Sudanese transitional government normalized ties with Israel without popular mandate

The normalization of ties with Israel has been rejected by majority of the significant political parties and grassroots organizations in the ruling coalition, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces

October 30, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of Sudan's sovereignty council (left) and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sudan’s removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (SST) was conditional on its commitment to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. This was admitted by the president of the country’s sovereignty council president, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on October 26, Monday, in his first address after the development. Meanwhile, civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok has been maintaining, though unconvincingly, that the two issues are separate. Progressive sections, including the Sudanese Communist Parties, have said that the decision to normalize ties with Israel did not have a popular mandate.

Burhan claimed that without the normalization, Sudan would have remained on the US’ SST list at least until the second half of next year. He added that he had consulted Hamdok and most of the political parties in the country before committing to the normalization.

In fact, the normalization deal has been rejected by the majority of the significant political parties in the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF). It was the DFCF which appointed the civilian members of the joint civilian-military transitional government in Sudan, including prime minister Hamdok.  The DFCF had come together as a political force to represent the protest movement responsible for the ouster of former dictator Omar al Bashir.

The National Umma Party, Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), Arab Baath Party, and the Nasserite Baath Party have all rejected the normalization. “Not a single political party of any significance has expressed support for normalization except the Sudan Congress Party,” SCP’s national spokesperson Fathi Elfadl told Peoples Dispatch.

Incidentally, it was in Sudan’s capital Khartoum that the Arab League Summit of 1967 passed a resolution with the “Three Nos” – No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it. This was in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war in the same year. 

The grassroots organizations which form an important component of the DFCF have also opposed normalization of relations with Israel, and reiterated their solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation.

Among them is the trade union coalition Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which spearheaded the December uprising against the former regime and the resistance committees in neighborhoods across the country which form the backbone of the protest movement.

 “It is clear that the anti-normalization parties and organizations are stronger and have the majority within the DFCF,” Elfadl said while arguing that the decision of the government has no popular mandate.

Soon after a joint statement by the US, Sudan and Israel on October 23 announced that the “leaders agreed to the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel,” Sudan’s acting foreign minister clarified that the deal was subject to the approval of the yet-to-be formed legislative council.

In his address on Monday, president Burhan also confirmed that the agreement will not be implemented before the approval of the legislative council. Elfadl is confident that the DFCF “will have an overwhelming majority if the legislative council is formed, and it will stand against normalization.” 

According to the Constitutional Document which laid the foundation for the transitional government in Sudan, 66% of the seats in the legislative council are to be allocated to the DFCF. However, one cannot discount the likelihood that the formation of the legislative council will itself be disrupted by military appointees in the government, given the high stakes involved. 

According to Elfadl, “the agenda discussed and approved during the meeting in Dubai a month ago between Burhan, the Americans, Israelis and the UAE” has far-reaching consequences. These include “establishment of foreign military bases, leasing of Sudan’s two ports to UAE, settling thousands of Palestinian refugees in Sudan, and control over oil and other natural resources by American and Israeli companies.”

Saudi Arabia, which is itself keen to normalize relations with Israel but is hesitant to appear as the one taking the lead in the MENA region, has reportedly agreed to bankroll the USD335 million that Sudan has paid as a compensation to US victims of terrorism as a part of the deal to have its name removed from the SST list. 

Loans from international financial bodies and foreign investments, which the transitional government has been desperately seeking in order to revive Sudan’s collapsing economy, are almost inaccessible to countries on the SST list. The very same day when Trump officially announced his intention to unlist Sudan, the World Bank agreed to an aid package of USD200 million, with another USD170 million coming from Europe

In the hyperinflationary economy, where ordinary Sudanese have been suffering from skyrocketing bread prices, fuel shortages, and power cuts, this economic relief (although short-lived because structural reforms are to follow) made accessible to Sudan after US unlisted it has made “normalization more acceptable to the hungry and the poor,”  Elfadl said.

Back in August, when the negotiations were still underway, Cameron Hudson, currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and formerly the chief of staff to the US special envoy for Sudan, had complained in a commentary that delisting Sudan was no longer a leverage used by the US to promote and encourage democratic transition in the country. It has “become the leverage to achieve a Middle East foreign policy coup in the waning days before the November election (in US),” he said.  

Not about countering  extremism

The notion that linking SST delisting with normalization of ties with Israel is another aberration of the Trump administration is refuted by many Sudanese observers. Aseem Zainelabdein, an independent Sudanese researcher and translator with Arab nationalist sympathies, argues that the primary motivation behind the American decision to place Sudan on the SST list was never to fight terrorism.

The fact that terrorists such as Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had been residing in and operating from Sudan since 1991 was cited as the main reason for placing Sudan on this list in 1993, years after Omar al Bashir had seized power in 1989 through a military coup backed by Islamist forces.

In March 1996, when the then defense minister Fatih Erwa offered to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US, the offer was not acknowledged. At the time, “there was no indictment outstanding” against Laden, the 9-11 commission report notes. “Until 1996, hardly anyone in the US government understood that Osama Bin Ladin was an inspirer and organizer of the new terrorism,”the report adds.

By May that year, Bin Laden, feeling increasingly insecure, had left for Afghanistan. Two years later, in 1998, after the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, “Sudan had once again offered to help nab Al-Qaeda operatives. The U.S responded by bombing a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum,” said Zainelabdein.

After Sudan signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism in 1999 and ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombing in 2000, the UN in 2001 lifted the terrorism-related sanctions it had imposed on Sudan.

However, the US continued to keep Sudan on the SST list, despite an acknowledgement by the US state department in 2005 that no Al-Qaeda operatives were present in Sudan with the government’s knowledge, at least since 2000.   

By 2007, the US state department had come to describe Sudan as a “strong partner in the War on Terror”. Nevertheless, Sudan remained a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ because the US was ostensibly concerned at the time about the genocide in the oil-rich region of Darfur, and sanctions were doubled.

It was only in 2017 that some economic sanctions were lifted, after Sudan severed its historic ties with Iran in 2016, and joined the Saudi-led and US-backed coalition in bombing Yemen.

By December 2019, when the current prime minister Abdalla Hamdok made the first visit to Washington by any Sudanese leader in 23 years, Bin Laden had long been dead, Al-Bashir who had led the genocide had been deposed by mass-protests and subsequently handed over to the ICC for trial, and the Islamist party he headed had been banned by the transitional government. The new government had also initiated peace negotiations with the rebel groups, including in Darfur. 

Hoping that Sudan’s removal from the SST list will end its financial isolation, the transitional government, soon after Hamdok’s visit, pledged to close down the offices of Palestinian resistance groups such as “Hamas and Hezbollah and any other Islamic group designated as terrorist groups.”  

Despite all these measures, it was only on October 23 this year – the very day the Sudanese government announced normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel – that the US administration formally declared its intention to remove Sudan’s name from the SST list.

This has vindicated the critics in Sudan who have for long pointed out that the US’ SST list was never meant to penalize states for supporting terrorism, but is another instrument for pursuing the foreign policy objectives of the US and its allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia (which have never appeared on this SST list).