Explainer: How regional power play complicates Sudan's political transition

Ceremony to sign framework agreement between military rulers and civilian powers in Khartoum
Sudan's military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stands at the podium during a ceremony to sign the framework agreement between military rulers and civilian powers in Khartoum, Sudan December 5, 2022. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

KHARTOUM, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Sudanese political parties are engaged in talks to form a civilian government and start a new transition towards elections, more than a year after a military coup.

Protesters criticised an outline agreement struck between the military and civilians groups as unrepresentative, and it left contentious points for further negotiations.

Manoeuvring by regional powers looking to secure their interests in Sudan have loomed over efforts to chart the country's political future.


Sudan began a transition to democracy after a popular uprising and the ouster in April 2019 of President Omar al-Bashir, an Islamist shunned by the West who had presided over the country for nearly three decades.

Under an August 2019 agreement, the military agreed to share power with officials appointed by civilian political groups ahead of elections.

But that arrangement was abruptly halted by a military coup in October 2021, which triggered a campaign of frequent pro-democracy mass rallies across Sudan.

The military has been a dominant force in Sudan since independence in 1956, waging protracted internal wars, staging repeated coups, and amassing extensive economic holdings.


Sudan is in a volatile region, bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. Five of its seven neighbours -- Ethiopia, Chad, Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan -- have been affected by recent political upheavals and conflict.

Western powers are keen to prevent any major instability in Sudan that could spill over.

Egypt, another neighbour and home to a large Sudanese migrant and refugee population, is wary of political change in Sudan and supports army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the 2021 takeover.

After the coup, the African Union suspended Sudan.


A group of four countries known as the Quad -- the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- have tried to drive international efforts to find a political solution in Sudan, along with the United Nations, the AU and African trade bloc IGAD.

Egypt, which has the deepest historical ties with Sudan, is not included in that group and has pursued a parallel track with political factions close to Sudan's military.

Though Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo's arch foe, deeply permeated Sudan's military under Bashir, Egypt sees them as less of a risk than a democratic breakthrough on its doorstep, diplomats and analysts say.


In contrast to the Egyptian position, the United Arab Emirates saw the coup that toppled Bashir as a chance to further roll back the Muslim Brotherhood, which it thinks retains a strong influence in Sudan's army and presents an existential threat to the entire region.

Abu Dhabi put its trust instead in former militia leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and second in command on Sudan's ruling council. Hemedti, a former herder who made a fortune trading gold, is arguably the most powerful man in the country.

Hemedti, who has also forged ties in countries including Russia and Turkey, has swung behind the plan for a new transition to civilian rule. Analysts see his push for elections and campaign-style trips across the country as signs he is looking to entrench himself in Sudanese politics long term – a move that would deepen his rivalry with the army.

In December, UAE-owned Abu Dhabi Ports announced a major investment in a new port on Sudan's Red Sea, as well as accompanying projects.


Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia wants Sudan to wipe out Islamist influence and is eyeing investments in agriculture and other sectors across the Red Sea to its west.

The most powerful Arab state has long-standing ties to Burhan, but is also indebted to the RSF for fighting on its side against the Iran-aligned Houthis in the Yemen war.

In a struggle for regional influence, it fears that Sudan might let Russia, Turkey or the UAE control ports on its Red Sea coast.


The United States says it wants a stable and secure Sudan that can emerge from economic isolation now that U.S. sanctions imposed during Bashir's rule have been lifted.

It is also trying to counter Russia's influence in Sudan and the wider region. Moscow cultivated ties with Bashir before forging links with Hemedti.

Russia is investing in gold in Sudan and has been trying to finalise an agreement to establish a naval base on Sudan's Red Sea coast.

After the 2021 coup, the United States and Western donors, which had gradually put more weight behind a democratic transition following Bashir's overthrow, froze their financial support for Khartoum.

Writing by Michael Georgy and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Christina Fincher

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