Sudan’s Turmoil: A Crisis of Legitimacy and Power

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The civil war in Sudan, which began in April 2023 between Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader in chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is closing its one-year mark. With more than thirteen thousand Sudanese killed and 10.7 million people displaced, the problem continues to worsen without any apparent end in sight. Sudan remains embroiled in a cycle of violence memorialised by both major parties to the contest: the RSF, whose violent movement includes widespread news of rapes and the ethnic cleansing of the Masalit tribe in Darfur, and the SAF, whose indiscriminate bombing attacks have targeted harmless civilians. 

Despite various peace endeavours undertaken by the international community—including actions by the US, Arab countries, and other African countries—regional and international reactions have thus far failed to build any meaningful resolution. In aiming to resolve the war, the lack of accountability for supporters of Burhan and Hemedti overlooks large, and foreign powers have a critical role to play. Peace measures have been unsuccessful because mediator Arab countries—like the UAE, Egypt, and KSA—are not operating in good faith but are backing opposing sides. Halting external authorisation to the generals is crucial to obtaining peace in Sudan and setting it on the track to civilian-led rule. 

Sudan’s civil war is a struggle for legitimacy and power between two enterprising generals, each wielding a distinct edge but without sufficient power to accomplish victory. Currently, al-Burhan places himself as Sudan’s legitimate sovereign and has Cairo’s support. Contrarily, Hemedti—with sponsorship from the UAE and authority over Sudan’s goldmines—leverages the advantage acquired from former President Omar al-Bashir’s coup-proofing procedures, which provided the RSF independence from civilian and SAF control. He not only defects Burhan’s claim but is determined to appear as the sole ruler of Sudan. 

The intricate authority dynamics of smaller, independent militias in Sudan count layers of complexity and tension, creating an anti-peace equation that external forces could easily manipulate through proxies. While Egypt, the UAE, and KSA have proven inadequate in stopping Sudan’s war, they recreate a significant role in its continuance. All three governments have strong interests in Sudan, motivating them to pick sides that will maximize their advantage, even if it undermines Sudan’s. 

Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi notices Burhan as a stable partner to protect its regional interests, especially in the Nile River, which the countries share. While Egypt has partaken in mediation efforts and formed the Neighbors of Sudan Initiative, it hasn’t been capable of leveraging its relationship with Burhan to advance toward a peace deal. Instead, it has helped the SAF’s military efforts by delivering drones and warplanes. 

In contrast, the UAE backs Hemedti and the RSF by providing military and economic assistance disguised as humanitarian assistance. Abu Dhabi serves as a monetary haven for Hemedti’s gold business, hosting RSF front businesses and bank accounts. Despite being the domain of peace efforts, the UAE has coached its influence toward aiding Hemedti’s diplomatic efforts rather than fostering negotiations. Like Egypt, KSA views Burhan as a faithful ally to safeguard its investments in Sudan’s critical sectors and its strategic stakes in the Red Sea region. However, Riyadh discovers it more beneficial to maintain its image as a neutral mediator, potentially providing it an advantage over the UAE in specifying regional dominance and appearing as a credible international partner.  

Key US legislators have emphasised the UAE’s involvement in helping the RSF, as seen during the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee for Africa listening on December 5, 2023. Earlier, members of Congress urged Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ) to UAE discontinue support for the RSF via a formal letter. Most importantly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken examined the need to ensure stability in Sudan with MBZ in January. While Egypt’s backing for SAF has also faced criticism, the involvement of Cairo and Riyadh with the warring flanks has not received sufficient attention. The external meddling of these nations has run counter to their involvement in peace measures. This must be prevented to achieve any solution in Sudan.

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