What is Sudan’s National Interest?
By Asif Muztaba Hassan
The Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and the Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan face the mammoth task of stabilizing the country’s failing economy, all the while shedding its terrorist legacy (Abulfadl, 2020). It is at this moment that the United States of America offered to remove Sudan from the state-sponsors-of-terror blacklist. The golden handshake of an opportunity required Sudan to pay $330million in compensation for its involvement with the twin embassy attacks and USS Cole bombings (Atlantic Council, 2020). Most importantly, Sudan had to normalize its relations with Israel as the third Middle-Eastern country to do so under Donald Trump’s “deal of the century!” On September 23rd, the US-brokered deal came through (Burke & Holmes, 2020).
In light of the Sudan-Israel peace deal, it becomes important to explore the impacts of such a foreign policy. It is an intriguing exploration not because the deal happened during the twilight of Donald Trump’s first term, but important to understand whether the deal maximizes Sudan’s national interests. Socially and academically, we are never interested in small-state domestic politics, foreign policies, and national interests. If a powerful nation is striking a deal with an inferior state, all eyes focus on how the bigger and stronger power is calling the shots. Intuitively, we assume powerful nations have enlightened self-interest, so they must be looking out for the less powerful. However, the Trump administration, throughout its term, has consistently proven to be a risk-averse bully. The US promised big stuff but left many countries to their own devices when crises fell.
Sudan is certainly of strategic importance for both the United States and its allies. Formerly, Sudan served as the smuggling hub for Iranian weapons to the Gaza Strip, Egypt, and Sinai, along with an arms smuggling connection to the Polisario Front, who have been trying to liberate the Spanish Sahara from Moroccan rule for four decades now. Following the Arab Spring, the Gulf States pressured Sudan to move to the Gulf camp. Iranian contributions were gradually supplanted by Saudi money and Emirati economic aid. In return, Sudan intervened in Yemen on behalf of the Saudi regime and contributed its soldiers against the Iran-backed Houthi insurgents. This reciprocation, from the US point of view, definitely deserved a reward. However, the Sudan-Israel peace deal is no different from any other Trump deals. The United States misconstrued Sudan’s national interests, disregarded the structures of diplomacy, and set up Sudan for a perverse outcome.
The financial silver linings of the deal are simple and tempting. For the first time in decades, Sudan’s economy, that’s currently experiencing 200% inflation (Al-Jazeera, 2020), can receive debt relief from the United States. Moreover, the peace deal means the US will not block Sudan’s requests for World Bank and IMF loans. The deal guarantees huge Israeli and US investments in Sudan, closer diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Tel Aviv, and a promise of unprecedented airtime for Sudanese problems in the White House. The problem, however, is that the deal appears to be more financial than one for peace.
Various intelligence assessments dating back to the early 1980s suggest that the US perceived Sudanese Foreign Policy had only one aim: maximizing its economic interests (Central Intelligence Agency, 1980). Regardless of the 2019 protests, the US outlook on Khartoum’s Foreign Policy did not change. This behaviour is akin to assuming Sudan’s national interests can be bought by providing enough economic incentives. Further demanding $300million compensation in return for economic easing options is opposite to good diplomacy since the move does not appear to be mutually advantaging all parties. But being stronger and more powerful, the Trump Administration – at its’ best assumed or otherwise – perversely enforced its’ own objectives on Sudan.
It is fair to assume that concessions are a part of the foreign policy tradecraft, but asking for concessions from other countries often requires significantly important contexts, like the Cold War for instance. This is why high stake foreign policies are often considered a colossal success even if they do not achieve most of the goals. Contexts are important in foreign policy since it informs countries regarding the adequate and sufficient instrument to implement as a political response (Bojang, 2018). In this case, however, the peace deal is just another political gambit for the Trump administration’s re-election because the “deal of the century” is not enabling Israel’s peace with Palestine that was, and still is, the most important goal in the Middle-East. As an unintended consequence, however, the peace deal imposes high political costs on Sudan.
The country’s current political transition is the most important part of its history. By ousting Omar al-Bashir’s 3 decade-long regimes, the people of Sudan successfully established their will on the country’s political institutions, completely altering the image of political power in Sudan. Unlike many other Arab nations during the Arab Spring, the Sudanese uprising has managed to flesh out several agreements regarding the power-sharing deal and how the elections will follow. The negotiations, led by doctors, health workers, and lawyers in the Sudanese Professionals Association, changed the 7-person military council to an 11-person sovereign council with a military general heading the council for the first 21 months and the remaining 18 months by a civilian. Among other things, the negotiations acutely understood that al-Bashir’s deeply entrenched regime required time to be completely dismantled, and decided to hold free elections after 39 months of TSC’s tenure. The string of favourable negotiations meant that public opinion cannot be disregarded anymore, and the future political leadership in Sudan has to conform to the public opinion and serve the public interest as a prioritized national interest.
To Sudanese people, the peace deal poses a dichotomy - support the Palestinian cause or support economic growth. While the US promise to remove Sudan from the state-sponsors-of-terror list comes as a much-needed opportunity for economic easing, it risks the Sudanese public feeling disenfranchised from the political institutions again. This is important because the $330million in compensation to the US, in times of ongoing economic turmoil, was already opposed by the Sudanese people. Large parts of the population strongly feel they have no association with the attacks, the attackers, or the ruling regime at that time (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020).
Further, the transitional government is currently engaged in fending off various political interest groups from de-legitimizing the Transitional Sovereignty Council. For instance, the Sudanese army is fighting local armed groups who feel disenfranchised by the current power-sharing agreement (BBC News, 2019). These are rural militias who believe the TSC is composed of urban elites who are likely to exclude the rural peripheries from their decision-making.
The grievances can quickly snowball away from democracy since the TSC’s legitimacy is also threatened by Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces and the National Congress Party. Omar al-Bashir established the RSF with men only loyal to him, better trained and better armed than the army so they can suppress potential military coups and conduct special operations. Hemetti, who was heading the RSF during al-Bashir’s regime, resigned from the TSC since he was not appointed to lead it, and stood in opposition with an army of nearly 30,000 fighters. On the other side of the aisle is Hassan al-Turabi-led National Congress Party. The NCP is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and has a broad network of independent funding sources and recruitment. Any potential NCP popularity can mean a rising tide of Anti-West sentiment throughout Sudan, compromising the contours which support the state-sponsors-of-terror delisting. More importantly, being suppressed by al-Bashir’s regime for long, the National Congress Party is waiting for a chance to mobilize its agenda and gain political capital among the Sudanese people. In all regards, the domestic political situation is warming up in Sudan (Finnegan, 2020).
At its best, a normalization treaty without public confidence can reinforce the culture of disregarding public opinion and organizing political structures without true democratic representation. With tell-tale signs of a power vacuum, the likely implication is that the peace deal will push Sudan further away from a fair election, disenfranchising the Sudanese public from any political decision-making or considerations. At its’ worst, the power struggle within Sudan can likely create a rally-round-the-flag effect and lean the country towards Anti-West sentiments that Iran can leverage to influence Sudan’s broad political behaviour.
The deal, knowingly or otherwise, meddles with Sudan’s national interests and is set to bring about unwanted consequences in a country that has been marred with conflict and suffering for decades. Experts believe that the critical challenge for Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok now is to swiftly translate the peace agreement into tangible signs like lower bread prices, shorter fuel lines, and more abundant electricity (Atlantic Council, 2020). However, it is unlikely that the promised economic gains will be sufficient to mitigate widespread sentiments that the TSC and the Prime Minister of Sudan were bullied to buy peace. Trump’s diplomacy, American exceptionalism, and Netanyahu’s Likud Party may celebrate the Sudan-Israel peace deal as a big and historic win before the November 3 elections. In reality, Sudan’s national interest was the real casualty.
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Al Jazeera. (2020). Sudan: Annual inflation tops 200% in Sept as food prices soar. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2020/10/14/sudan-annual-inflation-tops-200-in-sept-as-food-prices-soar
Atlantic Council. (2020). Experts react: Sudan and Israel reach historic peace agreement . Retrieved from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react-sudan-and-israel-reach-historic-peace-agreement/
BBC News. (2019, August 16). Sudan crisis: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48511226
Bojang, A. (2018). The Study of Foreign Policy in International Relations. Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs, 6(4). doi:10.4172/2332-0761.1000337
Burke, J., & Holmes, O. (2020). Sudan and Israel agree US-brokered deal on normalising relations. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/23/sudan-and-israel-agrees-us-brokered-deal-to-normalise-relations
Central Intelligence Agency (1980). Sudanese Foreign Policy: The Search For Assistance [Redacted]. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP84S00927R000100110002-0.pdf.
Council on Foreign Relations. (2020). Removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/blog/removing-sudan-state-sponsors-terrorism-list
Finnegan, C. (2020). Deal to compensate 1998 embassy bombings, lift sanctions on Sudan unravels, imperiling country's democratic transition. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/deal-compensate-1998-embassy-bombings-lift-sanctions-sudan/story?id=73223387