Ethiopian bid for mediation, African Union suspension trouble Egypt’s play for role in Sudan’s transition
 
 
by Omar Said
 

Officials in Cairo watching the violent dispersal of the Sudanese revolutionaries’ sit-in led by the Rapid Support Forces unfold since Monday were left “worried,” says one Egyptian official, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, especially because it was so “messy.”

The violence in Khartoum began just after 5 am on Monday morning, when the Rapid Support Forces, led by the transitional military council’s Deputy General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, and riot police attacked the mass sit-in, which had been a major catalyst for the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11, after months of protests. The RSF — the paramilitary group made up of Janjaweed militias linked to the Bashir regime’s war crimes and genocide in Darfur — opened fire on protesters, set fire to the encampment’s tents, sometimes with protesters still inside, and assaulted medical personnel in hospitals as well as those who attempted to access the wounded in the streets. Eyewitnesses have stated that the RSF threw the bodies of those killed in the Nile, a fact corroborated by the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors announcing the discovery of 40 bodies in the river. There have also been widespread accounts of systematic rape and sexual violence by RSF officers on social media, which Mada Masr has been unable to independently verify.

There has been a perception that Cairo may have given the greenlight for the sit-in attack in the May 25 Cairo meeting between the transitional military council head Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but the Egyptian official and another official source say that this was not the case.

Rather, Egypt viewed the meeting as a prelude to a meeting set for after Eid al-Fitr. In the interim, Bourhan and Hemedti were advised to stand firm in negotiations with the opposition. Cairo was betting this would give the transitional military council’s coalition an edge in upcoming negotiations with Sudan’s neighboring states, according to the sources. That planned meeting, however, did not happen.

Monday’s violence and the ensuing violations by armed forces against the opposition movement and protesters have made Egypt an eager mediator, but its position is contested by fellow mediators in the African Union, especially Ethiopia, and the opposition groups on the ground in Sudan.

Suspension from the AU

Cairo is worried that this week’s violence in the Sudanese capital may burn the political will Egypt has invested since the ouster of Bashir. Cairo has been using its new position as the head of the African Union to preserve the transitional military council’s position in power and insulate it from sanctions. And according to a Cairo-based Western official, the council’s Bourhan and Hemedti both have the support of the United States.

According to Egyptian officials who spoke to Mada Masr in April, Egypt’s AU bid aimed to bolster bilateral relations with a future Khartoum government and to paper over potential damage done by publicly betting on Bashir to survive the popular protests that had spread throughout the country since December.

Therefore, the first Egyptian official says, Egypt has been trying to dissuade the AU from suspending Sudan, but those efforts have been limited by the bloodshed, which, the source says, “went too far.” After meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the AU’s Peace and Security Committee announced on Thursday that it would suspend Sudan’s membership in the union for six months.

The meeting was called by Ethiopia and Kenya, both of which are worried about the developments in Sudan. The two countries, plus Uganda, are not in favor of Egypt’s attempt to pursue a political role in handling the situation in Sudan, the first Egyptian official says — they want mediation handled by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which is an East African trade bloc that includes Sudan and does not include Egypt.

The next steps in the process, according to the source, will be for the AU Peace and Security Commission, of which Egypt is not a member, to assign a committee to work with the Sudanese transitional military council to take steps toward handing power over to civilian authorities within the framework of the six-month suspension from the African body. If the military council manages to transfer power to civilian authorities before the six months expire, the suspension will be lifted.

The first Egyptian official says that Cairo will attempt to reach the AU committee working with the military council once the committee is created — a measure Cairo had not expected would be needed.

Ethiopia: A more trusted mediator

Before the violent dispersal, there were preparations for a diplomatic visit of a “high-level Egyptian official “to Khartoum. But in a clear indication of Egypt’s lack of credibility with the opposition forces and protesters, the visit was called off at the last minute for fear of protests against the Egyptian official, says the second Egyptian official.

Egypt’s lack of credibility has taken a further hit after this week’s events, making room for other actors to stake out territory in shaping Sudan’s transitionary period.

Ethiopia appears to be moving in to fill that void, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visiting Khartoum on Friday.

Members of the Coalition for Freedom and Change, the Sudanese opposition bloc that has held negotiations with the transitional military council, met with Ahmed on Friday to discuss the prime minister’s mediation plan.

In the meeting, a member of the Coalition for Freedom and Change had confirmed to Mada Masr that it planned to demand that the transitional military council halt the arrest campaign targeting coalition members and release all its members who have been arrested since the dispersal of the sit-in, especially Yasir Arman.

Arman, the secretary general of the Sudanese Popular Liberation Movement, was arrested from his house on Wednesday and taken to an unknown location, a member of his family told Mada Masr.

The Ethiopian official also said last week ahead of the meeting that the coalition would push Ethiopia to urge the transitional military council to start an independent investigation committee into the “atrocities” that occurred during the dispersal of the sit in.

Ahmed is being welcomed as a mediating actor, according to the source, because of the “democratic attitude he has been adopting toward his own people.” This stands in contrast to the lack of willingness to meet with Egyptian officials because of what the source says were “the changes in the attitude of the military council, the discourse of Bourhan, and in the choice of Bourhan and Hemedti having only occurred after Bourhan’s visit to Cairo.”

The Sudanese people will not accept that their fate will be decided by “regional, international or Arab forces,” the source adds, but “will be open to benefiting from any fair mediation.”

According to the first Egyptian source, however, Cairo is worried that Ethiopia is trying to put its hands on Sudan again, “as it did before the ouster of Bashir.” The move into the Sudanese political sphere, the officials says, is being viewed in Cairo as an attempt to gain an upper hand when negotiations over the contentious US$4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam commence.

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 dam’s construction 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.

In the months leading up to his ouster, Bashir began to be more cooperative with the Egyptian view on the dam, in return for what a Egyptian government source told Mada Masr at the time was very generous Egyptian help to the Sudanese president.

While geopolitical interests loom in the competition between Egypt and Ethiopia, the coalition source emphasizes that it is important for countries with interests in Sudan, “especially those countries who look at Sudan as in their own backyard,” to worry about gaining the support and respect of the people rather than the military council, “because no matter what happens, the Sudanese people will not accept to be ruled by this council.”

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