The Sudanese government cannot afford to be confused on Israel

The government’s discombobulated stance on normalisation with Israel could be costly for Sudan.

Hamdok Reuters
Sudan's PM Abdalla Hamdok says his government 'has no mandate' to normalise ties with Israel, and a decision can only be made after the end of the transitional period [Mohamed Abdallah/Reuters]

On August 18, just a few days after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel declared their intention to normalise ties, Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Haidar Badawi, announced that his government too is “looking forward to concluding a peace agreement with Israel.” The move by Khartoum was seen by many as a major win for the UAE, which is known to be supporting Israel’s normalisation of ties. However, the Gulf state was not necessarily the intended audience for this unexpected announcement.

It is well-understood that the number-one foreign policy objective of the transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is to convince the United States to rescind Sudan’s State Sponsor of Terror (SST) designation, which presents a significant obstacle to the country in accessing foreign aid and dealing with its enormous national debt. Regionally, this means supporting the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel – the Trump administration’s key allies.

It could well be that the limited push-back the UAE received from the international community for normalising its ties with Israel, and Washington’s vocal support for the move, motivated Sudan to follow suit. However, Sudan does not have a reasonably stable political leadership or a resilient economy like the UAE, and this gamble to secure support from the US and its regional allies could, very easily, not pay off.

Worryingly, it increasingly appears that the August 18 announcement on Sudan’s intention to normalise ties with Israel was not even part of a cohesive governmental strategy, but a unilateral move by senior military figures in the chimeric transitional government.

Just a day after the announcement, Sudanese acting Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din “dismissed Haidar Badawi from his position as spokesman and head of the media division” at the ministry for making “unauthorised” comments – a clear indication of divisions within the transitional government over relations with Israel.

And this was not even the first time that Sudan’s part-civilian, part-military transitional government struggled to hold a united front on Israel.

In February, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s sovereign council, a joint civilian-military transitional body that has been governing the country since August 2019, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda. The meeting was denounced by Prime Minister Hamdok as something that happened without his knowledge and, if he were in a position to give it, his consent. In reality, it is unlikely that he did not know of it, even if he was not in favour of it.

If the civilian government’s denials on normalisation were aiming to gauge the public mood while a foreign policy position on Sudanese-Israeli relations is developed, then February’s confusion should have sufficed. This latest episode signals deeper fractions within the transitional government, which imperil Sudan’s transition.

Hamdok says his government “has no mandate” to normalise ties with Israel, and a decision can only be made after the end of the transitional period. Nevertheless, the ostensible end-goal of normalisation, rescission of the SST designation, still appears to be the leading foreign policy objective of his government. The current confusion has done little to instil public confidence that the transitional government can act as one, or indeed deliver SST rescission.

With ongoing protests calling for the transitional government to be reformed and, crucially, less power to be afforded to the military, this misstep on clarity about the relationship with Israel is one the civilian wing of the transitional government led by Hamdok could ill-afford.

The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance, the civilian coalition backing the transitional government and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which led last year’s revolution, have both been vocal about their objection to normalisation with Israel. Badawi’s assertion that the Sudanese government, military and civilian, is gearing up to normalise relations with Israel, did not help Hamdok’s hand with these groups. Meanwhile, by denying that any formal attempts towards normalisation are being made, the civilian government also caused many in Sudan who view improving relations with US allies in the region as a path towards SST rescission to lose trust in its ability to do what is necessary to address Sudan’s acute economic woes.

Now Hamdok’s government is either being framed as a mendacious cabal that is trying to obfuscate the details of a deal that is in the making or an incompetent and powerless body that lacks a well-defined foreign policy.

The military components of the government, meanwhile, not only appear to have a well-developed foreign policy strategy, but are also flaunting their ability to ignore the rules. Just a few days after Badawi’s announcement, and swift dismissal, for example, the deputy head of Sudan’s sovereign council, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, met with Mossad head Yossi Cohen in the UAE to discuss security arrangements. According to media reports, during the meeting Dagalo told the Israeli official that “the Sudanese condition for reaching a normalisation agreement is that Israel starts working to remove Sudan’s name from the US list of the states that sponsor terror.”

The military, it seems, is neither concerned about “mandates” nor feeling under pressure to align its foreign policy with that of the civilian government. As the two key regional allies of the Sudanese military, Egypt and the UAE, have already normalised their ties with Israel, the military leaders likely believe the benefits of normalisation would outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, moving closer to Israel can also cause significant drawbacks for the military, which was once the cornerstone of Sudan’s anti-Israel stance. The military’s recent about-turn on the issue could cause its leaders to be perceived domestically as pawns of their powerful foreign backers, impeding any notion of sovereign policy-making.

The problems that the transitional government’s bifurcated stance towards normalisation with Israel can cause for the country became ever more obvious during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Khartoum. Though billed as an unprecedented show of US support for the transitional government, its timing and key focus on Israel frustrated many who had hoped that it would deliver some concrete pledge from the US before the November elections. That the prospect of rescission was floated with a presumptive price tag to the tune of $330m, for a country currently in economic freefall, did not surprise many who are familiar with Trump’s mercenary brand of foreign policy.

Hamdok’s insistence that normalisation would not occur until further administrative and bureaucratic elements were in place for the transition showed new political courage not often seen before and proved that the prime minister had the mettle to stand up to the Trump administration and the UAE. This was a rare domestic coup for Hamdok, though it remains a perilous gamble.

Sudan’s discombobulated stance on normalisation sets up a hazard for both parts of the government, civilian and military. But the risks are higher for Hamdok’s government, which still insists that it is not seeking normalisation.

If normalisation happens de facto and without the prime minister’s input, it will most likely be a security arrangement. In such a scenario, SST rescission and economic gains may not follow normalisation and could give Islamists fodder to stoke anti-government sentiment. All this could delegitimise Hamdok’s government but leave the military unscathed and in the good books of its regional backers.

Sudan’s fledgeling civilian government is nowhere near stable enough to be able to weather the political turmoil that could arise from a confused and seemingly unintended, yet serious, rapprochement with Israel.

Banking its political cache on either normalisation with Israel or standing up to the US and regional powers and yet still promising SST rescission could prove reckless. Not pushing through with normalisation, even though it remains on the table, and continuing to dig its heels in could prove more destabilising to the civilian government’s relationship with the military. Hamdok and his government find themselves in a catch-22 situation. If SST rescission does not follow this political risk after all, the civilian government could be plunged further into a political crisis that it, so far, seems to plan on fixing mostly through SST rescission itself.

And therein lies the true gamble for the civilian wing of the government, which has far more to lose, and is playing against a stronger opponent, both domestically and abroad. Its attempts to delay taking a decision on the issue risks strengthening the accusations of indecisiveness and inertia it is already facing.

By not learning from the public response to February’s meeting between Burhan and Netanyahu, which was followed by pushback less on the meeting itself and more on the confused messaging on the meeting from the prime minister, the civilian government may have missed an opportunity to consolidate its position domestically as well as soothe leaders in the UAE, a key supporter of Sudan’s military. Doing so would go some way in resolving the power imbalance within the government.

With all the government’s hopes pinned on SST rescission, there is no guarantee that the US would not follow through with a delisting with the military, rather than civilian, leadership. Despite the US Department of State’s repeated assertions that it supports the civilian government, the recently announced sanctions list for those who undermine Sudan’s transition is extremely opaque. The civilian government’s backtracking may have risked its position within an already confused American foreign policy: it would do well not to take this administration’s unwavering support for the civilian government for granted.

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