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Regional powers stick with Sudan's Bashir, fearing 'they will be next'

Despite increasing protests against his rule, nations ranging from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to China and US, all see interest in president's survival
'Egypt fully supports the security and stability of Sudan, which is integral to Egypt's national security,' Sisi, right, told a top Bashir aide last week (AFP)

As angry protests pile pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to step down, key powers are standing by his government to ensure stability in a strife-torn region, analysts say.

Demonstrations that erupted in the provinces last month after the government tripled the price of bread have escalated into nationwide protests that appear to pose the biggest challenge to Bashir since he took power in a coup in 1989.

On Friday, Sudan's National Human Rights Commission, the country's top governmental human rights body, condemned the killing "by bullets" of protesters during the ongoing wave of demonstrations across the country, calling on the authorities to bring those responsible to justice.

These allies are against any kind of successful uprising. They feel that if it happens, then they will be next

- Abdelwahab al-Affendi, author and academic

While Sudanese officials say 22 people, including two security officials, have died since the protests broke out last month, Amnesty International said more than 40 people have been killed in more than 380 protests across the country since 19 December.

Despite the increasing death toll, outside players ranging from Gulf rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia to major powers China, Russia and the United States all see an interest in the 75-year-old staying at the helm.

"All camps in the region are at each other's throat, but somehow they agree on Bashir," Abdel Wahab al-Affendi, an author and an academic at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies told AFP.

"They seem to favour continuity. They believe that any other alternative might not be favourable to them and to the region."

Egypt, which has deep historical ties with Sudan, has called repeatedly for stability in its southern neighbour, with its commanding position on the Nile on whose waters they both depend.

"Egypt fully supports the security and stability of Sudan, which is integral to Egypt's national security," President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told a top Bashir aide who visited Cairo last week.

Days earlier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri expressed confidence that Sudan would "overcome the present situation", the AFP news agency reported.

Relations between Cairo and Khartoum had deteriorated sharply in 2017 over territorial disputes, but in recent months the two governments have ironed out their differences, with Sudan even lifting a 17-month ban on Egyptian agricultural produce.

Spectacular foreign policy twists

Arab governments have scrambled to provide support, anxious to avoid any repetition of the upheavals that rocked the region in 2011.

"There has been evidence of tangible support to Bashir... be it from Egypt, Saudi or Qatar," said Affendi.

"These allies are against any kind of successful uprising. They feel that if it happens, then they will be next," he said, adding that the Arab Spring has not been forgotten.

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Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, called Bashir just days after the protests erupted to offer his support.

During his long years in power, Bashir has built up relations with all of the region's bickering diplomatic players, through a string of sometimes spectacular foreign policy twists.

Just days before the protests erupted, he travelled to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the first visit to Damascus by any Arab leader since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.

"His foreign policy is in all directions driven by economic pressures," a European diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The government hosted al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and then developed ties with Iran before dramatically severing them in 2016.

In October 2017, increased cooperation with Washington helped Khartoum get a decades-old US trade embargo lifted.

Washington has still kept Sudan on its blacklist of "state sponsors of terrorism" along with Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Although the US and the European Union do not openly back Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges including genocide in Darfur, they work with Khartoum to ensure that "Sudan remains stable", the diplomat said.

Any kind of instability in Sudan could trigger a new wave of Sudanese migrants headed towards Europe, he added.

Strategic location

Sudan's strategic location in the Horn of Africa is a blessing for Bashir, said Amal el-Taweel of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"I think the international and regional powers will not allow Sudan to fall," she told AFP.

"But a lot depends on how the balance of power shifts on the streets.

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"The world also doesn't want to see another new bastion of hardliners that might be created if something like this happens."

Bashir surprised the West when he dumped Tehran for Riyadh in 2016.

The shift was not just diplomatic. The Sudanese leader also sent hundreds of troops to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, in what he called an "ideological" decision.

By doing so, Bashir signalled to Gulf Arab monarchies that he was an asset in their struggle against Iran.

"In return Saudi and the United Arab Emirates have given Bashir just about enough to stay afloat, although no announcements have been made," said Affendi, referring to financial aid to Khartoum.

For international powers like China, which has reportedly invested billions of dollars in Sudan, the country offers a gateway to the rest of the continent.

"For countries like China and Russia, Sudan is an entry gate to Africa," the foreign diplomat said.

"Be it them or the West, nobody wants Sudan to crumble."

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