The eruption of violent conflict in Sudan on April 15 has cast the country into, perhaps, the darkest period yet in its five-year transition toward civilian rule, which began with nationwide protests in 2018 and the toppling of Omar al-Bashir a year later, after three decades in power. The recent outbreak of fighting between the army, headed by Lt General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Security Forces, led by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo—widely known as Hemedti—threatens to not only derail the democratization process entirely but to destabilize the wider region. In this Council Views, scholars from the Middle East Council offer their insights on what’s driving the conflict, the imperative to bring it to a swift end, and its implications for Sudan and beyond.
Code Red: The International Community Must Intervene in Sudan Now
Sudan is on a path towards a long, bloody, complex civil war unless the international community intervenes now to prevent it. The humanitarian costs of the conflict may well dwarf all others in the Arab region. In the past three weeks of fighting alone, over 500 people have been killed and another 100,000 have fled the country. The intensifying conflict and the flood of refugees will further destabilize Sudan’s neighbors—Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, and South Sudan—each of which faces its own economic, political and security challenges. The cost of not acting decisively now could be calamitous.
All the elements supporting a prolonged conflict are present: There is an asymmetric yet balanced division of power between the better-equipped army and the more agile Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This offers both a potential road to victory and the promise of existential threat if the other side prevails. The county also has a wealth of natural resources and weak institutions overseeing their development, making them a lucrative prize for the victor. Third, Sudan has a large, diverse population of more than 45 million people and 19 major ethic groups—many of whom are marginalized and may see an opportunity to improve their situation if the conflict splinters. Finally, several external parties with competing interests are involved, whom the belligerents can turn to and play off each other for support.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan have been trying to mediate a truce or ceasefire. However, such efforts will likely be temporary or fail if real pressure is not brought to bear. So far, the international community has been reluctant to take decisive action to end the fighting. This will require unpleasant choices, such as striking a deal with one party, most likely the military, at the cost of holding out hope for a democratic transition. However, the alternative is a far darker scenario… a humanitarian catastrophe on par or worse than those of Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
The Beginnings of a Prolonged Conflict
Despite several failed ceasefire attempts, conflict continues in Sudan. Like recent (and ongoing) conflicts in Libya and Yemen, we should not expect a rapid conclusion to the conflict in Sudan. With few benefits to peace or a power-sharing arrangement, a continuation of conflict remains optimal for leaders on both fronts. The cruel calculus of civil conflict ensures that, particularly in a resource-constrained country like Sudan, ongoing conflict offers leaders on both sides access to wealth through external support and control over a range of (often criminal) economic activities—resources that can be redistributed to gain supporters. Without an ability to suppress these incentives to war, Sudan’s conflict will be drawn out for the foreseeable future, particularly if the conflict remains at a relatively low intensity.
The most effective way to bring conflict actors to the negotiating table would be to take the financial oxygen out of the fire, smothering the incentives for conflict. In this regard, eliminating access to arms and foreign financial resources is essential. However, the outcomes of the conflict remain too important to neighboring countries for them to fully disengage on their own. For Egypt, for example, the future of access to the Nile may depend on what happens in Sudan, an interest that will encourage competing support from other neighbors to the south. Beyond this, there is a broader ongoing competition for regional control that will likely situate Sudan as an arena of proxy conflict for a complex mix of external interests.
The Enemy of Democracy
For some time, Sudan appeared headed toward a promising path of democratization, part of a new wave of Arab Spring-like uprisings that emerged in 2018. From the outside, Sudan’s young revolution displayed the hallmarks of social and political renewal. The buoyancy of the pro-democracy groups and voices was impressive. Still, from the outset civil debates recognized the most likely spoiler of the uprising: the military. Uppermost on the agenda of the designers of the Framework Agreement for political transition was the army’s exit from power. But revolutions are messy, and Sudan’s was no exception. A fatal compromise was struck that allowed the military to partake in the first phase of the democratic transition. In October 2021 a military coup sealed the fate of Sudan’s nascent democratization. Not even the Framework Agreement signed a year later between the country’s democrats and the military would correct the fallout from the coup for civil society and the country at large. The balance of power favored the military, and in particular two ferociously ambitious and powerful rivals: General Abdelfatah Al-Burhan, chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and General Hemedti, not known much by his official name Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo. Perhaps the pro-democracy forces, inexperienced and without much muscle on their side, gave too much leeway to the generals, by accepting Burhan and Hemedti as signatories to the framework. Today, both men and their respective military forces are wreaking havoc on the Framework Agreement and the Sudanese people’s 2018 uprising. The writing was always on the wall. The military’s past is bloody and that did not change when force was used to quash the anti-coup protests after 2018. Al-Burhan and Hemedti’s joint action resulted in the killing of more than 100 people. Once again, as in neighboring Egypt, military and democracy proved to be sworn enemies.
Egypt, Sudan, and Lessons from Libya
The outbreak of conflict in neighboring Sudan poses significant national security challenges to Egypt, which shares extensive land and sea borders, and is already home to an estimated four million Sudanese. Instability in the country over the past four years has already led to a steady uptick in people arriving at Egypt’s borders and the fresh conflict may unleash another wave of refugees escaping the fighting. While registered asylum seekers have access to health care and education, unregistered refugees face tough conditions in Egypt, and growing numbers add further strain on service delivery in a country already facing substantial economic problems.
Strategically, Egypt relies on Sudan to provide a united front in negotiations with Ethiopia in their water dispute over the GERD dam. Instability in Khartoum threatens this position and weakens both countries vis-á-vis Addis Ababa.
So far, Cairo’s prudent approach to the outbreak of fighting has served it well. The country did not overreact when some of its soldiers were captured on a training mission in Sudan, and a crisis was averted when the soldiers were ultimately released. But Egyptian policymakers still face a dilemma in how to deal with the warring camps. Since the ouster, reinstatement and resignation of the Hamdok Government in 2022, Egypt has worked with the Sudanese Army led by General Burhan, who visited Cairo last year and appeared to have President Sisi’s backing.
Should Cairo double down on its support for Burhan, it risks repeating the mistake it made in Libya where it sided with the military strongman Khalifa Haftar. Egypt’s best option now is to be neutral and attempt to engage both sides in serious mediation efforts backed by the African Union, as well as regional and international powers to bring an end to the fighting before it spirals out of control, with terrible consequences for Egypt and the wider region.
Poor media coverage exacerbates conflict
The quantity and quality of Western media coverage of the crisis in Sudan has made a dire situation even worse. Insufficient reporting by Western media outlets has resulted in a degree of obscurity and neglect of this war-torn and economically challenged African country, especially among important international bodies and decision-making organizations.
Likewise, the years-long fight for democratization and reform that began with widescale protests in 2018 received a similar degree of international media indifference and underrepresentation.
So, too, has the quality of coverage been far from ideal. Instead of grappling with the root causes of the current violence, its historical context, and its regional implications, most of the reporting has been on the brutality of the violence itself and the shocking images it has produced. By focusing on the “what” rather than the “why” of this ongoing violence, international media is not disseminating much-needed accurate information about the crisis, nor is it offering the historical and regional contextualization that underpins it. Rather, what this type of coverage is doing best, unfortunately, is reinforcing the colonialist, orientalist discourse of a “barbaric Africa” which is in dire need for a “Western savior.”
Warnings from a tortured region
As Libyans, Iraqis and Yemenis have already discovered through painful experience, in the absence of security sector reform, genuine reconciliation and viable power-sharing mechanisms, the power and influence of militias and paramilitary organizations can produce far-reaching ramifications for societies transitioning out of conflict. In Sudan’s case, the crisis is, at its essence, a power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the latter being a paramilitary organization that was empowered by Omar al-Bashir as a Praetorian guard and given political legitimacy to expand its influence. The RSF’s ascendency grew with the outbreak of the civil war in Yemen, when its forces were mobilized as part of the Saudi-led military intervention there in 2015.
Tensions over the RSF’s integration into Sudan’s formal military structure paved the way for the current conflict. But this should have been foreseen. Attempts to de-mobilize and disarm paramilitary organizations who distrust state institutions yet have a significant support base and their own perceived legitimacy, is a futile exercise in the absence of a political settlement that sets the guiding terms and principles for security sector reform processes. Ultimately, the crisis in Sudan has the hallmarks of a society that has suffered the cumulative effects of dictatorial rule and the failure to secure a transition toward a democratic and stable post-conflict environment, which has so often been the case in other post-Arab Spring countries.
As Libyans, Iraqis and Yemenis would likely attest, the crisis in Sudan is at risk of becoming much worse before it gets better. It is particularly imperative that outside actors collectively mobilize efforts and resources to, firstly, secure and enforce a ceasefire between the SAF and RSF and, secondly, to use the ceasefire to provide urgent humanitarian aid. Lastly, outside actors must resist the urge to shift the balance of power, both on the battlefield and off it, since this raises the risk calculus among the belligerents. Escalation along these lines could push the country toward an internationalized proxy war.
Escalating Conflict Threatens GCC Interests in the Region
Sudan’s strategic location at the nexus of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea makes it particularly important for the Gulf’s commercial and security interests. As the conflict intensifies, GCC countries fear spillover destabilizing the region, as well as near-proximity allies such as Egypt, adding impetus in their collective efforts to seek its de-escalation.
The stakes are particularly high for the UAE. Politically, Abu Dhabi is backing Mohammed Hemedti and his Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a willing party to the UAE’s anti-political Islam agenda and rhetoric. For instance, not too long ago, Hemedti deployed RSF forces to the Saudi-UAE war effort in Yemen and to Libya in support of the UAE-aligned Libya National Army. Sudan is also economically important to the UAE. One key Emirati investment in Sudan is the $6 billion deal signed in December 2022 to build Abu Amama port. The deal was intended to enhance trade and business between both Abu Dhabi and Khartoum, but also fits squarely into the emirate’s strategic interest of increasing its influence through the acquisition of ports along the littoral of the Red Sea.
The Risks of Maritime Spillover
Given its geostrategic positioning along the Red Sea corridor, the conflict in Sudan may soon pose a threat to security in the maritime arena. Sudan’s vast littoral border predominantly consists of uninhabited areas, a territorial vacuum that could be filled with militants in the time to come. For now, Hemedti’s paramilitary forces possess sufficient power and money to take on the Sudanese military head on. However, if those resources start to diminish, Hamedti’s forces could very well resort to piracy operations from the banks of the Red Sea.
Somalia in the early nineties provides a cautionary tale. The entanglement of Somali tribes in confrontations between the army and armed militias led to the weakening of the former. Consequently, piracy networks emerged that threatened the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the eastern coasts of Africa for decades.
This scenario could be repeated in Sudan, as security in the Red Sea is already complicated by various factors. On the Red Sea’s eastern bank, Yemen’s Houthis have posed a clear threat to international navigation channels and routes. Coupled with the dire economic situation in Egypt and Eritrea, the potential spillover from the Sudanese conflict, intensifies the risks already present. If Sudan does become a launch point for attacks on international shipping channels, it will have significant economic consequences for countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have invested heavily in the region. While the conflict in Sudan is currently confined to land, the international community and regional players would be wise to consider the implications for maritime security when engaging in the Sudanese conflict.
Council Views is an ME Council article series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.