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Israel-Sudan: Is Abdel Fattah al-Burhan evolving into a Sudanese Sisi?

With Israeli and US assistance, the chairman of Sudan's sovereign council could become the archetypical compliant dictator of US strategy in the region
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdulrahman al-Burhan, chief of Sudan's ruling military council, in the capital Cairo on 25 May, 2019 (AFP)

The chairman of Sudan’s sovereign council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, challenged the Sudanese political establishment on 3 February with a daring political manoeuvre that none saw coming. 

He travelled unannounced to Uganda’s Entebbe, where he met embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Khartoum’s regional patrons - the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - were reportedly informed and involved in arranging the meeting, but the prod came directly from the mighty US.

The country’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who had apprehensively invited Burhan to talks in Washington a day earlier, commended the Sudanese leader for his bold step, as did Netanyahu and the Israeli press. 

Normalisation with Israel

Khartoum’s foreign ministry denied prior knowledge of Burhan’s adventure, as did the cabinet and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition of political parties and professional associations that forms the civilian component of the transitional authority in Khartoum in alliance with the military-security establishment. Stunned FFC members issued a statement denouncing Burhan’s violation of the country’s constitutional declaration. 

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Burhan told the media that he had notified Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok two days ahead of his trip. But Hamdok’s government denied any prior knowledge, with the prime minister noting that the transitional government must ensure “accountability, responsibility and transparency in all decisions made”. The cabinet issued a statement condemning Burhan’s diplomatic advances as outside the purview of the sovereign council and in violation of a foreign policy legacy of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. 

Burhan is actively re-crafting this tenuous arrangement, with pronouncements of sovereign power from the army and the seductive promise of a consumer paradise on the Nile

In defending his decision to meet Netanyahu, Burhan invoked Sudan’s “security and national interests”, suggesting there was no alternative to normalisation with the Israeli occupation in order to shed Sudan’s pariah status, gain Washington’s favour and secure a writeoff of Sudan’s massive debt burden. Such hopes were echoed by supportive commentators and politicians. 

But Burhan is no pioneer, and his Zionist adventure is reminiscent of the toying of another Sudanese military ruler with Israeli favours. In 1982, former president Gaafar Nimeiry, with the assistance of Saudi billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, held a clandestine meeting with then-Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, in Kenya, and agreed in principle to facilitate the transfer of thousands of Ethiopian Jews though Sudan to the promised land. Nimeiry was compensated in cash and the promise of military aid.

Once uncovered, the so-called Operation Moses became a scandal of the first order, contributing to the downfall of Nimeiry’s regime. Burhan’s “no alternative” doctrine dates from that era, carrying a US stamp. 

The good old days

Nimeiry came to power through a military coup, and adopted the mentorship of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to land Sudan firmly in the US camp. When Sadat made his peace with the Israeli occupation, Nimeiry loyally cheered along. The Sudanese military, emulating the Egyptian example, became a component of the US global security regime. 

Sudanese army units took part in joint drills with the US army, with exciting titles such as Bright Star, happy to parade around the military hardware they received from their US patrons.

When the 1985 uprising broke out in Khartoum, in response to a harsh regime of budgetary and subsidy cuts, the dictator was in Washington for an audience with former President Ronald Reagan. 

Former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry visits Ethiopia in 1973 (AFP)
Former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry, right, visits Ethiopia's ruler Haile Selassi in 1973 (AFP)

To Burhan, it can be assumed, these were the good old days of Sudan’s integration in the global order. From the Israeli perspective, Sudan features prominently in its “periphery doctrine”, a security and foreign policy concept that evolved out of the Israeli confrontation with the revolutionary former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Under this strategy, aimed at countering the pan-Arab ideology, Israel would form alliances with non-Arab states and religious and ethnic minorities within Arab countries. 

Among those targeted by Israel were the southern Sudanese, long tyrannised and brutalised by Khartoum’s rulers. The Israeli Mossad provided southern Sudanese insurgents battling the Khartoum government with supplies, weapons and training between 1969 and 1972. Israeli arms deals have since continued to funnel weapons into the country, fuelling the gruelling South Sudan conflict. 

Roadmap to rehabilitation

Burhan’s overtures come at an opportune moment for Netanyahu, and it is no surprise that the Israeli prime minister, indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in a series of long-running corruption cases, advertised his meeting with Burhan as a success story. Admittedly it was, with Sudan recently allowing flights heading to Israeli airports to cross its airspace.

What Sudan would gain falls into the realm of speculation. The issue that bothers Sudan’s rulers - primarily, the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism - is “not flipping a light switch. It’s a process,” according to the US assistant secretary for African affairs. If and when it does take place, the step is unlikely to prove a panacea for Sudan’s financial woes. 

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The terrorism designation does not prohibit or criminalise foreign investment, nor is it the only obstacle facing debt relief. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies on arrears would still prohibit lending to Sudan. In 2017, the IMF estimated Sudan’s arrears at $1.3bn out of a total foreign debt of $59bn. Last year, Sudan agreed on a roadmap to rehabilitate the country that did not involve paying arrears. 

What the removal of Sudan from the US terrorism list would allow, however, is an agenda of military patronage, defence exports, intelligence and weapons sales. 

With Israeli and US assistance, Burhan could evolve into the archetypical compliant dictator of US strategy in the region - a Sudanese Sisi. The power-sharing agreement between the civilian government of Hamdok and the military-paramilitary-security bloc led by Burhan formalised a situation of dual power in Sudan.

With US-Israeli wind in his sails, Burhan is actively re-crafting this tenuous arrangement, with pronouncements of sovereign power from the army and the seductive promise of a consumer paradise on the Nile. The counterrevolution is being retweeted by Netanyahu. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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

Magdi El Gizouli is a Sudanese academic and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs on his blog:
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