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What Does Sudan’s Bias on the Axis of Normalization Mean?

Sara Arifi
Sudanese Writer and Journalist
September 29, 2020
Normalization under the auspices of the United States of America may not actually achieve any interests for Sudan, nor help remove Sudan’s name from the list of ‘terrorism sponsors’ ... meaning that what the Trump administration is doing, is nothing but maneuvering around for its own interests and no one else’s.

In recent weeks, Sudan’s steps towards normalization with Israel have accelerated, and it’s about to become the country closest to signing a diplomatic agreement with Tel Aviv, after the UAE and Bahrain. Actions and deliberations that used to be classified and ran behind closed doors, are now occurring blatantly in the public eye; the Sudanese regime will be announcing the complete normalization of relations between Khartoum and Tel Aviv at any moment.

Before the revolution that ousted former President Omar al-Bashir from power in April 2019, the regime in Sudan was publicly rejecting any form of normalization with Israel, defending the rights of the Palestinian people to live in peace. However, during the last few years of his rule, Al-Bashir started to abandon his principles relating to the Palestinian issue, as the economic situation in Sudan placed extreme pressures on the toppled government, and the people’s voices began to rise calling for his departure. Sudan is on the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which it has been under since 1993. Al-Bashir had hoped to advance the economy after Sudan is removed from the list, thus receiving international aid that would help stabilize his regime, but the revolution obstructed those plans.

After signing the constitutional document in August 2019, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan came to be head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, to complete the rapprochement that Al-Bashir had started with Israel, knowing that the path to winning the approval of the United States would be through Israel. On February 3, the Sudanese were surprised by an unannounced meeting between al-Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Entebbe, Uganda, after which he returned to prepare for the start of negotiations. Less than two weeks after this meeting, the Netanyahu government announced the opening of Sudanese airspace to Israeli flights.

The “Entebbe” meeting sparked major political controversy at that time in Khartoum. Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok denied his knowledge of the meeting with Al-Burhan and Netanyahu, and the Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time stated that she only found out about the meeting through the media. Since then there has been no answer to a question that has been occupying the minds of Sudanese citizens: Who runs the country’s foreign policies, the Sovereignty Council or the Prime Minister’s office?

The Price of Normalization

The controversy around the normalization did not end with the meeting in Uganda, as Sudan was one of the stops that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited on his Middle East tour in August 2020, to persuade a number of Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel. Pompeo’s historic visit to Khartoum, as expected, was not to support a democratic transition after the revolution, but rather to add the name of Sudan to the group of Arab countries that will launch official relations with Tel Aviv. Immediately after his plane landed at the Khartoum airport, Pompeo met Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and tried to convince him to follow in the footsteps of the military government partner, “Al-Burhan” and accept normalization, in exchange for his country’s name getting removed off the terrorism list. Hamdok’s response was that this “sensitive” decision was not within the power of the transitional government, and he will not be able to make it until the power structures were formed and completed. Of course, Pompeo will not find what he wants with Hamdok, as the latter would not dare publicly agree to the request of the US administration. ‘The Forces of Freedom and Change’, the incubators of the policies that brought him to the position of Prime Minister, have a clear stance towards normalization, that it was not among the post-revolution priorities.

Actions and deliberations that used to be classified and ran behind closed doors, are now occurring blatantly in the public eye.

About three weeks after Pompeo left Khartoum, in September 2020, a high-level delegation headed to the United Arab Emirates, headed by Lieutenant General Al-Burhan, Chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council, to meet with an American delegation from the National Security Council. During this visit, Minister of Justice Nasreddin Abdel Bari accompanied him to negotiate removing Sudan from the American list of states sponsoring terrorism, and relieving it of its American debts. After three days of continuous meetings, the Sudanese delegation returned and issued a statement in which it briefly referred to the issues discussed in the Abu Dhabi negotiations, including the issue of removing Sudan from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, the future of Arab-Israeli peace, and the role of Sudan in achieving this peace. The statement did not answer the question that was now posed forcefully: Will Khartoum catch up with the Arab capitals that recently announced normalization with Israel?

Less than a few hours passed from when al-Burhan and his accompanying delegation returned, but the American and Israeli press immediately began speaking on behalf of officials from both sides about the imminence of the normalization process, which may take place within days, and covered the details of what happened in the closed Abu Dhabi meetings. Of course, the Americans waved a paper to delete Sudan from their list of states sponsoring terrorism in exchange for normalization with the Israeli entity, with promises to provide them with aid worth $ 650 million. On the other hand, Al-Burhan pledged that he had requested that the Americans implement a set of demands, the most critical of which would be removing Sudan from the American list of terrorism, and that the financial aid should not be less than $ 10 billion. Among the demands was also to ensure the passage of legislation from Congress that immunizes Sudan from any future prosecution, With the exemption of Khartoum’s debts to Washington (including an obligation to pay 300 million dollars in compensation to the families of the Americans killed in the attacks that targeted the United States embassies in Dar El-Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, as well as compensation for the families of those killed in the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden).

Distributing the gains from the deal

Everyone knows that the US President’s efforts to make the file of normalization between the two countries a success aims to achieve another success in foreign policy, which will positively affect his chances of winning a second term against his rival, Joe Biden, in the elections that will be held next November. Trump is under great pressure, represented by a downturn in the economy, the spread of Covid-19 and an increase in the unemployment rate. Although foreign policy is not among the top priorities of the American voter, there are those who are under the influence of the Israeli lobby who may see the success of normalization as a reason to vote for the Republican candidate.

As for the Sudanese side, represented by the chairman of the Sovereignty Council, all indications point to Al-Burhan’s attempt to take over the file of foreign relations, implicitly the relations with Israel. He is striving to remove Sudan from the list in order to gain political gain that would allow him to run for the presidential elections, after the transitional period ends. The recovery of the economy will strengthen his chances of winning, especially since a significant number of Sudanese businessmen are affiliated with the dissolved National Congress Party.

In addition, al-Burhan is being pursued by allegations of participating in genocide operations in Darfur while he assumed command of the armed forces there. Al-Burhan is now the head of the sovereign council, and thus he has immunity from prosecution, but after he is handed the presidency to the civil party, this protection will not be guaranteed. This is why observers see that he insists on placing the immunity card on the negotiating table, which represents a lifeline for him from any future accountability.

Pompeo’s historic visit to Khartoum, as expected, was not to support a democratic transition after the revolution, but rather to add the name of Sudan to the group of Arab countries that will launch official relations with Tel Aviv.

Israel is looking for a foothold in Sudan, which does not have an economy to benefit from, but rather has an important geographical location in Africa, especially the strategic location of the Port of Sudan, which overlooks the Red Sea. In addition, Khartoum symbolically represents the symbol of the three mottos, “No reconciliation, no recognition, and no negotiation” which was launched at the Arab summit that was held in the Sudanese capital in 1967. Normalization, then, is a moral victory for Tel Aviv, and for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of corruption himself.

As for the United Arab Emirates, who hosted the last meeting, it is not seeking any material gain from supporting this rapprochement, as it is a wealthy country that does not suffer from much economic problems; it aims rather, to achieve the friendship of the United States to help reduce Iranian influence in some Arab countries, in addition to endeavoring to pass any deals involving buying weapons that would enhance its power in the region.

Welcoming but Refusing

In Khartoum, some in the country proclaimed their support of this rapprochement with Israel, just like other Arab and African countries. This is because Sudan is in dire need of reviving its economy, even if it is at the expense of the Palestinian cause. Those who agree with the move believe that the interest of Sudan comes first, and that creating diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv should be separated from the “Palestinian peace” scenario.

On the other hand, observers believe that normalization under the auspices of the United States of America will not bring any benefits to Al-Burhan nor to Sudan, and will not actually help in removing Sudan from the list of terrorism, and that what the Trump administration is doing is nothing but maneuvering for its own interests. Normalization to them, has nothing to do with peace, and the blackmail the US is practicing by removing Sudan from the list in exchange for it is not compatible with the post-revolution phase, from an internal Sudanese perspective. As for the politicians who rejected normalization, they described dealing with Israel as an act of treachery, the most prominent of these being the former prime minister and head of the Umma Party, Sadiq al-Mahdi, who commented thtat the relationship with Israel is “national and Islamic betrayal.”

What is proven is that Sudan is heading towards normalization in the near future, hoping to advance the economy; This step constitutes a threat to the transitional period and will be the first step backward in terms of the democratic transition. Sudan is passing through a fragile and critical phase and is facing many challenges, and any talk of rapprochement with Israel at this time may open the door wide open to militant groups that await the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok.

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