Thursday, 13 February 2020

Grooming a dictator: al-Burhan calls on Netanyahu

An edited version of this piece appeared on Middle East Eye.
The chairman of Sudan’s sovereign council, General Abd al-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 the embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Khartoum’s regional patrons, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, were reportedly informed and involved in arrangement of the meeting but the prod came directly from the mighty US. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who had apprehensively invited General al-Burhan to talks in Washington two days earlier, commended the Sudanese army’s commander in chief for his bold step as did Netanyahu and the Israeli press. 
In Khartoum, the Minister of Foreign Affairs denied prior knowledge of Burhan’s adventure as did the cabinet and the Forces of Freedom of Change (FFC), the coalition of political parties and professionals’ associations that forms the civilian component of the transitional authority in Khartoum in alliance with the military-security establishment. Stunned and dazzled, coalition members of the FFC issued a statement denouncing Burhan’s violation of the Constitutional Document that defines the division of authorities between the cabinet and the sovereign council on the grounds that foreign affairs are the prerogative of the uninformed cabinet. A cool Burhan told the press corps that he had notified Prime Minister Hamdok two days ahead of his trip. The cabinet was effectively forced to respond and issued a statement in the early hours of 6 February denying Burhan’s claim and condemning his diplomatic advances as outside the purview of the transitional government, definitely not the business of the sovereign council, foul of a foreign policy legacy of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and at odds with the ideals of the December 2018 revolution that toppled former president Bashir. 
General al-Burhan, backed by an unapologetic declaration of support from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) command read out by a somewhat embarrassed and prostrate officer who seemed to avoid looking up at the camera, delivered a pragmatic explanation of the turnaround in Khartoum’s position vis-à-vis the Zionist occupation of Palestine as he would imagine it unfolding in Sudan’s favour. General al-Burhan invoked ‘national security’ and ‘national interests’ to pronounce a doctrine of ‘there is no alternative’ other than normalisation of relations with the Israeli occupation as a route to shedding off Sudan’s pariah status, gaining Washington’s favour, slipping out the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and eventually securing a write off of Sudan’s Sisyphean burden of debts from donor countries and the international monetary system. The hollow rhetoric and sloganeering of yesteryear will not give us wheat or fuel, Burhan rationalised. The same hopes were reiterated ad nauseam in the media by a chorus of supportive commentators and politicians, some from within the FFC coalition and many begrudging outsiders, who now sang the praise of the General and theorised a chauvinist notion of Sudanese nationalism along the Trumpist sunnah; something like ‘Sudan First’ to paraphrase the philosopher-king of Washington. 
Burhan is no pioneer and his Zionist adventure is reminiscent of the toying of another Sudanese military ruler with Israeli favours. Back in May 1982 president Nimayri and his security chief Omer Mohamed al-Tayeb, with the assistance of the Saudi billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, held a clandestine meeting with Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister in Menachem Begin’s Likud government, in Kenya and agreed in principle to facilitate the transfer of thousands of Ethiopian Jews though Sudan to the promised land, an operation that eventually became Netflix material. Nimayri was compensated in cash and the promise of turning Sudan into a huge arsenal for Israeli weapons. King Fahad of Saudi Arabia, claimed Khashoggi, agreed to finance the project with 800 million US dollars and if necessary 1 billion US dollars. Nimayri gave his consent late 1984 in response to US pressure and the promise of 200 million US dollars in economic aid. Once uncovered ‘Operation Moses’, became a scandal of the first order and contributed to the denudement of Nimayri’s regime. The ‘no alternative’ doctrine that General al-Burhan now espouses dates from that era and arguably carries as today an American stamp. 
Nimayri came to power in a Nasser-style coup but soon switched sides in the Cold War under mentorship of Egypt’s Sadat to land Sudan firmly in the US camp. When Anwar Sadat made his peace with the Israeli occupation Nimayri loyally cheered along. The Sudanese military, emulating Egyptian example, became a component of the US global security regime. Sudanese officers, including prominent figures like the late John Garang and the security tsar al-Fatih Urwa were trained in US military colleges. Urwa was one of two liaison officers from the Sudanese side in Operation Moses, served as Bashir’s defence minister, ambassador to the United Nations (UN) and national security advisor and enjoys today a generous retirement scheme as CEO of the Sudan franchise of the Arab Gulf telecommunications giant Zain. Sudanese army units took part in joint drills with the US army with exciting titles such as Operation Bright Star and were happy to pounce around the military hardware they received from their US patrons. When the 1985 intifada broke out in Khartoum in 1985 in response to a harsh regime of budgetary and subsidy cuts by diktat of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the dictator was in Washington for audience with president Raegan. To Burhan it can be assumed, these are 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 laid out by the Reuven Shiloah, the founding father of the Mossad. The ‘Periphery Doctrine’ evolved out of the Israeli confrontation with revolutionary Nasser and relies on two related rings of encirclement that from the Israeli point of view constitute a threat to Arab nationalism and share in Zionist antagonism to the pan-Arab ideology: non-Arab nations and religious and ethnic minorities within Arab countries. Initially, Khartoum was a candidate to join the first ring of non-Arab nations that included Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia and contacts between the two sides reached a peak at the August 1957 clandestine meeting between Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Khalil of the Umma Party and Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in Paris. Abdalla Khalil was overthrown in a military coup in November 1958. Among the components of the second ring identified by Shiloah were southern Sudanese long tyrannised and brutalised by Khartoum’s rulers. Indeed, the Israeli Mossad provided southern Sudanese insurgents battling the Khartoum government with supplies, weapons and training between 1969 and 1972. Israeli arms deals continue to funnel weapons into the country today fuelling the gruelling civil war in the independent South Sudan. 
Burhan’s overtures come at opportune moment for the Netanyahu side 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, Sudan had months before already allowed flights heading to Israeli airports to cross its airspace. The issue was raised last in November 2018 on behalf of Kenyan Airlines by an emissary of President Kenyatta to former president Bashir and rejected. Khartoum received similar appeals from the airlines of Chile, Seychelle and South Africa. “With Sudan we are now establishing cooperative relations,” Netanyahu said in a campaign speech on 6 February. “We will overfly Sudan.” What Sudan would effectively gain falls in the realm of speculation. The issue that bother 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” the US assistant secretary for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, stated in November 2019. If and when it does take place, the step is unlikely to prove a panacea to Sudan’s financial woes. 
In fact, the state sponsor of terrorism designation does not prohibit or criminalise foreign investment nor is it the only obstacle facing debt relief. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank policies on arrears would still prohibit lending to Sudan. “We cannot provide them with financing because they are still incurring arrears, and until they address this arrear issue, in our bylaws, we cannot provide them with additional lending,” the IMF’s Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told reporters in April 2019. Sudan’s arrears to the IMF are estimated at 1.3 billion US dollars out of a total foreign debt of around 59 billion US dollars. Later in the year, Sudan’s Minister of Finance, Ibrahim al-Badawi, said Khartoum had agreed a roadmap to rehabilitate the country with the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank which does not involve paying its lenders debt arrears. What the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism does allow however is an agenda of military patronage, defence exports, intelligence and and weapons sales to Sudan. 
With Israeli and US assistance Burhan could evolve into the archetypical compliant dictator of US strategy in the region, a Sudanese Sisi of sorts. The power-sharing agreement between the civilian government of Prime Minister Hamdok and the military-paramilitary-security bloc led by Burhan formalised what is effectively a situation of dual power in Sudan. With US/Israeli wind in his sails, Burhan is actively recrafting this tenuous arrangement with pronouncements of sovereign power from the SAF command and the seductive promise of a consumer paradise on the Nile. The counter-revolution is being retweeted by Netanyahu.

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.