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Could Turkey arbitrate between opposing sides in Sudan's political crisis?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 29 Apr 2019

Experts say Ankara can play an important role in shaping the Sudanese political crisis and also limit the authoritarian influence of both the Saudi-UAE led Gulf and Egypt.

Protesters wait for a train from Atbara, the birthplace of the uprising that toppled Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir, carrying residents travelling to the capital Khartoum, on April 23, 2019. ( Umit Bektas / Reuters )

As Sudanese protests show no signs of abating, the Saudi-led Gulf bloc is working hard to build influence in the troubled country. 

Although Sudan's new Transitional Military Council (TMC) ousted Omar al Bashir in a coup and sought to broker a compromise with protesters, the Saudi-led Gulf bloc sent substantial financial aid to the military council.

The offer faced blowback however. Many leading protesters snubbed it, warning both Saudi and UAE against interfering in Sudan's internal problems. 

Experts say there's now a window open for Turkey and Qatar, as anti-Saudi and UAE sentiment is running high in Sudan. 

“Turkey can play a very important role in Sudan," said Khalid Mustafa Medani, a political science professor, who is also the chair of African studies program at McGill University.

"A few weeks ago, the Turkish ambassador to Sudan came out and supported protesters and opposition. Turkey is a very important country for Sudan because it has a lot of investments along with Qatar on Suakin Island in the Red Sea area. They have invested a great deal of money in Sudan."

Medani said Turkey has a strategic interest in Sudan to balance the Saudi-led Gulf’s influence in the country. 

Turkey has opposed the Saudi-led Gulf policies across the Middle East, from their embargo of gas-rich Qatar in 2017 to their support for the Egyptian military coup, which overthrew the country’s first democratically-elected government and its president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. 

The Suakin Island is considered as Ottoman heritage site in Sudan. Turkey has invested a considerable amount of money to restore the historical site.(AA)

Medani said that protesters are strongly against any Saudi-UAE involvement in Sudanese politics and if they are able to convince the military council to agree to most of their demands, the Saudi-UAE-Egypt bloc’s influence in Sudan will start to wane. 

There have been widespread protests, condemning pro-military stances of both the Saudi-UAE alliance and Egypt in Sudan, where demonstrators have been increasingly vocal against any outside intervention. 

Opposition forces have protested Egypt’s stance in front of the country’s embassy in Khartoum, said Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar, who is currently serving as a senior policy advisor for the Enough Project. 

President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who orchestrated the military coup against Morsi and his government, has been “very supportive of Omar al Bashir until the very last moment”, Baldo said. 

The protesters’ main message to the outside world is not to interfere in Sudan’s internal affairs, according to Baldo, who also thinks that because of historical ties, the Sudanese want to see Turkey’s presence continue in the country. 

Turkey’s approach to the crisis appears to be low-profile involvement so far, Baldo said, indicating that Ankara’s approach towards the crisis is diplomatically smart. 

While opposition forces have recently signalled that they are striving for a swift transition to civilian rule, there appears to be a political rapprochement between the council and the main opposition group leading the protests after a brief interruption of negotiations, according to Sudanese commentators. 

“They [the protest leaders] won’t accept anything less than a civilian government,” Medani said, adding that the EU and the US have also been backing a civilian government in Sudan. 

Despite the Saudi-UAE-led effort to keep the military council in power, opposition forces still want to maintain their relations with both the Saudi-led Gulf and Turkey, Medani believes. 

“The influence of Turkey is very important and it will not go away soon,” Medani said. 

Turkey, which has opposed the spread of Saudi-led authoritarianism, along with its Gulf ally Qatar, need to step up to help stabilise Sudan, helping the country’s transition to a democratic civilian rule, said Mayada Kamal Eldeed, a Turkey-based Sudanese researcher and a member of the African Coordination and Education Center in Istanbul. 

“The Sudanese people have much expectation from Turkey and they urgently need Turkey’s help at the moment,” Eldeed said. 

Ahmad McLad, an opposition politician, living in exile in Australia, has recently conducted a Twitter survey on which alliance Sudan should be aligned. While only 17 percent supported the Saudi-UAE axis, 47 percent preferred to be allied with the Turkey-Qatar alliance, according to the survey results.

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