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Sudan turmoil: Why Hemeti is taking aim at 'radical Islamists'

The RSF leader is appealing to western bias against political movements that rely on Islamic beliefs 
RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo speaks in Qarri, Sudan, in June 2019 (AFP)

Sudan is in the throes of a violent power struggle between the country’s military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a 100,000-member paramilitary group that began widely deploying around the country this month. Civilians have been killed and the country’s healthcare system and other infrastructure are on the brink of collapse.

The two men at the helm of the conflict are familiar to each other: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the head of Sudan’s armed forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, controls the RSF through a separate command structure. Burhan chairs the country’s transitional council, with Hemeti as his deputy.

Together, the two staged a military coup in 2021 against the transitional government that succeeded dictator Omar al-Bashir. Both the military and the RSF have been condemned for violence against protesters, including a 2019 massacre in Khartoum that killed more than 120 people.

Yet, one of the tactics being employed in the power struggle between the two leaders is highly illustrative of the incentives created by western governments for the region.

As the latest round of fighting erupted, Hemeti issued a series of tweets in English calling Burhan a “radical Islamist”, and noting that his own forces were “fighting against radical Islamists who hope to keep Sudan isolated and in the dark, and far removed from democracy” - a strange accusation for a militia leader who himself has been accused of war crimes.

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Hemeti is not known to be fluent in English or an engaged Twitter user, but he does know how to make use of western PR agencies and lobbyists. Weeks after the 2019 Khartoum massacre, he personally signed a $6m deal with a Canadian lobbying firm founded by a former Israeli intelligence operative, Ari Ben-Menashe. In January 2022, the Sudanese government signed another agreement with a US lobbying firm that subsequently dropped it as a client.

The advisers upon whom Hemeti is currently relying appear to have done their homework. The notion of “Islamism”, or political movements relying heavily on Islamic beliefs, has been used to great success in recent years to rally and direct western action in the region.

International legitimacy

For decades, terrorism and promises of security cooperation to fight it, have provided local dictators with their prime pillar of international legitimacy. This has allowed them to win military aid, financial support and diplomatic shelter from western governments for human rights violations. This escalated in the post-2001 global “war on terror” era.

But after the 2011 regional uprisings, “Islamism” became the new bogeyman, amid promises that political expressions of Islam would lead to theocracies across the region with direct links to terrorism. 

At the forefront of this claim was Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, who has a longstanding obsession with Islamist movements. His vast wealth has enabled him to export this paranoia, funding military coups across the region and using PR groups to smear individuals and organisations in the West, conflating any political expression of Islam with extremism.

After the 2013 military coup that deposed the first democratically elected government in Egyptian history, TV channels in Egypt were emblazoned with a banner declaring “Egypt fights terrorism”, while the new military authorities purged state institutions of Islamist sympathisers and dissenters of any kind, crushing civil society. 

The US government resisted classifying the coup as such, convinced by dark warnings that theocracy had been close at hand - and this success was noted across the region.

In Libya, rogue general Khalifa Haftar has attempted several failed coups, rebranding them as “wars on terrorism”. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, instigator of the most brutal campaign of repression this century, has used Islamists and “terrorists” as the justification for his mass violence since 2011. And as Hemeti’s accusations show, this continues to be widely regarded as a model.

Doomed to failure

In our 2021 book The Middle East Crisis Factory, Iyad El-Baghdadi and I identify a self-reinforcing triangle of terrorism, authoritarian rule and foreign intervention. Attempts to combat any element of this trifecta through the support or cooptation of another invariably backfire, whether in the short or long term, because each represents the justification for which the others exist. 

This means that reliance on authoritarian rulers to fight extremism is not only doomed to failure, but it is dangerously counter-productive.

The new playbook of autocrats consists of heavy appeals to tolerance and liberalism, relying on a foreign audience too naive or uncaring to realise that the governments making these appeals often themselves rely on religious claims to legitimacy, jail dissidents, repress minorities and heavily limit freedom of speech. 

Repressive governments should be treated as such regardless of their religious character or lack thereof

The most cynical rulers can feign concern for democracy after crushing it, or express fears of theocracy while leading a totalitarian state. A comparison of recent Sudanese, Iraqi or Syrian history readily shows that secular autocracy is not a meaningful upgrade on a more theocratic autocracy for those who suffer under it, even if it carries less shock value worldwide.

This is not to deny that many Islamist movements and parties have shown strong populist or authoritarian tendencies, only to call for equal standards. Governments should be judged by their practical record on human rights and civil liberties, regardless of their rhetoric. 

Repressive governments should be treated as such regardless of their religious character or lack thereof. Any other policy serves only to highlight western hypocrisy and cultural bias, fuelling the belief that democracy and human rights are rhetorical tools for the West’s purposes, and do not exist as principles.

Ironically, these are beliefs that extremist movements prey on, fuelling further instability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ahmed Gatnash is a founder of Kawaakibi Foundation, a human rights organisation focused on the long-term future of the MENA region, and co-author of The Vicious Triangle: Terrorists, Tyrants and the West (Hurst, 2021).
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