Another Arab Spring

The United States also watched with some nervousness the developments in Sudan

Shahid Javed Burki May 06, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

The Arab Spring is back in 2019, eight years after its first manifestation. The ruling establishments as well as the youth drew important lessons from the experience of 2011. This time around Sudan became the epicentre of the new uprising. What makes the 2019 Sudanese Spring different from the one in 2011 is the involvement of outsiders, each with a deep interest in Sudan’s future. The monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are extremely apprehensive of a change in Sudan that goes against their interests. They would like to see the military leaders who are now in power not to lose control. Thus motivated, they have pledged to provide the military transition team three billion dollars in immediate assistance.

The announcement of this support was made in Washington by the diplomatic missions in that city representing the two governments. The support was split in two parts. Five hundred million dollars would be provided to Sudan’s Central Bank to help ease pressure on the Sudanese currency and improve the country’s financial situation. The balance interestingly would be “dedicated to support the people of Sudan through food, medicines, and fuel derivatives”. The larger part was to bribe the people to vacate the streets. But the street was not impressed. The protesters, who continued with their agitation, told Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of their country. “A soft landing for the old regime is being orchestrated by some Middle Eastern powers so that they can keep their allies in power,” said Mohamed Yusuf al Mustafa, the Head of the Sudanese Professional Association, which orchestrated the street agitation.

The two monarchies, working together, shared a vision for the Middle East aimed at countering Iranian influence, crushing political Islamist movements inspired by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and stop a democratic contagion that could stir aspirations of their now-restive youths. According to Khalid Mustafa Medani, the Chair of the Africa Studies Programme at McGill University who has watched the developing situation in Sudan and has studied the outcome of the 2011 Spring, said the Sudanese “were well aware of that legacy. For many months, they had discussed ways to avoid Egypt’s trajectory, in which a popular revolt in 2011 followed by elections ultimately resulted in a military coup and the arrival of an authoritarian government backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They were ready for the Saudis to intervene in opposition to democracy. The consciousness was already there.” Sudan’s old regime had helped the Saudi Kingdom in its war in Yemen. The Sudanese at the request of the authorities in Riyadh had also involved themselves. They had contributed foot soldiers to aid the Saudi-UAE coalition fighting in the Yemen civil war. Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al Burhan, who was the head of the transition team in Khartoum, had headed the office that recruited thousands of troops who fought in Yemen.

But Saudi Arabia and the UAE were not the only Arab nations interested in Sudan’s future. Egypt, the country’s neighbour on the north, had a deep interest in how the situation in Sudan evolved. If the agitation succeeded in pushing the military out of the government, it could set precedence in Egypt that would encourage the country’s restive population to come out on the streets once again to bring about political opening. Cairo’s interest went beyond the political; it was also concerned by what the Sudanese being the upper riparian could do to the flow of water in the Nile River. Qatar was another Arab nation that had interest in Sudan. It was boycotted by the Saudis and the UAE for supporting Iran as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in their efforts to bring about political change in the Arab world. Mohammad al Yahya, a Saudi analyst who is the Editor of the Al Arabia English website, believes that Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a vital interest in ensuring that instability caused by political transitions across the Arab world are not “exploited by non-Arab actors”, referring specifically to Iran and Turkey and the possibility that they would support political Islamist groups.

The United States also watched with some nervousness the developments in Sudan. Makilala James, an official in the State Department, travelled to Khartoum and met Gen Burhan and asked him that “the timeline should be as quick as possible because the streets are demanding that we stand in support of the people asking for that quick transition.” The protesters were not pleased with that suggestion. “The EU and US want an electorate mandate, so they are pushing for quick elections,” said Omer Eldigair, the Chairman of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party. “But if you have elections right now, you give the power right back to Bashir’s people — they are the only ones with an organised party structure. We have been suppressed for decades. That is why we are asking for four years of civilian-led transition.”

James of the State Department did not occupy a senior position; his involvement in Sudan was indicative of the low priority assigned to the country by the Trump administration. This troubled old Arab-Africa hands in the United States. One of them, Payton Knopf who had served in Sudan during the presidency of George W Bush, spoke with Declan Walsh of The New York Times. The correspondent wrote a major story for his newspaper titled, “Amid US silence, gulf nations support the military in Sudan’s revolution.” Knopf was worried about the way America was dealing with sensitive places in Africa and the Middle East. “These are the most significant geopolitical shifts in the Horn of Africa since the immediate post-Cold War period,” he said. “Back then, the US shaped what that environment looked like, for better or worse. Now there’s no evidence that the US is engaging with changes of historical magnitude with remotely the same level of focus.” Much of what the United States is currently doing in the Middle East is being dictated by Israel. For Jerusalem especially under the hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was elected recently to the fifth term, Iran is the real enemy. The Arabs have been successfully tamed by the Jewish state.

Islamabad should also keep a close watch on developments in Sudan.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2019.

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