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Sudan and a decade-long path to turmoil

In 2013, looking to protect himself from popular protest, Omar al-Bashir created a monster: Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces
Smoke rises over the city as army and paramilitaries clash in power struggle, in Khartoum (Reuters)

For months, the Sudanese people and those watching events in Sudan have feared this. And now, here it is: the worst has happened.

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo are fighting on the streets of the country’s cities.

Having maintained a marriage of convenience since the military coup of October 2021, the military entities - which have different sources of power, income and regional support - have turned on each other. Sudan’s anti-democratic forces are at war and the people are once again caught in the crossfire, fearing for their lives as they seek shelter from the SAF’s jet fighters and the RSF’s artillery shells and anti-aircraft guns.

Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, is a city of ghosts. Its already fragile infrastructure is no more. Gangs roam the streets unchecked. Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, says he will hunt Burhan down "like a dog". Burhan says that "every war ends in negotiation, even if the opponent is defeated".

Where did this all start? 

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Almost 10 years ago, in the last week of September 2013, a wave of protests swept across Sudan after the country’s then-president, the Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir, announced an end to fuel subsidies and introduced other austerity measures. 

Security forces responded as they usually did under Bashir: with violence.

More than 170 people, including children, were reportedly killed, with hundreds more wounded, arrested and detained. Many of those - particularly those from Darfur, in western Sudan - were subjected to torture.

Responding to yet more resistance to his regime, Bashir looked to add another beast to his pantheon of protectors. And so in 2013, a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces was established under the auspices of the intelligence services. Like Frankenstein, Bashir had created a monster, and set it on a path to ruin. 

Death in Darfur

The RSF was made up of many of the same fighters and leading figures that had been a part of the Janjaweed, a militia group that originated in the 1980s in the long-running civil war in Chad, before becoming infamous worldwide for what they did in Darfur from 2003 onwards.

There, Bashir charged them with crushing the local Black population, which had risen up in protest at his elitist, exclusionary government. The Janjaweed, which was sometimes translated as "devils on horseback", would go on to be accused of systematic ethnic cleansing and a host of other war crimes.

At the head of the RSF was Hemeti, whose family hails from Chad and who went from being considered an illiterate Darfuri warlord doing Bashir’s dirty work on the wild frontier, to the centre of power in Khartoum.

Bashir would pronounce his name so that it meant "my protection" in Arabic, and the Sudanese president came to "use the RSF as a sort of praetorian guard to back him and his National Congress Party", Kholood Khair, Sudanese analyst and director of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory, told Middle East Eye. 

Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting in Aprag village, in 2019 (Reuters)
Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo greets his supporters as he arrives at a meeting in Aprag village, in 2019 (Reuters)

In the meantime, Hemeti and his brothers were becoming very rich, as Sudan’s shift in 2011 from an oil economy to a gold economy benefited the militia leader, who used the RSF to smuggle gold out of the mines he controlled in Darfur and later sent troops to fight in conflicts across the region, most notably in Mali and for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

In Khartoum, Hemeti was still considered an outsider. But the RSF was a key part of Bashir’s universe.

"Bashir used to play the RSF off against the army as part of his coup-proof strategy," said Khair. "He was trying to make sure the army, the intelligence service, the police and the RSF would hate each other but be loyal to him."

This was a complex, high-stakes game with one intended aim: to keep Bashir in power.

"He wanted to create a counter-balancing force because he was always suspicious that other Islamists in the army wanted to remove him in a coup," Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese researcher and political analyst, told MEE, in reference to the creation and deployment of the RSF. 

Having been under the direction of the intelligence services, the Rapid Support Forces law of 2017 made the paramilitary group directly answerable to Bashir, who was at the time both the head of state and the head of the armed forces.

When years of revolutionary resistance to Bashir finally resulted in a wave of protests that forced him out of power in 2019 - with both Hemeti and Burhan pulling the trigger on their former boss and benefactor - this change in the chain of command heightened divisions between the entities.

"After Bashir was removed, Burhan was the head of the SAF but not the head of state, and so the RSF really started to come into its own as an entity," Khair told MEE. "It had its own income stream and its own foreign policy before then, but that really crystallised it."

The RSF was now very clearly independent and acting as a parallel force. 

For the moment, though, Burhan and Hemeti could maintain an alliance in the name of keeping a greater enemy at bay: democracy. That enemy’s proponents - from the revolutionary resistance committees that have faced the machetes, mounted guns and torture of both the army and the RSF over the last decade; to technocratic politicians like Abdalla Hamdok, who served as Sudanese prime minister from 2019 to 2021 - were beginning to think they could return Sudan to true civilian leadership. 

In October 2021, they were knocked back down by a military coup led by Burhan and Hemeti, the uneasy allies.

'After Bashir was removed, Burhan was the head of the SAF but not the head of state, and so the RSF really started to come into its own as an entity'

- Kholood Khair, analyst

Street-level resistance to military rule has not let up, though. Burhan and Hemeti played for time, with the RSF leader deciding in the autumn of 2022 to rebrand himself as a champion of democracy, a line he is continuing to pump out in English on his social media accounts while his men are engaged in deadly fighting on the streets. 

In December, the internationally mediated framework deal to begin Sudan’s process of transitioning to civilian rule was signed by both leaders. The deal was thought to favour Hemeti, which is why he was supporting it in public, but it also called for the integration of the RSF into the SAF, the details of which were being argued over.

A final deal was meant to be sealed this month, almost a decade after the RSF was established. Having, as Kholood Khair told MEE, been "together in trying to avoid accountability" for their many crimes over the years, Burhan and Hemeti are now "apart in almost everything else, including in their vision of how to consolidate their 2021 coup".

The decisive moment was coming and Burhan and his Islamist backers - many of whom have re-emerged from the time of Bashir - "realised they had run out of road and couldn’t really buy any more time", Khair said.

Hemeti, aiming to appeal to his backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and possibly the West, has branded Burhan a "radical Islamist".

Game of thrones

Where do we go from here? Neither Burhan nor Hemeti has a history of protecting civilians – quite the opposite, in fact.

The Sudanese people are trapped, also, not just by an internal game of thrones, but by an external one, as regional and international powers vie for profit and influence. In the months before this outbreak of deadly violence, leading figures from the United States, European Union, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the UAE all came to Khartoum.

Sudan simmers as Burhan-Hemeti rivalry threatens to boil over
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Burhan has long enjoyed support from Sudan’s neighbour Egypt, where he was trained and where the anti-Islamist government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi turns a blind eye to the fact that Burhan’s core domestic support comes from Bashir-era Islamists. 

"The Egyptians are already heavily involved," Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst, told MEE. "They are actively in the fight. There are Egyptian fighter jets that are part of these bombing campaigns. Egyptian special forces units have been deployed and the Egyptians are providing intelligence and tactical support to the SAF."

Egypt’s rival and Sudan’s other big neighbour, Ethiopia, may decide that the enemy of its enemy is its friend and back Hemeti, who is also rumoured to have bought up a lot of real estate in Addis Ababa.

Chad, which shares a 1,300-km border with Sudan, is thought to be strongly opposed to the paramilitary leader gaining more power in Sudan, even though Hemeti’s cousin, Bichara Issa Djadallah, is a Chadian general. 

The United States no longer has the capacity, or the will, to impose its power heavily in the region.

"There is a keen sense of the limits of Washington’s power," Hudson told MEE. "The US is working the phones, trying to keep Egypt from extending its involvement, trying to keep Israel out, trying to deny the conflict any further oxygen so that it burns itself out."

The question is how long that will take, and how many civilians will die before it happens. 

Ehud Yaari, an Israeli adviser and analyst with a long history of working on Sudanese relations, told MEE that it was "simply not true" that Israel was supporting the RSF.

'The US is working the phones, trying to keep Egypt from extending its involvement, trying to keep Israel out'

- Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst

Hemeti is known to have developed strong relationships within Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, but, in another example of the ways in which the two generals have pursued parallel foreign policies, Burhan has a more developed relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Israeli contacts are primarily with Burhan," Yaari said. "Hemeti was asking previously for stuff but he did not get it. He now has his back to the wall." 

An ongoing fixation for the US is the presence of the Wagner Group in Sudan. The Russian mercenary operation has already worked with the RSF and Washington believes that work is ongoing. MEE has reported the presence of Russian mercenaries in remote parts of Sudan’s Red Sea coast, where Moscow is looking to build a naval base, much to the chagrin of the Americans.  

Of more influence, at least right now, are Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are both thought to be closer to Hemeti and which have "emerged as the biggest diplomatic players in this, or a rival to Washington on it", Hudson said.

Hemeti is close to Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, and Sudan reportedly exports $16bn of gold to the UAE every year.

"The Emiratis are more reliably with Hemeti," said Hudson, who suggested that Riyadh might be "coming round to the US idea that neither man should be in charge". 

In a neat metaphor for the declining influence of Sudan’s former colonial power, MEE understands that the British ambassador was on holiday outside Sudan when the fighting began and is unable to get back into the country.

Spy games

Intelligence agents from the Bashir era are playing crucial roles in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, muddying the waters further.

Salah Gosh, Sudan’s former spy chief, lives in Cairo and paved the way for Sudanese intelligence agents to visit Washington in January. Parallel to the December framework deal, Egypt has been pursuing its own negotiating track in Sudan, with Gosh's role instrumental in that.

Taha Osman al-Hussein, a former office manager of Bashir who was fired by the then-Sudanese president after he suggested using the RSF to instigate a coup in Qatar, was appointed an African affairs adviser by Saudi Arabia in 2017, and is thought to still be maintaining that role while holding a longterm residency visa in the UAE.

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Jihad Mashamoun, the analyst, said that it was no surprise that with Bashir-era intelligence officers playing key roles like this, that Sudan should be in turmoil.

"The international community and the US really need to have a holistic approach to Sudan’s transition, rather than outsourcing it to regional partners," he said. "If you outsource it to the UAE and Egypt, with Bashir’s intelligence officers working for them, this is what will happen."

All of this, Mashamoun said, is "an unnecessary distraction to Sudan’s transition to democracy".

A move made by Bashir close to a decade ago, in order to keep the people at bay, has set in motion a chain of events that have led Sudan deeper into turmoil. Regional and international players, with their own anti-democratic agendas, have exacerbated this. 

In April last year, Sara Abdelgalil, a doctor and longstanding member of Sudan’s opposition living in London, told MEE that, in the end, democracy would come to her country. 

"It will happen," she said. "The revolution is in every house…It could take years and the price, unfortunately, will be very high. I am a doctor and I see kids being killed. But there is a high level of awareness among the youth as to what they want." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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