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Israel’s short-sighted support for Sudan’s military coup leaders

An embrace from this despotic, corrupt and incompetent African regime isn't an asset for Israel – it's an embarrassment
Thousands of protesters take to the streets to renew their demand for a civilian government in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021 (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)
Thousands of protesters take to the streets to renew their demand for a civilian government in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021 (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Natan Sharansky has called on Israel to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and help support Ukraine’s democratic regime despite the possibility that Putin might retaliate by limiting Israel’s freedom to attack Hizballah targets in Syria.

It is now time for Israel to back the Sudanese people’s pro-democracy non-violent revolution. Unlike the situation with Russia, Israel has nothing to lose in supporting Sudan’s democratic forces over Sudan’s military rulers.

Since first coming to power in April 2019, Abdel Fattah Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hameti), the architects of the military coup that toppled the Bachir regime, have shown that they will not willingly give up power and privileges gained during the Bachir regime.

Shortly after the coup, tens of thousands of Sudanese joined a sit-in rejecting military rule in front of the army’s central headquarters in Khartoum. The protestors reflected the popularity, diversity, and inclusiveness of the pro-democracy movement and encompassed: women and youth heading local resistance committees in every region of the country; railway workers: doctors, lawyers, scientists, and university professors decrying deficiencies in public, health, education and legal services; farmers angry at the expropriation of their land; imams preaching religious freedom; rebel groups and African civilian populations in besieged villages and IDP camps; artists, poets, and musicians; and brave journalists fighting censorship, exposing corruption and documenting human right violations.

The pro-democracy resistance movement enjoys the support of approximately 80% of Sudan’s citizens who are calling for an end to racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, and oppression of women. “We are Darfur” has become a popular slogan.

On June 3, 2019, Burhan gave orders to dispel the sit-in demanding an end to military rule. Hameti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSP) led the onslaught firing on unarmed protesters, killing, and wounding hundreds, beating, and arresting protestors and bystanders, raping women, and destroying facilities set up to provide food, shelter, and medical treatment to the peaceful sit-in participants.

Though breaking up the sit-ins, the June 3 massacre failed to crush the people’s pro-democracy resistance. Over the next two months, mass demonstrations continued throughout the country. In response to international pressure, Burhan and Hameti promised to share power with a civilian government in August 2021and to transfer full powers to a civilian government in November 2021.

During the designated interim period, the coup leaders retained full control over the security services and used their power to block implementation of reforms initiated by the civilian government. This enabled them to thwart efforts to end military control of key economic sectors and prosecute the perpetrators of the June 3 massacre. The Sudanese army and RSF also failed to protect African civilian populations in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains against vicious attacks by Arab militias close to Hameti.

On October 25, 2021, Burhan and Hameti launched a second coup to prevent the promised transfer of power to a civilian government. After dissolving the civilian government and placing the prime minister under house arrest, they shut down social media, jailed and tortured protest leaders and journalists and used beatings, teargas, firearms, and heavy weapons to break up almost daily mass demonstrations.

Within Sudan, the military regime offered prominent government posts to gain the support of opportunistic politicians and marginal rebel leaders in legitimizing military rule and control over the transition to civilian government. To bolster their control over government, the coup leaders set free jailed Islamists and National Congress Party officials linked to the Bachir regime to replace government officials appointed by the civilian government. At the same time, they ended he contracts of thousands of younger military officers deemed sympathetic to the people’s non-violent revolution.

In calling for national elections to include participation of all political forces within the country (including political parties and organizations aligned with the Bachir regime) the military regime claims that its commitment to a democratic transition is real. However, retention of military control over the electoral process will ensure rigged elections and result in the restoration and legitimization of a despotic, corrupt, and incompetent Bachir-like regime without Bachir.

Bolstered by political and military support from Russia, China, and Egypt, and financial backing from Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Burhan and Hameti defiantly refuse to transfer political power to any civilian government not under their control.

Russia provides arms, political support, and advice concerning how to crush Sudan’s democratic opposition. Like Bachir, Sudan’s military rulers continue to count heavily on Russia as its strongest ally to protect them from international sanctions and pressures. As a reward, they offer permission for Russia to establish a naval base in Sudan. While in Russia on a diplomatic mission, Hameti shamelessly parroted Putin’s rationale for Russia’s invasion as wholly justified.

The Israeli government is mistaken in supporting Sudan’s military rulers and its claims to be the only force strong enough to bring about peace and stability in Sudan and the region. On the contrary, since taking power in April 2019 coup, Sudan’s rulers have been a major cause of the region’s violence, instability, and the growing misery of the Sudanese people. The military regime has failed to make peace or protect besieged civilian populations in IDP camps. Since the coup, the level of violence has sharply increased as heavily armed Arab militia allied with the regime have been encouraged to attack non-Arab civilian populations in Darfur and the Nuba mountains with impunity. Since the coup, the UN reports that the number of Sudanese citizens requiring humanitarian aid has doubled from eight to sixteen million people.

The Israeli government is also short-sighted in seeing “normalization” with a despotic, corrupt, and incompetent African military regime as a strategic asset. Rather than welcoming recognition and closer diplomatic relations from Sudan’s coup leaders, Israel should be embarrassed by their embrace. Continued political support to Sudan’s coup leaders and their increasingly brutal repression of Sudan’s non-violent revolution will discredit Israel’s moral standing not only in Sudan but elsewhere in Africa where progressive forces are emerging to oppose corrupt and autocratic regimes.

Israel needs to change course and back Sudan’s pro-democracy forces over a military regime aligned with and emulating Putin’s methods. The United States Congress has overwhelmingly just passed a resolution urging the Biden administration to impose strong targeted sanctions on Sudan’s military rulers and to marshal support from other democratic countries to force Sudan’s military to return to the barracks and transfer power to a civilian government supported by the Sudanese people. Israel has little to lose and much to gain by aligning its policy in Sudan with our most powerful ally.

Nathan Sharansky has urged Israel to support Ukraine as part of the battle to defend freedom and democracy in the world. We in Israel should also be urging our government to defend freedom and democracy in Sudan as well.

About the Author
Sheldon Gellar is a Jerusalem-based Africanist scholar and international democracy and development consultant. His work is based on research and lessons learned from living in five different cultures, Metropolitan New York, the American Mid-West, France, Africa, and Israel.
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