Calling a coup a coup? Egypt’s African Union bid to make inroads in Sudan
Egypt to hold AU meeting on Sudan this week in Cairo to push for preservation of military council’s rule, shore up bilateral relations
 
 
 

While the head of the transitional military council that has ruled Sudan since ousting former President Omar al-Bashir announced a “readiness” to hand over power to a civilian government last night, negotiations to usher in the transition to civilian rule in Sudan are at a “deadlock,” sources in the opposition tell Mada Masr.

Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who sits atop the transitional council, took to television late on Sunday night to announce the military’s willingness to hand over the “reins of government” as early as tomorrow, provided that political forces reached a consensus among themselves and put forth a government they could agree upon.

Burhan’s speech was roundly rejected by leading member of the opposition Freedom and Change Coalition Wagdi Salih, who spoke at a rally in front of the military headquarters shortly after the lieutenant general’s address, announcing that the opposition would suspend talks with the military council.

“We were supposed to have a meeting with the military council yesterday to inform them of the choices for the civilian sovereign council, but the council, which is a continuation of the ruling regime, revealed its dark side. The council told us they want to discuss our proposal among another 100 proposals from political parties,” Salih told protesters.

Sunday’s televised exchange played out against the backdrop of a flurry of meetings held on Saturday, when the African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki met with the military and opposition in Khartoum.

While there are shifting international and domestic faultlines in the country where four months of anti-government protests culminated in the military ousting of Bashir from power on April 11, the current international leverage point centers on Sudan’s membership in the AU.

According to AU regulations, the forced removal of a head of state by a military body constitutes a coup, especially if representatives of the armed forces continue to run state affairs, and thereby the country shall have its membership in the African body temporarily suspended, as happened with Egypt in 2013.

While Faki handed down a second 15-day timeframe for the military to hand over power to a civilian government, since the ouster of Bashir, Egypt, as the current chair of the AU, has been moving to prevent the AU from qualifying the military’s intervention as a coup d’etat.

Rather than have Sudan’s military council hand the country over to civilian rule, Egypt is currently angling for a different outcome, one in which the military council would have a continued role in the management of state affairs “for a while to come,” according to Egyptian government sources who spoke to Mada Masr. This, sources say, is part of a bid to shore up Cairo’s own bilateral relations with a quickly changing Khartoum political scene, doing so under the cover of its role as head of the AU and trying to paper over potential damage done by publicly betting on Bashir to survive in recent months.

One meeting instead of another

One Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity confirmed that Egypt is planning to host an AU meeting in Cairo on Tuesday that will address the situation in Sudan.

The plan for such a meeting emerged from Cairo and was approved by the Sudanese military council, according to a Sudanese government source.

The Cairo meeting is set to bring together 13 AU members, mostly from countries surrounding Sudan, and the AU troika, according to the Egyptian government source, who added that Burhan will “possibly” attend the meeting.

“The Armed Forces should make sure that the country does not fall into chaos or a new civil war. This is a country that has a recent history of ethnic squabbles and things could get out of hand in the midst of power struggle in the wake of Bashir,” the source said.

According to the source, Egypt plans to ask the assembled AU members in Cairo on Tuesday to acknowledge the role of the Sudanese military in honoring the demands of the Sudanese people and in maintaining Sudanese unity and territorial integrity. This is in addition to a pledge to allow the Sudanese people to determine the path and length of their democratic process in coordination with state institutions.

This plan has already gotten some traction, according to a diplomat from an AU member state who will send a high-level delegation to the meeting.

“The important thing is that Egypt will not be alone. We want input from African states,” the source says, adding that some AU states accept that there will not be an immediate transition to a civilian government in Sudan, aligning themselves with Egypt’s position, on the condition that the military council eventually does cede power without hampering the stability of the country.

While the groundwork was being laid for the Tuesday meeting, reports emerged at the end of last week that Sisi would travel directly to Khartoum to join an Egyptian delegation in the Sudanese capital.

According to the Egyptian government source, the delegation met with officials in Sudan on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the developments in the country and the possible outcome of the Cairo meeting on Tuesday.

The source, however, denied information provided by a Sudanese official who told Mada Masr that a scheduled visit by Sisi to Khartoum to meet with Burhan had been canceled on very short notice on the request of the Sudanese military council over fears that a visit from the Egyptian head of state would further unsettle an already charged public discourse, which has been openly denouncing the role of the military to avoid a replay of “the Egyptian scenario.”

“This is not true. There was never a final plan for the president to visit Khartoum. The idea was discussed but it was not final,” the source said.

Despite the geopolitical importance of Sudan in Cairo’s foreign policy, the source emphasizes that Sisi’s intended visit to Khartoum was not about “bilateral relations” but came under the banner of Sisi’s role as head of the AU.

“As head of the African Union, the president of the union has a mandate to visit countries of the continent that are going through political difficulties to explore ways to help their security and stability,” the source said.

The visit, he asserts, was canceled upon the recommendation of an Egyptian intelligence source in Khartoum who assessed that the situation in the Sudanese capital is still too fluid.

“There has been sufficient telephone consultation between Cairo and Khartoum during the past few days, and we would not wish to add to a sensitive situation there,” the source said. “What we want to do is to reach out to Sudan and to tell the Sudanese people that we wish to be on their side in a way that would help the security and stability of this country, which is very important for Egypt, for the obvious reasons of border and water security.”

Back to square one?

Despite a historically rocky relationship, there has been recent coordination between Sudan and Egypt. In part, a second Egyptian government source said, this was due to Bashir’s less confrontational attitude toward Cairo on account of being “weakened by the receding regional support and declining economic situation.” It is this hard won alignment that Egypt may fear losing if its public support for Bashir over the last few months earns it the ire of an incoming government.

One example of greater cooperation came in the form of security arrangements. Egypt shares large, partially disputed borders with Sudan. In Bashir’s final visit to Cairo, Egypt and Sudan set up a security cooperation framework to prevent the smuggling of arms, militants and banned substances across the borders, according to the source.

“There have been problems, and, of course, there is the ongoing dispute over the Halayib and Shalatin triangle, but overall, during the past year, the Sudanese authorities, under the now-deposed Omar al-Bashir, had been adopting a more positive attitude in responding to Egyptian concerns over border management,” says a second Egyptian government official.

This “more cooperative attitude” was also reflected in the negotiations over distribution of Nile River water.

Per the terms of the 2015 Khartoum agreement, signed by Sisi, Bashir and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the three countries were expected to reach an agreement on the management of Nile River resources in a way that would allow Ethiopia to use enough water to complete the first phase of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam without harming the interests of Khartoum and Cairo.

However, this momentary accord broke down, with Khartoum siding with Addis Ababa’s position against committing to a specific annual share of water to be allocated to the dam and preference for an allocated based on annual rainfall.  

During the past few months, Bashir began to be more cooperative with the Egyptian view on the dam, in return for what a third Egyptian government source said at the time was very generous Egyptian help to the Sudanese president.

According to a Cairo-based Western diplomat, visiting officials have repeatedly heard warnings from Egyptian interlocutors about letting go on Bashir.

“They told us it was important not to rock the boat in Sudan to avoid turmoil there,” says one Cairo-based Western diplomat about the stance offered by an Egyptian official during high-level talks that a senior state official of his country held in Egypt earlier this year.

This was not a position that was shared by regional capitals or even within the Egyptian regime itself, as support for Bashir risked alienation.

“It is very clear that there were some in the Egyptian ruling quarter who thought that Bashir does have a chance, and that it was a good idea to support him and then cash in on this support later. But there were others who thought otherwise,” a second Cairo-based Western diplomat said.

The Egyptian officials who spoke to Mada Masr agree that there were different assessments in the ruling quarters about Bashir’s chances of surviving the demonstrations, but they say that the overruling assessment was that the president of Sudan could survive.

This policy was communicated to other regional actors, including the UAE. “In Cairo, they asked for time to help Bashir get on his feet again – obviously, it didn’t happen,” says a government source in the UAE, who adds that Abu Dhabi had been of the view that the former Sudanese president would fall “almost from the beginning.”

Egypt’s assessment proved to be wrong, and it must now reverse course.

Indeed, the Egyptian government sources say that it is important today for Cairo to send a clear message to the people of Sudan that whatever Egypt was doing over the past few months, it was doing in good faith for the stability and security of Sudan.

Old allies, new allies

In truth, however, the Egyptian  government sources agree that Cairo’s objective goes well beyond sending a positive message to the people of Sudan. Building new inroads with the new ruling quarter in Khartoum is paramount, they say, especially now that most of Bashir’s aides whom Cairo had direct access to are now out of the picture or behind bars.

A source close to the transitional military council told Mada Masr last week that more than 200 political and security figures were being held in Kober prison in Khartoum and other prisons in Khartoum. The source added that the tracking is still underway to arrest all symbols of the former regime, promising to disclose the names and images that confirm this soon.

This includes National Congress Party President Ahmed Haroun, in addition to a number of businessmen from the ruling party, such as Hajj Atta al-Mannan, the head of the Shirian al-Shamal Company for Roads and Dams, Jamal al-Wali, the former head of Merrikh Sporting Club with stakes in the Animal Resource Bank and Seen Flour Mills Company, and Abdel Baset Hamza, the CEO of Zawaya Group for Investment and Development. One of the biggest arrests, however, came last Tuesday, when former National Intelligence and Security Services chief Salah Gosh was taken into custody.

Officials at the Khartoum Airport told Mada Masr that several heads of the previous regime were arrested as they attempted to escape last week. A security official at the Khartoum Airport said the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces arrested Gosh, who was among a short list of candidates being discussed by Egypt at one point to replace Bashir, as he was attempting to board a Turkish Airlines flight to flee to Istanbul last Tuesday morning.

“We do have our in-roads in Khartoum; for sure our relations with Sudan are not just about ten people,” the first Egyptian government official said.

The source agrees that the current head of the Sudan military council has “perhaps” slightly stronger ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, given his role in managing the Sudanese forces in Yemen as part of the joint Saudi-UAE coalition to fight the Iran-supported Houthis. However, he says that Burhan had previously served in his the Sudanese embassy in Cairo “and he is known to many high officials in Cairo. This has facilitated communications with him since the ouster of Bashir.”

Egypt, the same source says, has quite good lines of communication with the “traditional” quarters of the Sudanese opposition and has been trying to hold extensive meetings with some of the leaders of the new opposition.

The source says that it might take a while before Egypt and Sudan are fully back on track again, but it would not take long for things to right themselves. “I guess no matter who rules Sudan, nobody would want to have bad relations with Egypt on account of its very brief period of cooperation with Bashir,” he says.

“Clearly, the military council in Sudan wants to be careful not to send the wrong messages to the protesters on the street, in light of the continued mobilization, but things will be sorted out,” the source adds.

According to the UAE source, the US$3 billion in economic assistance that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh provided to Khartoum aims to “spare” the new ruling authorities from “falling to the pressure of Qatar”.

Staying away from Qatar, and for that matter from Turkey, would certainly be helpful for Egypt, which stands at odds with both countries, in resuming dynamic cooperation of Khartoum.

Burhan announced on Sunday that Turkish forces must evacuate Suakin Island, where Turkey and Sudan agreed in December 2017 to build a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

However, according to a Sudanese official who spoke to Mada Masr on the phone from Khartoum, much of these dynamics are based on the assumption that Burhan will be in charge for at least a year or two. This, he added, might not necessarily be the case if the demonstrations continue to demand the replacement of the current military council with a civil council.

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Asmahan Soliman