Behind power grabs in Sudan and Tunisia, the shadow of Gulf monarchies

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This has been a bumper year for coups. By one tabulation, there have been more successful regime power grabs in 2021 than in the previous five years combined. The Myanmar junta was the leader in thwarting the fledgling democracy of Myanmar and keeping its top civilian leaders detained. West Africa’s army soldiers in Mali and Chad carried out their own putches to overthrow the sitting governments.

And then you have Tunisia and Sudan. The former is characterized by a slow-motion coup that began in July when President Kais Salih fired the prime minister and disbanded parliament under widespread unrest. He also assumed unprecedented powers. A decade after a Tunisian uprising unseated a long-ruling dictator, the country finds itself in a kind of autocratic limbo, with obituaries already being written for what was the lone success story of the Arab Spring.

In Sudan, roiling tensions over the past month between a fragile civilian leadership and the powerful military exploded in the beginning of this week when the army launched a coup, detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the rest of his cabinet, dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency. Like Saied and other would-be strongmen before him, Sudan’s highest military officer, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, described his action as an effort to promote stability and progress.

In a briefing Tuesday, Burhan waved away reports of arrests of numerous civilian officials and attacks on pro-democracy activists by the security forces. “Certain individuals have been put in custody — those individuals believed to undermine national unity and national security,” he said. “We are not muzzling mouths, we are blocking any voice [that] directly undermines our national harmony.”

The military’s intervention, for now, interrupts a shaky democratic process that began almost three years ago with massive protests against long-ruling dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The protest movement, which represented a vast cross-section of Sudanese society, managed to unseat Bashir in April 2019 after key figures in Sudan’s security establishment turned on the president. After months of diplomatic turmoil, Sudan emerged from the cold by mending relations with some Western countries and removing itself from the United States’ list of state sponsors.

But those gains were always fragile. “Sudan’s military and civilian leaders had been sharing power in a shaky arrangement weakened by mutual suspicion and disagreements on fundamental questions such as who to hold to account for decades of atrocities committed under Bashir and whether the military should be able to control parts of the economy,” explained my colleague Max Bearak. “Players both old and new are vying for power in a Sudan that seems up for grabs.”

Burhan’s coup took place just hours after the American envoy to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, had departed from the Sudanese capital Khartoum after meetings with the country’s top civilian and military leaders. A stung Biden administration condemned the chain of events and said it was freezing $700 million in direct assistance to Sudan, which was promised as part of a U.S. plan to assist the country’s democratic transition.

But Burhan, who has the tacit backing of a number of Arab autocracies elsewhere, is in a strong position. Magdi El-Gizouli, an analyst from the Rift Valley institute, said that Burhan may be able pull it off with support from other allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Emiratis. He isn’t a pariah as Bashir was, and he is not an Islamist. He will find a new, more pliant civilian face, he will maintain formalities, and the West will simply end up dealing with that person.”

That trio — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — also cheered Saied’s gambit. The Tunisian president had a disagreement with Ennahda, an Islamist party whose historical affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood earned it the hatred of inveterate anti Islamists. As Saied’s transitional government struggles to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund to make up for a major budget deficit, reports suggest that he’s already in talks with the petro-rich Emiratis and Saudis for a bailout.

Analysts suggest that Gulf royal largesse already strengthened Sudan’s military in its maneuverings after Bashir’s fall. “Financial support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave the generals crucial leeway to resist popular demands for civilian rule, shaping a lopsided balance of power that allowed the generals to navigate a period of mass mobilization,” wrote Sudan scholar Jean-Baptiste Gallopin. “The Emirates’ covert financial flows subsequently earned them unparalleled leverage across large segments the political spectrum, which helped the generals … consolidate their power.”

Now, experts argue any hope for restoring Sudan’s democratic prospects may require exerting pressure on these Arab powers. “The Gulf monarchies and Egypt, which of all outside powers have forged the tightest links with Burhan and the military, should urge authorities to exercise restraint rather than resort to indiscriminate force,” noted a policy memo from the International Crisis Group. “The U.S. and EU should use the considerable leverage they have with Gulf capitals and Cairo to convince them to push the generals in Khartoum to change course.”

“The regional Arab governments and Sudanese politicians who support the new military rule will be unmasked in the coming weeks, and as they are, Washington and other parties need to make clear that there are consequences for supporting a rogue regime,” noted Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. chief of mission in Sudan. Initial public comments by Cairo, Doha and Abu Dhabi have been muted. But all of these states will need to balance between their individual agendas for Sudan and their complicated relations with the West.”

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