What is behind the talk of Sudan-Israel normalisation?

Normalisation with Israel is nothing but a distraction from what is really needed to keep Sudan’s transition on track.

Burhan- netanyahu Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, right [File: Reuters]

The meeting between Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council, in Entebbe, Uganda and the subsequent announcement that the two countries will normalise relations has come as a shock.

Traditionally, Sudan has been among the Arab nations most hostile to Israel and the Sudanese public by and large retain this feeling. Last year, the country was swept up by a revolution pushing for dignity, justice, equality and democracy – principles that contradict Israel’s oppressive, colonial presence in the region and its policy of colluding with dictatorial regimes.

To understand the context of the meeting, it is important to recall that Sudan was listed by the United States government as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 over claims of providing material support to al-Qaeda. This designation, with all international sanctions associated with it, presents a major obstacle to Sudan in accessing foreign aid and dealing with its massive national debt.

The US maintains that Sudan was complicit in the 1998 terrorist attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam which killed 224 people. At that time al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who ordered the attacks, was known to reside on Sudanese territory. The US insists Sudan must pay approximately $10bn in damages, $5.9bn of which to the families of the American victims before the sanctions are lifted. In justifying its position, Washington hides behind the independence of the judiciary and claims that it is a purely legal process that has nothing to do with politics.

However, it is ethically questionable to have the Sudanese people – who had no idea what was transpiring in remote terrorist training camps in the late 1990s – be held hostage to past abuses of a dictatorship they did not elect.

It must be clear that the revolution they launched which toppled the regime of Omar al-Bashir and led to a political transition will not succeed unless the economic situation on the ground is addressed and this designation is one of the main obstacles to economic recovery.

At the recent meeting in Entebbe, Netanyahu appears to have promised General al-Burhan, who took over from al-Bashir, that he could convince US President Donald Trump to de-list Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Clearly, Netanyahu’s claim is disingenuous and misleading. His track record suggests that his more likely aim is to repatriate some 4,500 Sudanese refugees who are currently in Israel. Furthermore, Sudan’s leaders would do well to remember that while there is a perception in some Arab diplomatic capitals that the most effective route to changing US policy is through normalisation with Israel, few Arab states have benefitted materially or otherwise from attempting to do so.

Most critically, attempts to normalise ties run the risk of the transitional administration losing the support of the Sudanese street which is already on the line due to the country’s persistent economic crisis.

This does not mean that there are no other ways out of this difficult situation. Sudan can take a number of steps which do not go against the will of its people and hurt the Palestinian cause in order to get out of the crisis.

First, Sudan can seek assistance from the international community to lift US sanctions and drop the designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. It can do that by handing over al-Bashir for prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes he has been accused of committing in Darfur. Sudan should also be prepared to defend itself in the US court against accusations of sponsoring terrorism.

There is no room for pride in such matters and cooperating with international courts would build goodwill internationally and could presage a return to the global diplomatic fold.

Within this context, Sudan should also request international assistance in repatriating funds that have been stolen by al-Bashir and his cronies and stashed away in foreign bank accounts. Swift action on this front could help immensely the cash-strapped Sudanese transitional government.

Second, Sudan should also seek international assistance to address its major economic crisis. By some estimates, Sudan’s national debt sits at $57-60bn much of which was accrued due to unmet interest payments. The Sudanese leadership should seek to engage in discussions on debt relief or forgiveness with the Gulf states and countries like France, which holds a considerable amount of its debt.

Entering into such negotiations in good faith while being publicly seen to stand up to corruption would boost investor confidence and give some hope to local business. Once the immediate obstacles to accessing international financial streams are resolved, Sudan should be prepared to deal with the IMF.

With the price of bread being a major trigger issue for the original protests that toppled al-Bashir’s regime, an austerity drive to cut subsidies to bread, fuel, and other essentials would be an act of political suicide by Sudan’s fledgeling transitional administration.

Rather than cutting subsidies in the short-term, Sudan should focus on devising a gradual plan for economic reform alongside the IMF and redressing long-standing imbalances between Khartoum and the rest of the country.

Third, although aid from foreign patrons, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in exchange for loyalty, may be tempting, the Sudanese leadership should stay away from making such political commitments given the explicit interest those countries have in shoring up the military at the expense of the revolutionary movement.

Currently, not only is there tension between civilian and military actors, but there is also a growing bifurcation of the military into a national army and militias. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been providing significant military support to General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, also known as Hemedti, who commands the most powerful militia in the country – the Rapid Support Forces. This is slowly turning the Sudanese military into an irregular force submitted to foreign agendas – a process similar to what the UAE encouraged in Yemen.

A recent scandal in which Sudanese men were recruited to work as security in the UAE but were instead sent to fight in Libya demonstrated the pitfalls of such engagement with the UAE. Sudan should seek to strengthen relations with countries that genuinely want to see democratic change in the country.

Fourth, Sudan needs to remain committed to embarking on a national transitional process alongside concomitant sub-national peace processes. While much international attention has been placed on upheaval in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions, the conflict in eastern Sudan threatens to escalate in the coming months. There is fear that the situation could become another Darfur. This would be tragic in terms of loss of life and the negative effect on social cohesion, but would also complicate Sudan’s already complex intertwined conflict dynamics and refocus international headlines on resolving yet another conflict at a time when the conversation should be focused on the economic crisis and the transition to civilian-led rule.

Finally, the national dialogue has to continue in order to keep the transition on track. Dialogue must be as inclusive as possible and provide a platform for the young men and women who took to the streets and risked their lives to bring down Sudan’s long-standing authoritarian regime.

Dialogue is needed on a range of issues including displaced people, regional conflicts, decentralisation, and new representative democratic structures. All these issues are central to Sudan’s socioeconomic recovery, rebuilding trust between the state and citizens, and the long-term prospects of a peaceful transition.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.