In Sudan’s fresh minted revolution it is not only the country’s old military guard, once associated with the deposed former president Omar al-Bashir, whom protesters view with deep suspicion.
Last week the Egyptian embassy in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, was also the scene of protests and chants aimed at President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “Tell Sisi,” the crowd shouted. “This is Sudan! [Egypt’s] borders stop at Aswan!”
The message of those gathered was reinforced by an equally blunt letter delivered to the embassy and aimed at other regional powers as well: keep out of Sudan’s affairs.
As talks continued yesterday between the protest movement and the Transitional Military Council over the shape of Sudan’s political future, the demonstration was stark evidence of mounting fears that Sudan’s extended political turmoil is vulnerable to being exploited by competing regional powers.
Most pressing is the worry, shared by western diplomats and protesters, that Sudan may be drawn deeper into growing confrontation in the Middle East and North Africa between, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and on the other by Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
Already the former have been quick to move.
In the aftermath of Bashir’s fall this month, a joint Saudi-UAE delegation arrived in Khartoum with the offer of $3bn in aid to help, including a large cash sum to stabilise Sudan’s currency crisis.
It was, say critics, the sweetener for a more contentious agenda dominated by ensuring continuing Sudanese support for the war in Yemen, where hundreds of Sudanese have been killed fighting with the Saudi-led coalition. The two countries, say analysts, also see an opportunity to recruit Sudan for their regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood.
And they have not been alone in making overtures. For his part, Sisi – the former army general who has set himself up as Egypt’s latest military-backed leader – staged his own intervention at a recent African Union meeting to pay lip service to the need for a quick political transition, although many suspect that what Sisi really wants is the continued influence of the military in Sudan as in his own country.
All this is worrying many protesters, who did not topple one strongman only for others to flex their muscles from abroad.
Speaking to the Observer at the weeks-old protest sit-in in Khartoum’s city centre at a pavement cafe smelling of tea and burning gum arabic, Mohammed Salah, a young organiser of the Egyptian embassy demonstration, warned of attempts by competing countries to back different factions.
“On the 24th, the day after Sisi made his comments to the African Union about Sudan’s political transition, we sat down and discussed what we should do.
“That’s when we decided to deliver a letter to the embassy asking them not to intervene in Sudan’s affairs. It appears clear that there are two groups in the military,” he added.
“One group, the more powerful, is close to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while others are closer to Qatar and Turkey. The first group is stronger, and that is the group receiving financial backing from the Saudi and the UAE, as well as political support from Egypt.”
At the Al Tayyar newspaper, which was closed down repeatedly for its opposition to Bashir, the prominent columnist Shamael al-Nour reflects Salah’s concerns, pointing out links between prominent generals on the Transitional Military Council and regional players with their own interests.
“The fall of Bashir left a complicated situation in Sudan regarding the regional issues. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the last alliances of the old regime, even if in the last few months Saudi support of Bashir regime halted.
“In his last statements, however, he said he supported Sudanese troops remaining in Yemen. What is important to note is that, after he fell, the people [in the military and intelligence services] who removed him from power and were behind the coup, they are still loyal to the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
The sensitivity of the issue was underlined last week when Mohammed al-Gizouli, the leader of an Islamist political party, was arrested briefly, immediately after giving a press conference criticising the UAE intervention in Sudan.
Although he says he was not told why he was detained, and some have pointed to a history of hardline positions, he notes it occurred immediately after his comments.
Speaking to the Observer, he said: “We don’t want any intervention from any side, whether it is Turkey or Qatar on one side or Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE.
“What happened here is a Sudanese revolution, but we welcome any country if it wants to support economically, but not politically.”
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