Why the Arab battle for democracy now runs through Sudan

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A protester makes a victory sign during a demonstration in front of the Defense Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan, April 22. Sudan has suddenly emerged as the focus of the Arab world’s battle for democracy, with a Saudi-UAE alliance backing the military.
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For a time it seemed Sudan’s military was on the side of civilian protesters demanding an end to Omar al-Bashir’s rule. The army pressured him to step down, replacing him with an “interim” ruling military council. But talks between the civilian opposition and the military broke down. Into this clash has stepped a conservative Gulf Arab alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Determined to ensure their regimes’ survival after the Arab Spring, the Saudi-UAE alliance has been undermining democratic gains in recently ‘liberated’ Arab states, say analysts and insiders. Its strategic goals are twofold: to edge out regional rivals Qatar, Turkey, and Iran and to prevent political movements, particularly Islamists, from taking root and challenging Gulf policies and legitimacy.

The alliance has been enjoying successes, including in Egypt, where it supported the rise of authoritarian Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “The Egyptian model is their preferred option,” says one analyst. “Democracy is the last thing on their mind, and people in the streets are aware of this.” Now protesters from Algeria to Libya to Sudan are chanting against this alliance.

Why We Wrote This

Even as pro-democracy forces in the Arab world have sought to learn from the 2011 Arab Spring, so has a pro-authoritarian alliance sought to frustrate them. The focus of that regional clash is now Sudan.

Who should rule Sudan?

More than a week after nationwide civilian protests led to the military ouster of Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, ending his 30-year reign, the military and protesters camped out in front of the army’s headquarters in Khartoum remain deadlocked.

Previously, the army had positioned itself on the side of the civilians, as unrest that started in December over economic conditions grew into nationwide protests over Mr. Bashir’s grip on power.

Why We Wrote This

Even as pro-democracy forces in the Arab world have sought to learn from the 2011 Arab Spring, so has a pro-authoritarian alliance sought to frustrate them. The focus of that regional clash is now Sudan.

On April 11, the army pressured him to step down, arresting members of his Islamist National Congress Party and assuming control over the country as an “interim” ruling military council.

But Sunday, on the night the opposition was set to announce a new civilian government, talks between activists and the military broke down. And that is raising concerns among pro-democracy forces that the Sudanese army, now buoyed by the deep-pocketed support of a Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates alliance, has little intention of handing over power and is answering only to the alliance’s anti-revolution agenda.

After decades on the periphery of Arab politics, Sudan has suddenly been catapulted into the front lines of the battle between two conflicting movements shaping the region: popular protests for democracy and freedom versus a counterrevolution to restore authoritarian order.

The Gulf alliance

The roots of the pro-authoritarian alliance can be traced to the Arab Spring of 2011, when the oil- and gas-rich Gulf monarchies were caught off-guard by popular uprisings that brought protests right to their palace gates.

Determined to push back for their regimes’ survival and regional influence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, analysts and insiders say, have been backing strongmen and groups in recently ‘liberated’ Arab states, undermining democratic gains.

The alliance’s strategic goals are twofold: to edge out regional rivals Qatar, Turkey, and Iran and to prevent political movements, particularly Islamists, from taking root and challenging Gulf policies and legitimacy.

The Saudi-UAE campaign has won either Western support or indifference by framing the narrative as a choice between Islamists and chaos or military strongmen and stability.

“As of now they have been more successful in their counterrevolutions than the revolutionaries were themselves. The UAE and Saudi have been completely free to roll back freedoms achieved across the Arab world,” says Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in security studies at King’s College London.

The campaign’s first success was in Egypt, where the Saudis, the UAE, and their allies quietly pledged support to Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the defense minister. He later staged a coup ousting Mohammed Morsi, a democratically elected Islamist president, in a move initially welcomed by large swathes of the Egyptian public.

After Mr. Sisi was installed as president, the extent of Gulf support become clear: Saudi Arabia agreed to provide more than $16 billion to Egypt, while the UAE granted billions in investment and military support.

Since 2014, Egypt has been the staunchest supporter of the Saudi-UAE axis, backing its war in Yemen and blockade of Qatar.

In Libya, three years after the revolution, the Gulf alliance began backing rogue general Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is now launching a siege of Tripoli and the U.N.-backed government with Gulf military support and funding.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also actively courted figures and parties in Tunisia, the Arab world’s lone functional democracy, and are attempting to align themselves with the military ruling elite in Algeria.

Rapid response

In Sudan now, protesters and activists say the Gulf bloc is intervening rapidly. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the first states to comment on Mr. Bashir’s ouster, saying they “stand by the Sudanese people.”

Already the alliance has close ties to the emerging military leadership. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who was named president of the transitional military council, led the contingent of Sudanese armed forces supporting the Gulf coalition in Yemen.

Gen. Mohammed Hamdan, his second-in-command, also allegedly participated in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and reportedly has direct support from Riyadh.  

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Protesters tear down a banner with a picture of Sudan's head of the transitional council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and pictures of Sudanese soldiers and protesters together minutes after it was draped on a railroad bridge near the Defense Ministry in Khartoum April 20.

Their appointments were met with food and oil “humanitarian aid” from Saudi Arabia and, according to activists and observers, streams of money to the military council from the Gulf to help pay salaries.

Last Tuesday, delegations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE visited Khartoum and met with General Burhan. Sunday, the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced a $3 billion aid package.

The Gulf states argue that stability in their fellow Sunni Arab state is in the common interests of the region.

But observers and protesters say the Gulf is already influencing the ruling military council’s decisions: The military council has declared Sudan’s continued participation in the war in Yemen and reportedly scrapped an agreement allowing Turkey to establish a military base and operate the Red Sea port of Suakin. Sudan was also reportedly pressured to turn back an attempted visit by a Qatari government delegation.

More alarming to activists, the military council has extended a purge of Mr. Bashir’s inner circle to a wider crackdown on Sudanese Islamists, jailing figures with suspected links to Qatar and Turkey.

‘Prize’ of North Africa

At stake in Sudan is a nexus of the Gulf bloc’s interests. Not only does Sudan provide one of the largest contingents for the war in Yemen, but it also helps provide the arid Gulf states with food security. Saudi Arabia currently leases more than one million acres of agricultural land in East Sudan, while Emirati and Bahraini companies have leased tens of thousands of acres for decades.

Yet the greatest prize in Sudan may be its 530 miles of Red Sea coast. Key is the Bab al-Mandeb strait, the 20-mile-wide stretch of ocean between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean through Egypt’s Suez Canal.

It is the route through which one-tenth of the world’s crude is shipped.

Control of the Sudanese coast would give the UAE-Saudi axis unparalleled control of shipping routes, not only securing Gulf oil exports to the West but also the ability to shut out Iranian exports.

In Sudan, the alliance also sees an opportunity to stamp out one of the last safe havens for opposition Islamist movements in the region.

Under Mr. Bashir, Sudan hosted Islamist movements of various stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and even Al Qaeda, once harboring Osama bin Laden himself.

Karen Norris/Staff


With tens of thousands of Sudanese still camped out in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum, slogans have turned to pointed warnings to Gulf states, who some fear will “hijack our revolution.”

“When Bashir was supplying troops to their wars, Saudi and the Emirates did not stand with the Sudanese people against his oppression, arrests, and killings. They were silent,” says Othman, a Sudanese activist from Khartoum who preferred that his full name not be used. “Now the winds have changed and they claim to be on our side, but they only want to profit from our revolution.”

Magdi el-Gizouli, Sudan analyst and fellow at the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute, says that across the region the Gulf alliance is interested in stable authoritarians. “The Egyptian model is their preferred option,” he says. “Democracy is the last thing on their mind, and people in the streets are aware of this.”

Protests against Gulf involvement in Arab affairs have not been confined to Sudan.

In Algeria, where weeks of popular protests brought down President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in March and continue to pressure the military and political elites, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been the popular targets of chants.

Algerian protesters have held up banners reading “Down with Emirates, down with the regime,” while thousands of Algerians have taken to social media to warn of alleged Gulf designs and troll Saudi and Emirati figures.

In Libya, thousands gathered in Tripoli on Friday to protest the siege of the capital by General Haftar, singling out Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with France, for fueling the conflict, holding up signs such as “No to Gulf wars.”

By putting themselves front and center, analysts say, the UAE and Saudi Arabia risk alienating the Arab street to the detriment of their patrons.

“One of the worst things for the Sudan military right now is to appear to the public as a proxy for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, because the meddling of the two countries in Egypt and Libya is fresh in everyone’s minds,” says Mr. Krieg, the analyst. 

Power of the purse

In both Algeria and Sudan, protesters remain in the streets, pressing to ensure that full, democratic political transitions are followed through without intervention.

Yet demands for freedom, an end to corruption, economic prosperity, and a greater say in decision-making may collide with those countries’ economic crises, analysts warn.

“Even if a civilian government is granted authority, its ability to change the situation is limited,” says Mr. Gizouli, the Sudan analyst. “It will face the fact that the government is bankrupt, wholly dependent on foreign support, and face tens of thousands of protesters who want higher salaries and subsidies.”

“The only money available is from Gulf countries, and it comes with difficult conditions.”

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