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FACTBOX - The struggle for power in Sudan

April 13, 2023 at 7:00 pm

Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan visits military units at his country’s border area with Ethiopia on Monday, in Al-Fashqa area, Sudan on November 29, 2021 [Sudanese Presidential Palace – Anadolu Agency]

The Sudanese Army on Thursday warned of the risk of confrontation with the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, as tension between the two groups puts at risk a pending deal to restore civilian government.

The following outlines the struggle for power in Sudan in recent years:

Who has been in charge in Sudan? 

Sudan began its halting transition towards democracy after military generals ousted long-ruling autocrat, Omar Al-Bashir, amid a popular uprising in April 2019. Bashir, an Islamist long shunned by the West, had presided over the country for nearly three decades.

Under an August 2019 agreement, the military agreed to share power with civilians ahead of elections. That arrangement was abruptly halted by a 2021 coup, which triggered a new campaign of mass pro-democracy rallies across Sudan.

Where does the balance of power lie? 

The military has been a dominant force in Sudan since independence in 1956, staging coups, fighting internal wars and amassing economic holdings.

During the 2019-21 power-sharing arrangement, distrust between the military and civilian parties ran deep.

The civilian side drew legitimacy from a resilient protest movement and support from parts of the international community.

READ: State of emergency declared as protestors call for ‘fall of regime’

The military had internal backing from rebel factions that benefited from a 2020 peace deal and from veterans of Bashir’s government, who returned to the civil service following the coup.

The coup put the army back in charge, but it faced weekly demonstrations, renewed isolation and deepening economic woes.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling Council since 2019, has swung behind the plan for a new transition, bringing tensions with ruling Council head and Army Chief, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to the surface.

What are the fault lines? 

A central cause of tension since the uprising is a civilian demand to gain oversight of the military and to see the integration of the powerful RSF into the regular army.

Civilians have also called for the handover of lucrative military holdings in agriculture, trade and other industries, a crucial source of power for an army that has often outsourced military action to regional militias.

Another point of contention is the pursuit of justice over allegations of war crimes by the military and its allies in the conflict in Darfur from 2003. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking trials for Bashir and other Sudanese suspects.

Justice is also being sought over the killings of pro-democracy protesters on 3 June, 2019, in which military forces are implicated. Activists and civilian groups have been angered by delays to an official investigation. In addition, they want justice for at least 125 people killed by security forces in protests since the coup.

What about the economy? 

A worsening economic crisis that sent the currency plunging and created frequent shortages of bread and fuel was a key trigger for Bashir’s downfall.

The 2019-21 transitional government implemented harsh, rapid reforms monitored by the International Monetary Fund in a successful bid for debt relief and to attract foreign financing.

READ: Israel and Sudan leaders meet in Uganda to better relations

But billions of dollars in international support and debt relief were frozen after the 2021 coup, halting development projects, straining the national budget and worsening an already dire humanitarian situation.

What is the regional picture? 

Sudan is in a volatile region, bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Its strategic location and agricultural wealth have attracted regional power plays, complicating the chances of a successful transition.

Several of Sudan’s neighbours, including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, have been affected by political upheavals and conflict. Sudan’s relationship with Ethiopia, in particular, has been strained over disputed farmland along their border, over conflict in the Tigray region that drove tens of thousands of refugees into Sudan and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

READ: Sudan seeks economic support in return for ties with Israel

Regional heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have seen Sudan’s transition as a way of pushing back against Islamist influence in the region. They, along with the United States and Britain, form the “Quad”, which has sponsored mediation in Sudan, along with the United Nations and African Union. Western powers fear the potential for a Russian base on the Red Sea, which Sudanese military leaders have expressed openness to.

Egypt, which has deep historical ties with Sudan and a close relationship with its military, has pursued an alternative track with groups that supported the coup.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.