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As Sudan Fighting Escalates, Displacing 3 Million in 3 Months, Peace Talks Must Include Civil Society

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The United Nations has warned that Sudan is on the brink of a “full-scale civil war” as fighting between the military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has forced over 3 million people from their homes. After multiple failed ceasefires, Egypt is hosting a summit this week with the goal to “develop effective mechanisms” with neighboring countries to settle the conflict. Sudanese activist Marine Alneel says Sudanese civilians are in the midst of a deadly healthcare crisis as hospitals have been shut down and medical supplies are severely limited. Alneel warns of an impending famine and a potential shelter and housing scarcity due to the upcoming rainy season. We also go to Cairo to speak with Khalid Mustafa Medani, chair of the African Studies Program at McGill University, who calls the fighting “a drastic escalation” and warns the ​​negotiations in Egypt are following the same fatal mistakes as those that occurred after the Sudanese military ousted President Omar al-Bashir by focusing on military leaders instead of including civil leaders, activists and neighbors in the region.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to Sudan. After three months of fighting between the Sudanese military and a powerful paramilitary force, the United Nations warns Sudan is on the brink of a “full-scale civil war” that could destabilize the entire region. Egypt is hosting a summit this week with the goal to, quote, “develop effective mechanisms” with neighboring countries to settle conflict. On Monday, Sudan’s army-aligned Foreign Ministry rejected a proposal at a regional summit in Jeddah to deploy peacekeeping forces to protect civilians.

The latest fighting is focused on Omdurman, a city just across the Nile from the capital Khartoum, that’s a key supply route for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Sudan’s Health Ministry said Saturday a strike by fighter jets in Omdurman left 22 people dead.

The fighting first erupted in April in Khartoum and has now driven nearly 3 million people from their homes, including more than 700,000 who have fled to neighboring countries like Chad, where the World Food Programme says 20,000 refugees arrived just last week. This is their representative in Chad, Pierre Honnorat.

PIERRE HONNORAT: I’ve rarely seen such an important crisis with so little funding. It’s a constant flow, and the ones that are coming now are in much worse situations than those who arrived in the first days.

AMY GOODMAN: Many of those fleeing Sudan are seriously wounded. Survivors have reported a wave of sexual violence, ethnically targeted killings. This is a Sudanese refugee named Mocktar speaking to the United Nations Refugee Agency after he fled to Chad.

MOCKTAR: [translated] I was shot in the back. I’m waiting for treatment. Sudan is being emptied of its population every day. We all fled to Chad. There have been many deaths in Sudan. Those who have arrived in Chad are fewer in number.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a new report from Human Rights Watch documents the burned towns and villages in West Darfur and accuses the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and allied Arab militias of, quote, “the total destruction” of a town and executing dozens of people there.

For more on all of this, we’re joined by two guests. Marine Alneel is a Sudanese activist who’s usually based in Khartoum. She’s now joining us from Muscat, Oman. And in Cairo, Khalid Mustafa Medani is an associate professor of political science and Islamic studies, chair of the African Studies Program, as well as the director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Canada. He’s from Sudan.

Let’s begin with you, Professor. You’re now in Cairo, actually where these talks are taking place. Can you talk about what’s happening on the ground and what’s happening in Egypt?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Well, on the ground, I think you covered it very well, Amy. First of all, thank you once again for this coverage.

On the ground, as you said, the situation since early this month has really escalated. In terms of the capital city itself, of course, I think that gentleman that was interviewed in Chad put it exactly right. It’s really a strategy of depopulation of the capital city, the complete decimation of the infrastructure, the complete absence now of food and medicine, the targeting and the destruction of food markets, and, of course, the kind of scramble on the part of both the militia and the Sudan Armed Forces, as you put it so well, to really try to monopolize the supply routes as the stalemate between these two leaders really continues. So, the struggle now here is to take over physically the territory of the capital city, but also, of course, to secure supply routes in order to continue this conflict, because both of them are, of course, devastating the country, but, essentially, not winning the war.

In addition to that, since early this month, we’ve had, of course, unbelievable massacres, looting, all sorts of humanitarian crimes or crimes against humanity, particularly in Central Darfur, in El Geneina. Seventy percent of that population in El Geneina, the capital of West/Central Darfur, has been essentially depopulated, with thousands fleeing.

And I want to add, unfortunately, another thing: an expansion of the war into the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as the insurgent organization, led by the insurgent leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu, has basically attacked Sudan Armed Forces. So, here we have an expansion not only in terms of the devastation of the infrastructure in the capital city, you know, the fight over supply routes in Omdurman and also El Obeid, a central city between Darfur and Khartoum, but also the expansion on the ground with respect to the insurgency, as the kind of insurgency in the southern part of Sudan now is fighting al-Burhan, the leader of the Sudan Armed Forces. So, this is a drastic escalation.

I do want to add also, the 700,000 — much more, actually — that have tried to flee or have fled have been the fortunate ones. Now we see countries — Egypt, Chad and others, Ethiopia — who are restricting the passage of refugees across the borders, essentially holding the Sudanese population even more hostage in the context of this war.

In terms of Egypt, of course, tomorrow, as you mentioned, there’s going to be yet another kind of roundtable of negotiations, bringing in supposedly the warring parties. This is a problem in terms of how it is designed, and a problem that reflects this war’s relationship to external actors. A number of external actors, whether it’s Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, have, of course, different interests with respect to this war, and they have different relationships in terms of their support, or lack thereof, with respect to the Sudan Armed Forces or the militias, the Rapid Support Forces. So, here we have a kind of a competition or competitive initiatives that are undermining what is really key with respect to eventually resolving this war, and that is a truly multilateral — and we’ve spoken about this before — a multilateral, coherent initiative that brings both parties together, includes civil society actors that actually would help set the agenda and implement a ceasefire and then go on to resolving this conflict towards a resolution, a political resolution.

So, here we have these competitive initiatives, the one in Jeddah that has failed, the one in Addis Ababa that has also failed because of its exclusiveness and the bias that the Kenyan President Ruto reportedly has vis-à-vis the Rapid Support Forces, and now tomorrow Egypt’s conference, that does not include the civilian stakeholders, which is really essential, and also, importantly, does not include the external actors that are so important, including, for example, the United Arab Emirates. So, here we have these competitive initiatives that are undermining any kind of positive outcome with respect to resolving this conflict.

So, we have an internal conflict that is devastating the country, but, importantly and problematically, we have these competing initiatives that are undermining a multilateral solution to a conflict that does not, of course, only affect Sudan, but, as you put it so well, Amy, really is destabilizing the entire region, including the Middle East region, if you don’t mind me saying.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor, I wanted to ask you — you talk — you mentioned external forces involved. So often the conflict in Sudan is portrayed basically as a civil war in a failed state, without taking into account these historical outside actors. I wanted to ask you about the role of the United States, the IMF, which has probably, I don’t know, done maybe 11 restructurings over recent decades in Sudan, and also the fact that in the ’60s and the 1970s, Sudan probably had the largest Communist Party in the Arab world. It was actually a very important force within Sudanese society, which clearly upset the United States and the Western powers. So, if you could talk about the U.S. role, the IMF role and also this history that most people are not aware of?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Yes, absolutely. The history of the Communist Party in Sudan and the transition from the Communist Party to an Islamist government that took over power in 1989 reflects not only Sudanese history but the history of the region in general. And that is, by the early 1970s, the very sheer strength of the Communist Party led to the president, or the dictator at the time, Jaafar Nimeiry, to purge the Communist Party from his ranks, from the military and, of course, also from his one-party system at the time. This coincided with his kind of shifting his alliance, of course, under the pressure of the United States and Saudi Arabia, from the kind of Soviet bloc at the time during the Cold War towards the U.S. camp. That is, of course, a policy or transition or transformation that is similar to many countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In that context, the support on the part of the former dictator to the Islamist movement that took over power in a military coup in 1989 really coincided with two important imperatives that were at that time very important for the United States. One of them, of course, was to turn the Sudan into an ally of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which is really important. And one of them was to implement neoliberal policies. It really was after 1989, when the Islamists took over power. Despite all the criticism of Islamism in recent years, during that period in the 1990s, there was a great deal of enthusiasm, because the Islamist movement under Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir, who was recently ousted, actually implemented draconian forms of neoliberalism under the, of course, auspices of, essentially, early on, under the IMF and World Bank. That kind of policy was more corrupt than even neoliberal, and that is well known to Sudanese. In other words, even privatization policies really amassed the wealth and helped to build the deep state. So, the turn towards being an ally with the United States and, of course, Saudi Arabia, which is a superpower or regional power in the region, coincided with the implementation of neoliberal reforms under the government of the Islamist Omar al-Bashir at the time. That becomes really important.

Through the 1990s — I don’t want to rehearse all of Sudan’s history, but just to bring us up to date — the United States was, of course, imposing sanctions because of Sudan’s support of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and Islamic militants in the country. But they maintained intelligence cooperation with the regime, particularly after 9/11. So, there was rhetorically, formally, an opposition to the Sudanese government as supporting terrorism, but at the same time, following 9/11 and the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1990s, actually, intelligence sharing continued. So there was always this relationship of cooperation on the intelligence kind of files. And that is something I think many people, particularly in the United States, are not aware of.

Following the revolution of 2018, the United States did, you know, belatedly take a position to support a transition to democracy. But here, although that seems very positive, the lack of inclusion during the negotiations of legitimate civil society forces, including the resistance committees — to make a long story short, the exclusion of the young people who actually brought down the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 from the negotiations — that exclusion almost determined or overdetermined the failure of the negotiations and also highlighted or actually promoted the strength of Burhan, the head of the military, and Hemedti, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, into the main players following the revolution, sidelining the civil society groups and the resistance committee and the youth that actually empowered and were responsible for the revolution.

If you will follow the logic, if you don’t mind me saying, you will see that these negotiations occurring currently are following the same fatal mistakes, A, by not including the key civil society actors and those on the ground who are really the only ones who can implement any ceasefire and build peace in the different communities and eventually transition the country to a civilian democracy, and, of course, B, not including all of the major stakeholders regionally who have vested interests in Sudan, without which they will play all as spoilers — that is, supporting one militia or supporting the militia or supporting the army. And so, here we see the same mistakes that the U.S. has played not only in terms of promoting a neoliberalism that ended up undermining the economy of Sudan, but also building — helping to build a deep state that is now being sanctioned, ironically, by the U.S. Treasury Department. Certain corporations are being actually sanctioned to stop this war being fueled on both sides. Ironically, these corporations really flourished under the policies of, quote-unquote, “neoliberalism,” if that makes any sense.

But finally, I want to conclude with what is going on now. And that is the devastation that is ongoing has to have an understanding that this is, first and foremost, of course, a local conflict with local roots, but it is directly related historically to external interventions, economic, as you put it, but also geostrategic. Therefore, there can be no resolution to this conflict if all of the actors, regional, who are vested, who have vested interests in Sudan, and all of those stakeholders who were primarily responsible for the revolution and have the greatest legitimacy among the Sudanese population, whether it’s in Khartoum or Darfur, are brought in not only as a kind of a sideshow, but to help set the agenda and, from my perspective, actually form a united caretaker civilian government in preparation for the end of the war and a transition to a civilian democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, McGill professor Khalid Mustafa Medani, such an important history to understand. We wanted to turn right now to Marine Alneel, Sudanese activist, who we usually speak to in Khartoum, amazingly. Each time we called, we couldn’t believe you were still there. But right now you’re in Oman. Can you talk about your decision to leave, what that meant, and what the conditions are on the ground still there?

MARINE ALNEEL: It has been 110 long days for the people in Sudan. More and more people have fled the cities with ongoing conflict, including the capital, Khartoum, and in the Darfur region, cities such as Al-Fashir, El Geneina, as well as many other cities and towns that have faced airstrikes by the Sudanese Armed Forces and violations by the Rapid Support Forces. And this includes my decision to leave for the lack of safety and livelihood options in Sudan currently. Many families are dependent on employed family members that have — and they have not had an income for three months now. And many now depend on help of relatives abroad, but they are also facing difficulties in transferring funds to Sudan. It is becoming more and more likely that we will see a famine in Sudan due to this war.

There is some medical and food aid coming from international organizations, but it is far from sufficient, and the methods of delivery and distribution are flawed. In some cities, people found food aid packages being sold. The rainy season is starting, which might lead to active conflict lessening, but also a rise in shelter issues, with flooding and difficulties in transportation and movement of people and goods, and medical issues like malaria.

And the medical situation is still in a dire state. Over 60 hospitals in conflict zones have been forced to shut down, and the remaining 29 are struggling with power cuts and staff and resource shortages. Some cities, like El Geneina, have no functioning hospitals. And medical professionals in the few hospitals that are functioning in other cities are facing a shortage in basic medical supplies, even medical gauze. And operations are routinely being performed without anesthesia. Medication storages in Darfur have all been destroyed. And the import routes that the region is dependent on have been nearly completely cut off, not to mention the lack of medications for chronic diseases. All of the dialysis patients in El Geneina have lost their lives, and many more in other cities. Bear in mind that Khartoum has been the main destination in Sudan for medical services, and that is now inaccessible.

Popular efforts are actually what have been keeping the few remaining medical services alive, with many volunteer professionals and popular fundraising and coordinating to deliver medical supplies — the popular effort that is being conducted by the same people and entities that are being sidelined in the talks, the regional talks, whether the failed Jeddah talks with their sham ceasefires and the talks in Chad, which hosted armed group leaders, and in Egypt, which will be hosting heads of states of neighboring countries. The well-being of the Sudanese people is not being represented in these talks. The talks in Ethiopia supposedly had the Forces of Freedom and Change to represent the civilians in Sudan, but the Forces of Freedom and Change were already a polarizing entity in 2019, after entering the negotiations with the army, and now they have all but completely lost their remaining popular base and basically became just an elite group that are representative of the opinions of the individuals in them.

Recent statements from the IGAD talks and the narratives that are being portrayed by the media, such as some American media outlets, that are emphasizing the RSF being a Wagner-backed militia, it’s starting to spark fear that this war might turn into a proxy war like many others in the region. All these talks that are being organized by foreign entities are still insisting on centering the warmakers, who will obviously never be interested in the well-being of the people. The SAF are refusing to attend to the IGAD talks, while continuing arbitrary airstrikes that are mostly leading to civilian suffering. And the RSF, as their delegations are at these talks, are continuing their violations in the cities that are under their control, with no prospects of retreat. And although in the recent statements, for example, from the Ethiopia talks, there is an emphasis on ceasefire, but the statements are generally weak.

And unfortunately, we are still hearing a focus on a transitional process. In a recent article by Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, a politics scholar and has expertise on Sudan, he said that the international focus on a transitional process is what empowered the generals, and it’s what weakened the democracy activists, which eventually led to this war. It is unfortunate that in this day and age we still choose to ignore the lessons learned from both the lived experiences of the people on the ground and the evidence-based analysis, and we, rather, depend on opinions of elites. That’s what got us to this war in the first place, and it will definitely not be what gets us out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marine Alneel, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Sudanese activist, usually in Khartoum, now in Oman, and Khalid Mustafa Medani, associate professor of political science and Islamic studies, chair of the African Studies Program, as well as director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. He is from Sudan, as she is, of course.

We go next to Vermont, where catastrophic flooding submerged the state’s capital. Back in 20 seconds.

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