As protests demand civil rule, Sudan's Arab allies back generals

Khartoum (AFP) –


Demonstrators camped outside Sudan's army headquarters may be baying for the military to hand over power, but Khartoum's key Arab allies are throwing their weight behind the generals, analysts say.

Sudan's army ousted veteran president Omar al-Bashir on April 11 on the back of a popular uprising, and since then the military council that took power has resisted calls to transfer the reins to civilians.

For weeks now, the 10-member council and protesters have failed to make a breakthrough at talks on forming an overall ruling joint civilian-military body.

And while Western powers are backing protester demands for a transfer of power, Sudan's allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt seem to be angling for the generals to stay put.

"There are clear signs that Egypt and Gulf Arab states have thrown their support to the military council, thereby emboldening the council," said Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert at Harvard University.

Just days after Bashir's toppling, Saudi Arabia and the UAE voiced backing for the army council, calling for "stability".

The regional powerhouses then offered a $3-billion aid package to Sudan, which is battling a worsening economic crisis -- the key factor that triggered nationwide protests against Bashir.

Alongside the two Gulf countries is Egypt, analysts said, with Cairo appearing to use its diplomatic clout as the head of the African Union to extend a timeframe set by the regional body for Sudan to carry out a "democratic transition".

"It certainly shows these countries find it necessary to keep the army in Sudan's ruling council," said Khaled Tijani, editor-in-chief of Sudanese economic weekly Elaff.

- 'Dangerous example' -

"One of the main interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be in ensuring Sudan remains committed to its troop deployment in Yemen," said Willow Berridge, author of Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan and lecturer in history at Newcastle University.

Bashir deployed Sudanese troops to Yemen in 2015 as part of a major foreign policy shift that saw Khartoum break its decades-old ties with Shiite Iran and join a Saudi-led coalition fighting Huthi rebels.

The chief of Sudan's ruling military council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Himeidti, have been the architects behind Sudan's troop deployment in Yemen, analysts and rights groups say.

The Gulf countries "are likely to want to keep them in as powerful a position as possible", Berridge told AFP.

It has remained unclear how many of Khartoum's soldiers are fighting in Yemen, but Sudanese media has reported that hundreds of soldiers and officers are deployed and have often suffered casualties, fanning popular ire against Bashir before he was ousted.

Beyond conflict-torn Yemen the Arab powers may have a reason closer to home to back the generals -- a fear of the protests catching on.

The crowds of Sudanese taking to the streets do not want the military -- who they see as a "copycat" of Bashir's regime -- to decide the fate of their country.

For some authorities around the region, any chance of a repeat of the 2011 Arab Spring that roiled Egypt and the wider region is a frightening prospect.

"Neither Egypt nor the Gulf states want a secular democracy in the region -- a dangerous example to their own people suffering under their repressive regimes," said Reeves.

- 'Lot of hard feelings' -

Neighbour Egypt also has its own special motives for wanting Sudan to remain in the grip of the generals.

"Egypt's relations with Sudan are more complex than those with Gulf countries," said Tijani.

The two countries have often had tense relations including over a border dispute and disagreements about the construction of a dam on the Nile by Ethiopia that Cairo says threatens its share of the water.

Prior to Bashir's downfall, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had patched up ties with Khartoum, and analysts say the Egyptian leader sees the generals as his best bet to maintain that.

The day Bashir was ousted, Cairo voiced its full belief in "the ability of the brotherly Sudanese people and their loyal national army to overcome the challenges of this critical stage".

The manoeuvring by the Arab powers has not gone unnoticed on the streets of Khartoum.

Protesters gathered outside Cairo's embassy in Khartoum last month, flashing "no to intervention" banners and calling on Sisi to "mind his own business".

Demonstrators have also railed against Saudi Arabia and the UAE despite the aid package offered to support Sudan's weakening currency and provide food and fuel supplies.

Many have carried placards reading "No to Saudi and Emirati aid" and "Leave us alone".

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE "are fighting hard on behalf of the military council, and in doing so are generating a lot of hard feelings on the part of the uprising", said Reeves.

These feelings "will not go away if the uprising is successful", he cautioned.