Internal armed rebellion against Khartoum has been endemic since Sudan’s independence from the UK and Egypt in 1956. Last April, rebels brought the fight ever closer temporarily capturing the town of Abu Karshola and attacking Um Ruwaba town in North Kordofan state distancing only 300 miles from the capital.
As the scenario of armed resistance to Khartoum continues, one question carries deep implications for peace in the country. How have Arab states historically dealt with conflict and rebellion in their backyard and can they be effective peace brokers in Sudan?
Arab states have historically failed to understand the true nature of armed rebellion in Sudan and as a result have reacted to it with damaging paranoia. The geopolitical importance of Sudan to the Arab world along with its unique ethnic and cultural makeup may explain why Arab nations have always sided with Khartoum against the oppressed and rebellious peripheries of the country especially in the South and the West. In order for Arab nations to meaningfully influence the peace process in Sudan, they must see armed rebellion as a bitter part of a turbulent post-colonial nation-building project involving multiple interests and trajectories.
While rebels from Darfur and South Kordofan have dominant African lineage, they also speak Arabic and are overridingly Muslim
There is often a tendency among Arab governments to lend a blind support to their counterparts in the region against any internal challenges they face to their authority. Supporting Libyan and Syrian rebels during the Arab Awakening is perhaps an exception to a rule of thumb among Arab states, which in the past guaranteed official support to governments in Algeria, Oman and Yemen during the civil war. Such position by the authoritarian regimes of the Arab region was hardly surprising as the success of any rebellion in the region would have threatened their own legitimacy as well, especially those rebellions based on democratic grievances.
The Sudan is a case on point. Since the first armed rebellion broke out in 1955, Arab countries have always extended a helping hand to the central government in Khartoum*. Although countries like Egypt and Qatar have engaged Sudanese rebels and on different occasions sponsored peace talks, these countries have also continued to provide financial and political support to successive governments in Khartoum.
Unequivocal Support for Khartoum
There are a few factors, which might explain Arabs’ unwavering support to Khartoum against rebels in other parts of the country. Up until its breakup in 2011, Sudan had been a unique case in the Arab world. Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Sudan had one of the largest, if not the largest in terms of sheer numbers, Christian community in the Arab region comprising the Copts of the North and the many other Christian denominations of the South. Sudan is also unique in terms of its diverse ethnic and cultural compositions manifested in its plethora of tribes and the tens of other written and oral languages and dialects spoken in the country besides Arabic. In the ethnic and cultural sense, Sudan had been an anomaly among other Arab nations with the majority of its Arabic speaking population being of direct black African ancestry.
The independence of Sudan from the UK and Egypt coincided with the peak of an overzealous and aggressive Pan-Arab nationalist project, which in 1958 saw the short-lived political unification of Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic. The nervous pioneers of Arab nationalism had always apprehended the uniqueness of Sudan among the rest of Arab nations and Khartoum had skillfully indulged their paranoid imaginations with its tenacious framing of internal conflict in Sudan along religious, ethnic and cultural lines. It is, perhaps, that same exclusionary strand of Pan-Arabism, which had once allowed Baghdad to deal with the Kurds in much the same fashion Khartoum had dealt with Southerners.
When the first rebellion in Sudan broke out in 1955 as the Anyanya guerilla movement, the central government in Khartoum quickly played into both the fears and elation accompanying the Pan-Arab zeal of the time.
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While the Anyanya rebellion was fundamentally about autonomy and representation** for the predominately animist and Christian southern part of the country, the central government in Khartoum casted a completely different picture of the conflict to its Arab neighbors. Khartoum portrayed the rebellion as a challenge to the Arab identity in Sudan in order to seek political and financial support from the Arab world against the rebels. Since then, subsequent central governments in Khartoum have followed suit employing the same game of conspiracy scares and manipulation to devour support from the Arab world.
While Arab nationalism was a strong motivating force for Arab states to support Khartoum against its internal conflict, the geopolitical importance of Sudan has also served a similar purpose. The security of Egypt’s water resources is tied to the Nile, which flows over Sudan before reaching Egypt. Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab region, always feared that an independent South Sudan might be a threat to its water security and those fears clearly manifested in the recent diplomatic row involving Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia where the Blue Nile originates.
An Arab Sudan also ensures that the Red Sea, with its strategic commercial and military significance, remains predominantly under the control of Arab nations. Furthermore, Sudan is the gate to sub-Saharan Africa and can serve as a pivot for intercultural and commercial exchange between the Arab world and the African continent. Therefore, from the perspective of the ‘willfully blind’ and paranoid Arab world, supporting Sudan has long meant supporting those in the country who have held up the pan-Arab banner the highest.
It is not a coincidence or a surprise then that successive central governments in Sudan have manufactured, nourished and monopolized the “the–threat-to-Arab identity” pretext for their wars against the peripheries while being unable to respond to their legitimate demands for equitable development and sharing of power.
Can Arab states become effective peace brokers in Sudan?
With the separation of South Sudan, it has become increasingly difficult for Khartoum to peddle the ethnic, cultural and religious cards when mobilizing political support against armed rebellion in the country. While rebels from Darfur and South Kordofan have dominant African lineage, they also speak Arabic and are overridingly Muslim. Therefore, it is difficult for Khartoum to politically distort them using religious, ethnic and cultural rhetoric like it used to do with the Southerners. Arab states may indeed wish to take note that also Arab-speaking and Muslim Sudanese have deep grievances against Khartoum and not just the animist and Christian Southerners. This would hopefully enable Arab nations to free themselves from the ‘Arab versus African’ dichotomy with which they came to understand armed conflict in Sudan.
In order for Arab states to play an effective role in building peace in Sudan, they must be able to see rebellion in the country as part of an ongoing nation-building project that began with independence and which involves defining the social, cultural, political and economic facets of post-colonial Sudan. This nation-building process, which many countries in Africa and the Middle East have undergone following decolonization, has been extremely turbulent in the case of Sudan resulting in, among other disasters, the longest civil war in Africa and the break up of the country in 2011.
Seeing conflict in Sudan as a bitter part of an unfolding nation-building exercise has at least two distinct advantages for peace. First, the lenses of culture and ethnicity through which conflict in Sudan has long been seen by the world will diminish in favor of an understanding that emphasizes the concentration of wealth and power in the center of the country and the neglect of the periphery throughout Sudan’s post-colonial history. Such reading of conflict in Sudan brings the lost attention back to issues of civil rights and resource distribution, as should be the case.
Second, once stakeholders acknowledge and agree that the nation is still in a state of formation, they are more likely to opt for a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to nation building where multiple identities and trajectories can co-exist. The hope is that a paranoid Arab world will come to understand and appreciate the fact that being an Arab, while a necessary component of the colorful Sudanese identity, is not the only ingredient nor is it a prerequisite of a lasting strategic relationship between Sudan and the rest of the Arab World.
* This sentiment is common among observers of Sudanese politics who also often accuse Arab countries of being biased peace brokers. Academics such as Mahmoud Mamdani have also stressed this observation to a degree in his book about Darfur entitled Saviors and Survivors.
** See page 12 of the document