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Sudan strives to break 30 years of isolation

Tom Allinson
February 21, 2020

Khartoum's new government has been trying to put an end to its international isolation. But the struggle to deliver on democracy has been hampered by the legacy of Omar al-Bashir's decadeslong dictatorship.

A Sudanese demonstrator holds a flag over her face
Image: picture-alliance/AA/M. Hjaj

In a series of policy reversals, Sudan's transitional government recently agreed to submit ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir and three of his aides to the International Criminal Court (ICC), pay compensation to the families of victims of attacks on US interests and began to normalize ties with Israel.

Sudan was prompted, at least in part, by the fact that it continues to be listed by the US as a "state sponsor of terrorism," a designation it gained under the former Islamist regime for its links with militants, including al-Qaeda, and one it hopes Washington will revoke.

Read more: Sudan's revolution, a year later: Much achieved but risks remain

But some sections of Sudanese society have pushed back against Khartoum's actions. Meanwhile, the ambiguity and slow pace of change, both inside the country and in how it is treated internationally, threaten to undermine the country's transition to democracy.

While it is still unclear how a trial might go ahead, last week's announcement by Sudanese authorities that al-Bashir will face the ICC was welcomed not only by the court — which sees him as possibly its biggest and most important case — but also by the country's revolutionaries. Both want to see al-Bashir answer charges of genocide in the Darfur region, among others.

Sara Abdelgalil, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which was key to the recent uprising, said the trial was vital to transitional justice. She suggested that the possibility of an ICC court set up in Sudan could also help restore a judicial system wrecked by the former regime. 

"If that happens it would be really good, because we are rebuilding our legal system," she said. "And working together with the ICC may be a good opportunity for the legal system, attorney general, all of these sorts of groups and components."

Added to that, peace talks in the long-troubled southwest, where some of al-Bashir's alleged atrocities took place, to a large extent hinge on bringing the former dictator to trial. Until those talks conclude, Sudan is unable to form a new legislative council or parliament.

Omar al-Bashir sits in a cage as he is sentenced in court.
Al-Bashir is being held in Khartoum after receiving a two-year sentence for corruption in DecemberImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Hamid

But al-Bashir's trial could be divisive, given the potential implication of some of Sudan's security forces in the former dictator's alleged crimes. While the military, which currently shares authority with civilians, would have difficulty backing down now, some among its leadership may also want to take credit for endorsing the process to stem further accusations, Sudan analyst Jonas Horner from the International Crisis Group said.

Another "underappreciated dynamic is the split that is implied between the military, who traditionally have a Muslim Brotherhood background that they share with [al-Bashir] — himself a military man — and Islamists themselves, who are now in a bit of a bind," he said.

Read more: In Sudan, protesters log victory but military still calls the shots

Israel thaw gets cold reception

That split may become a "key cleavage," Horner said, after interim leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan unilaterally departed from years of antagonism with Israel last week to secretly meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and begin normalizing ties between the countries.

Israel has in the past accused Khartoum of funneling arms to Gaza and carrying out airstrikes in Sudan.

"Sudan has traditionally, historically, been one of the most strident supporters of the Palestinian cause, and people have been similarly strident about their opposition and anger towards Israel," Horner said.

A protester holds a placard reading "We are against Israel"
News of normalization with Israel was slammed by Sudanese politicians and protestorsImage: picture-alliance/AA/M. Hajaj

But some Sudanese critics of Burhan's overtures to Netanyahu may be less vocal once they see economic improvements, an improved standing in the international community standing and Israel "as a potential guarantor" who can vouch for the country as it tries to get the US to lift the terrorism label, Horner said.

Adelgalil said the SPA and many at the highest levels of the political establishment had rejected the move, saying it was a decision that should have been left to an elected government and was antithetical to the goals of the revolution and the aim to become a responsible world citizen.

"We are against terrorism and some people view the political regime in Israel as a terrorist regime," Abdelgalil said. "It's not just because we support Palestine blithely, and it's not about supporting Hezbollah or Hamas. It's about what Israel is doing."

The ICC is currently considering opening an investigation into Israeli war crimes against Palestinians.

Terror delisting an opaque process

Crucial to the removal of the "sponsor of terrorism" designation has been compensation for the al-Bashir regime's alleged support for three particular terror attacks. Sudan made serious inroads on that front last week by paying $30 million (€28 million) to the families of victims of the 2000 USS Cole attack in Yemen. Negotiations to pay an estimated $3-$4 billion to the many more affected by the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya are ongoing.

A side view showing the huge hole in the hull of the US Navy destroyer caused by the explosion of a suicide bomb
Suicide bombers killed 17 and injured 39 sailors on board the USS Cole as it refueled at a port in Aden in October 2000Image: picture-alliance/TNS/US Navy News Photo

Abdelgalil said that even though it was al-Bashir's dictatorship that was responsible for those crimes, Sudan's new representatives still want to prove they are part of an international community committed to international law.

But while a US State Department spokesperson told DW that compensation is a priority, they remained vague about what else was required to get off the blacklist. That has frustrated some people in Sudan.

While other significant reforms are also vital to its recovery, the country is relying on the lifting of the terrorism label in order to negotiate relief for its enormous debt and the roughly $1.3 billion it owes to the International Monetary Fund. For Sudan to come off the list, various US government agencies must review its activities and report to the president and to Congress, a process that could take 6-9 months at best, Horner said.

"The economics of Sudan really suggest that it is getting close to the bone," he said. "That is at the heart of their political risk, and the potential for economic and political collapse is very real."

Prime minister rallies support

But newly appointed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist unencumbered by ties to the former regime, has enormous political capital with foreign leaders and is considered key both to lobby against the terrorism designation but also to gain support in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok stand at podiums while Hamdok gestures and Merkel looks on.
Angela Merkel praised the role of women in Sudan's uprising when she met Premier Hamdok soon after Germany lifted sanctions on SudanImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

Not long after Germany restarted development ties with a pledge of €80 million in aid for energy and infrastructure projects, Hamdok urged other nations to support Sudan's goal to become an example of stability in the region.

Stressing the uniqueness of Sudan's peaceful transition and civil-military partnership Hamdok said in an interview with DW, "getting it right in Sudan has a strategic impact and effect, you can imagine the spillover effect in the entire region … what we would like to see is our friends and partners working with us in making this a success story."

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's visit to Sudan next week will be a show of solidarity and raise Sudan's profile among other European capitals.

Aya Ibrahim contributed to this article.

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