Sudan at a foreign policy crossroads, hesitates to make choices

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Signs Khartoum may be changing course away from wavering.

Making choices. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) meets with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Deputy Head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC), last March. (DPA)

Sudan’s transitional council has tried to adopt neutral foreign policies for about ten months now, but the results have been disappointing.

The transitional authority, with its twin branches the Sovereign Council and the government, and behind them the alliance of the forces of freedom and change, has avoided taking a stance on Sudan’s relationship with countries supporting extremist Islamist organisations that were behind many of the attempts of former regime supporters to return to power.

This has encouraged countries such as Turkey and Qatar to continue to support the Sudanese Islamist movement and its tributaries that still represent an imminent threat to the new authorities of Khartoum.

At the same time, the transitional authority has maintained good relations with the camp hostile to both Doha and Ankara, which is made up of Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

While the Doha-Ankara camp was quite happy with the Sudanese formula of keeping the status quo, the other camp was not amused. It considered it a fraud that reflected a hidden desire to continue operating in the same opportunistic manner as former President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which played on multiple strings at the same time.

The transitional authority did not completely embrace the axis supporting terrorism, but nevertheless kept open relations with it. It did the same with the opposite camp, which has shown a strong willingness to support the post-al-Bashir phase. In the end, the transitional authority seems to  have wavered between the two camps without achieving concrete results with either.

Khartoum likes to think of its neither-this-nor-that approach as a kind of useful flexibility, while observers describe it as a kind of harmful confusion. On the one hand, it encourages countries that have had good relations with the Bashir regime to target the new authorities and their institutions. On the other hand, it stops those who want to develop their current relations with the new authorities from accelerating their positive steps for fear of a setback midway.

Lately, however, Khartoum seems to have realised the wisdom of reconsidering its approach. It has decided to correct course on its foreign policy, starting with the Ethiopian scene. A few days ago, it turned down Addis Ababa’s proposal to complete a bilateral and partial agreement regarding the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced his adherence to the tripartite negotiations, in other words involving Egypt as well, and called for the completion of the process started by the previous rounds of negotiations. What this means is that Sudan has given up what was described as its relation of “dependence” on Ethiopia in the latter’s crisis with Egypt.

Hamdok’s message was understood to indicate that Khartoum was reconsidering its position on the crisis, not out of love for Egypt, of course, but because Sudan has finally come to the conclusion that continuing with its former policy will harm its own water interests as well.

The transitional authority may end up staying in office beyond the 38-months period specified by the constitution. This is quite likely given the existing challenges and difficulties ahead in settling many files, especially as little concrete results have so far been accomplished. In other words, the temporary governing bodies may remain in place for a period during which temporary and piecemeal policies are of no value.

Choosing to take firm decisions on certain matters will undoubtedly lead to either greater or lesser citizen confidence in the transitional authority, depending on the outcomes. Positive outcomes will lead to greater confidence and vice versa. The transitional authority is then called upon to imagine scenarios where it will remain in power for a longer period and needs to free itself from the shackles that have restrained it so far, under the pretext that transitional stages require temporary visions and must avoid adopting categorical positions.

It remains to be seen what choice Sudanese leaders make. The losses incurred by Khartoum due to delay, caution, or hesitation have been disastrous for the country, while boldness, decisiveness and rigour in determining directions can put Sudan’s feet firmly on the path of real progress.

Mohamed Aboelfadl is an Egyptian writer.

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