June 4, 2019
IntelBrief: The Risks of Civil War in Sudan
Civilian pro-democracy protesters were gunned down on Monday by Sudanese security forces in Khartoum, the country’s capital. According to various media reports, at least thirteen protesters were killed and approximately 200 injured. There were also reports that the security forces were blocking ambulances and emergency response personnel from responding to the situation. There were even allegations that the security forces had opened fire near the hospital where protesters were being treated.
Security forces were attempting to clear out protesters from a camp that was established when the demonstrations began several months ago. After longtime Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power in April after nearly three decades in power, protesters were hopeful that a democratic transition was in the works. However, progress has stalled, with talks between the protest leaders and the Transitional Military Council, led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, breaking down just recently. The protesters are represented by an organization called The Forces for Declaration of Freedom and Change.
Concerned about protests spreading beyond Sudan’s borders, regional countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been working behind the scenes to position their own preferred power brokers. While the U.S. condemned the crackdown on protesters and called for a transfer of power to civilian control, the Saudis and Emiratis have been providing support to quasi-military leaders in Sudan, including the notorious commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan. Also known as 'Hemeti,’ in 2009, Hamdan was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, human rights abuses, and war crimes for his role in directing the notorious Janjaweed militia in Darfur, yet has still managed to receive the backing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. Together, bin Salman and bin Zayed offered Sudan a $3 billion aid package in April, while also providing weapons and equipment to Hemeti and forces under his control.
There are clear parallels to some of the Arab Spring protests that eventually progressed to full-blown insurgencies, including in Syria, where indiscriminate shelling of civilians by the military initially galvanized protest movements that helped launch a broader uprising. But there are also important differences between Sudan and other revolutions throughout the region. Unlike Egypt, which maintains a predominantly secular military, Sudan's military and institutions have long been linked to Islamists, dating back to the regime of Hassan al-Turabi. Elements of the Sudanese Army are naturally suspicious of Hemeti, particularly given his role in the atrocities in Darfur. This is indicative of broader internal divisions and fissures within competing power structures in Sudan. There is a real risk that the situation could spiral into full-blown civil war, which would significantly affect the region, with spillover violence impacting the ongoing conflict in Libya.
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