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The standoff between Sudan’s diffuse opposition movement and the military junta that replaced President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in mid-April has deepened as both sides – each in their own way deeply divided – dig in. This could pose major problems for Africa and a creaking international order.

While US national security adviser John Bolton was quick to condemn violence against peaceful demonstrators, Washington, former colonial power Britain, and other European states are not expected to play a defining role. Rather, the Sudanese crisis highlights shifts in the global geostrategic balance. Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution proposed by the UK and Germany to condemn the killing of protesters while conservative Gulf monarchies have emerged as key backers of the Transitional Military Council (TMC).

The African Union’s 6 June response, suspending Sudan’s membership until a civilian administration is put in place, was a positive application of pressure. Under the presidency of Egypt’s authoritarian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, the AU was previously seen as lukewarm in its response to the coup in Khartoum. Such pressure could yet see the junta handing over to a civilian-led transitional authority within a reasonable timeframe. The AU move was accepted, in public at least, by governments whose appeals to stability serve most often as shorthand for authoritarian responses to problems – a group notably including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Gulf states – including Qatar, which remains in dispute with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh but is a significant player in Darfur – have emerged as major players in conflicts from Yemen (where Sudanese forces are active) to Sudan and Libya. They are likely to continue backing the TMC or its successor regime, reflecting deep distaste for genuinely participatory polities.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdelaziz met TMC deputy head General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti) in Jeddah on 23 May, while on 26 May, another key regional power-broker, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ), hosted TMC chairman Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan in the UAE. (Under MBZ’s guidance, the UAE is also a major supporter of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya.) On 31 May, the TMC closed Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera Media Network’s Sudanese offices. Burhan also visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia before his forces cracked down on the eve of the Eid festival ending Ramadan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have between them pledged $3bn to underwrite the TMC regime; a first $500m was deposited in the Central Bank of Sudan last month.

The TMC junta, comprising Sudan Armed Forces officers, militias – including the Rapid Support Forces, who were known as the Janjaweed when they terrorised communities in the 2000s Darfur conflict – and the feared National Intelligence and Security Service may also be divided (AE 391/3). Hemedti is a feared Janjaweed commander, while the NISS featured large in reports of human rights abuses during Bashir’s 30-year rule.

Their opponents in Khartoum, where a general strike was suspended on 11 June, are drawn from civil society, trade unions and professional groups as well as poor urban and rural Sudanese – including a significant proportion of women and marginalised groups – but are now struggling in the face of coercive force and may be drawn away from a so-far impressive campaign of non-violence in a huge country whose politics have long been defined by violence. Peaceful protests by crowds representing a cross-section of the Sudanese people merit high levels of international support. However, in a world where autocrats seem so often to outmuscle democrats, geopolitical realities give rise to fears of a sell-out that will have short- and long-term consequences for the wider governance and stability of Africa.