Recent coup in Sudan taking place amid escalation of tensions in Red Sea

Sudanese flag

There has been a coup in Sudan. The military seized the capital city of Khartoum and has arrested several civilian leaders. Last week the African Union Chairman Faki Mahamat expressed “deep dismay” over the situation and called for the arrested authorities to be released. The AU has suspended the country’s participation in all of its activities until civil-led authority is restored. The military coup seems to have been backed by Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The UN Security Council set an emergency closed-door meeting to discuss the matter on Tuesday – but the general tone has been that it is too early to know what the impact of it will be.

On the beginning of the month, the US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman visited Sudan to pressure it into making reforms under civilian authority, in a democratic manner or else bilateral ties could be harmed. Now, with the coup in course, Washington has suspended its aid. The World Bank too has freezed Sudan aid. The new development marks the end of the Sudanese honeymoon with Washington – which already had its problems. It also marks the failure of US diplomacy and its interference in Sudanese affairs.

In early October, a Sudanese delegation was said to secretly visit Israel, to discuss bilateral ties. An unnamed diplomat has just stated the coup will not affect the issue of Israel normalization. However, it can certainly impact a number of regional issues.

North Africa is right now a boiling pan, from coast to coast, with a number of proxy conflicts and geopolitical competition. Libya, for example, is the arena of such, with neighboring Egyptian attempts to counter Turkish influence there. Libya’s other neighbor, Algeria, in turn, is involved in a bitter quarrel with its own western neighbor Morocco, over the issue of the Sahrawi region and both countries accuse each other of funding rebels in their territories. A similar situation is also taking place within the northern part of the Horn of Africa, where Sudan is located.

Due to its strategic location, Sudan is very important for stability in the whole Horn of Africa and Sahel region. Even after losing much of its territory in 2011, to the new Republic of Southern Sudan, it remains the third largest country in Africa, after Algeria and Congo. To its north, it is connected to its neighbor Egypt, not just by the border, but by the Nile River as well. The Nile two tributaries actually merge at Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum. To its northeast, the country is also at the immensely important Red Sea. It thus links the North African/Middle East region to Europe.

In October 1993, Omar al-Bashir rose to power in Sudan through a military coup and was the head of state of Sudan until the April 2019 coup toppled him, after massive protests against his rule. 2019 marked the end of three decades of global isolation, with Sudan also being removed from the US list of states sponsors of terrorism and with economic aid – so far blocked – being made available. From then on, the country strengthened its relations with US, Israel, and also with Russia. The current coup might throw the country back into international isolation again. Christian minorities in the country are concerned about threats to their religious freedom.

The truth is that with the fall of Bashir, many different actors (such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE) turned their eyes to Sudan, each with its own agenda and each seeking to project its influence in the Red Sea. In 2020, Sudan became one of the Middle East countries which normalized relations with Israel. This in itself is a divisive issue in the African continent.

Another hot issue is that Sudan and Ethiopia have been near a conflict over water and the disputed land of al-Fashqa for over a year. The GERD project (the Great Renaissance Dam of Ethiopia) threatens agriculture in both Egypt and Sudan, authorities in these two countries claim. In fact, Sudan also claims to have repelled Ethiopian troops in September, after an Ethiopian advance into the al-Fashaqa region – an event which the Ethiopian authorities, in turn, denied.

Thus, both Egypt and Ethiopia are important stakeholders regarding the future of Sudan, albeit in opposing sides. According to Jonas Horner, an expert at the International Crisis Group, Ethiopia hopes for a civilian transition in the Republic of Sudan. This is so, he argues, because the Ethiopian authorities in Addis Ababa feel that in this case they could better dialogue with Khartoum to promote their interests in building the dam.

While diplomatic talks pertaining to this issue have ceased, Ethiopia is planning for the third filling of its GERD reservoir. The project has become a matter of Ethiopian national pride, as a means to increase its regional influence, turning the country into an exporter of hydroelectric power. Meanwhile, the country is also buying Turkish military drones, which could be employed against the rebels in Tigray. This has further alarmed Egypt, which already sees Turkish military presence in Libya as a national security issue and therefore sees with suspicion any military aspect in Turkish-Ethiopian relations.

Egypt clearly favors military rule in its neighbor Sudan, under the belief that the military would oppose Addis Ababa’s plans more effectively.

In this complex interlock of regional proxy conflicts and diplomatic struggle, Ethiopia, in its turn, has plenty of reasons to fear military rule in Sudan. For one thing, the Sudanese military could be much more inclined to support the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in its struggle against Addis Ababa’s government. The coup in Khartoum, after all, is taking place at a time when Ethiopia is experiencing its own persistent domestic crisis with an ongoing civil war over ethnic disputes, and such has already caused a humanitarian disaster. In June, the rebels took control of Meleke city, the capital of Tigray’s province.

The TPLF has also been making incursions into the territory of Eritrea, which borders their province, in an attempt to expand the space controlled by them. Ethiopia’s civil war is in part an outcome of its own foreign policy pertaining to Eritrea, which is considered by the TPLF an enemy of the people of Tigray.

To sum it up, the latest developments in Khartoum take place amid a complex scenario of hostilities involving Egypt and its neighbor Sudan itself against Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea-Ethiopia tensions. Moreover, actors from outside the region, such as Turkey, also play a major role in this game, further enhancing tensions. Such a regional reality has impacts in the African Union as a whole – and these institutions as of now is unfortunately not strong enough to be an arbiter of conflicts.

Uriel Araujo is researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor