Demonstrators chant protests slogans at a sit-in in Khartoum, Sudan. (Muhammad Salah/for The Washington Post)
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Amid the chants praising the “revolution of the people,” a new slogan appeared this week at a massive sit-in protest in Sudan’s capital: “We do not want Saudi aid even if we have to eat beans and falafel!”
The chant underscored the suspicion in the protest camp about the motives of Saudi Arabia and its close ally, the United Arab Emirates, after they jointly pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan’s transitional military government, which deposed Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir this month after 30 years in power.
The protests, which have spread across the country to become the biggest in a generation, have continued to swell after his ouster, putting pressure on the military to swiftly transfer power to a civilian council until elections can be held.
But many within the protests fear that the powerful monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are using their immense wealth to suppress democracy and support a “counterrevolution,” as they have been accused of doing elsewhere in the region.
“A soft landing for the old regime is being orchestrated by some Middle Eastern powers so that they can keep their allies in power,” said Mohamed Yusuf al-Mustafa, the head of the Sudanese Professionals Association, in an interview. His coalition of doctors, lawyers and others has been central in organizing the demonstrations. “They are not our enemies. But they are risking the goodwill of the Sudanese people.”
In announcing the joint aid package, the Saudi Embassy in Washington said that $500 million would be provided to Sudan’s central bank to help ease pressure on the Sudanese pound and improve the country’s financial health. The balance would be “dedicated to support the people of Sudan through food, medicines, and fuel derivatives.”
The U.S. government has voiced support for the protests, but years of sanctions and other isolating tactics have meant the U.S. role in Sudan is minimal. Sudan remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which is at congressional discretion. Most U.S. sanctions were lifted in 2017, but they left a huge imprint on the Sudanese economy, with inflation spiraling beyond 70 percent last year.
On Tuesday night, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Makila James met with the head of the transitional military council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in Khartoum.
“[We said] the timeline should be as quick as possible because the streets are demanding that, and we stand in support of the people asking for that quick transition,” said James, after leaving the meeting.
The recent ousters of Bashir and Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika have revived hopes in the Arab world that the pro-democracy movement that began in 2010, known as the Arab Spring, might not be dead.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE reacted with alarm to the previous bout of popular uprisings and in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere used financial aid and military support to bolster autocratic allies or newly emerging strongmen. The pro-democracy campaigns were in many cases stifled.
The two monarchies, working in lockstep over the past few years, have pursued a shared vision for the region aimed at countering Iranian influence, crushing political Islamist movements and halting a democratic contagion that could stir the political aspirations of their own populations, analysts said.
The Sudanese protesters were well aware of that legacy. For many months, they had discussed ways to avoid Egypt’s trajectory after popular protests in 2011 followed by elections ultimately resulted in a military coup and an authoritarian government backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to Khalid Mustafa Medani, an associate professor of political science and chair of the Africa Studies program at McGill University.
“They were ready for Saudi to intervene in opposition to democracy,” he said. “The consciousness was already there.”
Together, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led a boycott of Qatar, accusing it of supporting Iran as well as Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. There is an economic rivalry as well. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have competed for influence with Qatar and its main ally, Turkey, across North and East Africa, spending tens of billions of dollars on new ports, roads and farmland.
Sudan has been an epicenter of that rivalry, Medani, the professor, said. Because of its strategic location on the Red Sea and abundant agricultural land, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all invested heavily in the country. Neighboring Egypt’s interests range from securing the flow of the Nile River to ensuring that the protests in Sudan do not embolden Egypt’s civil society activists, cowed after years of state repression, he said.
Sudan also plays a role in the military campaign being waged by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, supplying thousands of foot soldiers to help fight northern rebels. Sudan’s transitional military council is closely tied to the effort. Burhan headed the recruitment of troops who fought in Yemen, and many came from ranks commanded by his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by his nickname Hemedti, who leads an array of militias in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Mohammed al-Yahya, a Saudi political analyst who is editor in chief of Al-Arabiya English website, said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a vital interest in ensuring that instability caused by political transitions across the Arab world was not “exploited by non-Arab actors,” referring specifically to Iran and Turkey, and the possibility they would support political Islamist groups.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE feared Sudan could become “fertile ground for foreign meddling,” he said.
Saudi support for Sudan’s military council was also aimed at finding a reliable partner in Khartoum after a long history of turbulent relations between the kingdom and the “mercurial” Bashir, Yahya said. He added that the Saudi leadership wanted a “stable Sudan focused on economic development, that has good relations with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the West.”
Members of the Sudanese Army Police pose for a photo in front of the Infantry headquarters in Khartoum. (Muhammad Salah/for The Washington Post)
The recent return to Sudan of Taha Osman al-Hussein, a former aide to Bashir who spent several years in exile in Saudi Arabia, was also seen as a sign of closer engagement between Riyadh and Sudan’s military council.
Mustafa, the protest leader, said he had met with representatives from Western governments, but that the Saudi-led bloc had shown little interest in learning about the protesters’ demands.
“So far, the Saudis and Emiratis have not met with us,” he said. Egypt’s government, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, “offered me a consular officer, even though the Americans and Brits and Germans are offering their top officials. It is as if they thought we wanted visas and not a democratic transition.”
On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, chaired an emergency session of the African Union at which Sudan’s military council was given three additional months to orchestrate a handover to civilians.
The Trump administration has forged close ties with Saudi and Egyptian leaders, and U.S. calls for a quick transition strike some as at odds with Saudi silence on the prospect of civilian rule and Sissi’s endorsement of a longer grace period for the military council.
“Washington may be the only actor that can corral international players and help ensure a transition is beholden only to the Sudanese people. But right now, it is sitting on the sidelines,” said Zach Vertin, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Sudan.
While the Sudanese opposition aligned with the protesters’ clamors for a handover to civilian rule, some have chafed at Western diplomats’ calls for elections to be held as soon as possible.
“The E.U. and U.S. want an electoral mandate and not a revolutionary mandate, so they are pushing for quick elections,” said Omer Eldigair, chairman of the Sudanese Congress Party, one of the biggest opposition parties. “But if you have elections right now, you give the power right back to Bashir’s people — they are the only ones with an organized party structure. We have been suppressed for decades. That is why we are asking for four years of civilian-led transition.”
Khartoum’s protests have drawn hundreds of thousands from around the country, and organizers on Wednesday pledged a strike if the military council didn’t announce plans to transfer power by Thursday.
The young people at the sit-in now talk less about Bashir, who they want to be tried in court, and more about what dealings they believe are going on behind closed doors in Bashir’s old palace, now occupied by the military council.
“Their way of thinking is the classic Arab attitude toward Sudan: Support military leaders, protect your interests and look away from bad behavior toward the people,” said Mustafa, the protest leader. “By supporting the military council, they are only supporting narrow interests, not the people’s interests.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul.