip on power,” he said. “But at the far future, I am optimistic. The public mood is with the civilian state and the revolution.”


Public attitudes in ‘ally’ Qatar at odds with US Middle East priorities: poll

Updated 26 October 2020

Public attitudes in ‘ally’ Qatar at odds with US Middle East priorities: poll

  • Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey shows gulf between Qatar’s claim to being US ally and public opinion
  • Most respondents said Trump’s actions, notably the killing of General Soleimani, were negative for the region

DUBAI, ERBIL: For a country that advertises itself as a close ally of the US, hosting America’s biggest military contingent in the Middle East at Al-Udeid air base near Doha and spending billions of dollars on US military hardware, public attitudes in Qatar are conspicuously out of sync with the thinking in Washington on Middle East issues.
That is according to the findings of the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey. From the killing on Jan. 3 of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani to US President Donald Trump’s role in the fight against extremism in the Middle East, respondents in Qatar belonged to that segment of Arab opinion most critical of Washington’s recent actions.
The question — to what extent has Trump has helped or hindered the fight against extremism — was put to 1,960 people in 18 Arab countries. Overall, 56 percent of the respondents felt he had hindered the fight. Among respondents from Qatar, this view soared to 79 percent.
Respondents in Qatar also disapproved of Trump’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — better known as the Iran nuclear deal — and his reimposition of economic sanctions on Tehran, with 33 percent of the people polled in the Gulf country saying the move made the Middle East less safe.
Admittedly, a similar proportion of the full complement of 2,187 people — 35 percent — who were asked the same question for the pan-Arab survey agreed with the view that the US pullout and sanctions regime had made the region less safe.
“Despite the official relationship between Qatar and the US, every single Qatari media outlet, especially Al Jazeera, is bombarding Qatari public opinion and the Arab world with anti-Trump talk,” said Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences.
“They are the ones that shape public opinion and it seems that this is fine with the Qatari government, despite the fact that they have a vast relationship with the Trump administration. So, this shows a kind of contradiction at the official level with public opinion.”


READ: The methodology behind the Arab News/YouGov Pan-Arab Survey


Since the Arab boycott of Qatar began on June 5, 2017, the gas-rich Gulf state has taken a number of steps to strengthen its relations with the US in order to assuage the effects of diplomatic isolation. But it has also continued its manifold engagement with a country viewed by many in the US foreign-policy establishment as a “malign actor,” Iran. The two countries happen to share the world’s biggest natural-gas field, South Pars.
The upshot is that public opinion in Qatar is somewhat softer on Iran than elsewhere in the Arab region, if the Arab News/YouGov survey findings are any guide. The killing of Soleimani was viewed as “negative for the region” by 52 percent of respondents overall, but feelings were especially strong in Qatar, where 62 percent saw it that way.
By contrast, the strike was viewed as “positive for the region” in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq respectively by 68 percent, 71 percent and 57 percent of respondents. Soleimani, who headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al-Quds Force from 1998 until his death, was killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport alongside the commander of Iran’s paramilitary proxies in Iraq, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
The disparity was also apparent when people in Qatar were asked what the next US president should do about relations with Iran. A substantial (55 percent) number called for the nuclear deal to be revived, while a smaller amount (16 percent) favored the continuation of sanctions and for Washington to maintain a war posture.

Again, by comparison, of 1,949 respondents in the wider MENA region, just 34 percent said they want to see the JCPOA revived and 33 percent said they want to see the sanctions continued and the US to maintain a war posture.
Given the apparent opposition in Qatar to the Trump agenda on Iran — and the expectation that his Democratic rival Joe Biden may revive the nuclear deal he helped draft in 2015 — it is perhaps unsurprising that just 6 percent of the respondents in Qatar said they would vote for Trump if given the opportunity, while 57 percent said they would vote for Biden.
Granted the wider region also appears to favor Biden over Trump — with 12 percent saying they would vote for the Republican incumbent and 40 percent signaling they would back the Democratic challenger — but the antipathy in Qatar seems particularly stark.
For Varsha Koduvayur, senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the results of the new Arab News/YouGov survey reflect public awareness of the sharp geopolitical tensions in the region since Soleimani’s death.
“This tit for tat we saw between Washington and Tehran was certainly a factor in how respondents viewed this question,” Koduvayur told Arab News.
She said Doha’s relationship with Tehran was one of the “straws that broke the camel’s back” when the GCC countries chose to impose their embargo. “Qatar has always been this outlier, not always in a positive sense, in the GCC,” she said.
The Arab News/YouGov survey results seem to confirm this difference of opinion. “This response underscores that notion to me,” Koduvayur told Arab News. “Qatar has its own independent policies at times but this doesn’t always gel well with what the rest of the GCC is thinking, nor is it always comfortable with what the US is thinking or with US interests in the region.”
Finally, for a country accused by three fellow GCC members and Egypt of supporting extremism through its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar data offered few surprises. “Containing Iran and Hezbollah,” “Weakening Islamist parties” and “Quashing radical Islamic terrorism” received respectively 17 percent, 6 percent and 6 percent support from respondents in Qatar to the question “What would you want the next US president to focus on in the coming years?”
Presumably for the same reasons, the perception of “radical Islamic terrorism,” “Iran” and “Islamist parties” as the “three biggest threats facing the Arab world” garnered respectively 22 percent, 11 percent and 7 percent from respondents in Qatar, in contrast with the relatively higher regionwide figures — 33 percent, 20 percent and 16 percent.

Twitter: @CalineMalek