December 7, 2022 (KHARTOUM) – Over the last couple of years, advocates have pointed fingers at elements belonging to the regime of deposed President Omer Hassan al-Bashir, claiming that they are seeking to undermine the December 2018 revolution by stirring trouble in Eastern Sudan. Those advocates now believe their fears have been vindicated.
Mohamed Tahir Ayla, who briefly held the post of prime minister in the final days of Bashir in April 2019, returned from his self-imposed exile in Egypt to his hometown Port Sudan where he was given a warm welcome.
The timing was very curious since it came at a time when cracks started to emerge within the Beja tribal council in Eastern Sudan. Ayla hails from this region and is believed to be working to bridge differences within the council in order to use it as political leverage against the government in Khartoum on behalf of the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its Islamist allies.
The council is believed to have played a pivotal role in setting the ground for the military coup staged last year by General Abdel-Fatah al-Burhan against the civilian government dominated by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition which spearheaded the 2018 uprising against Bashir.
The former governor of Kassala Saleh Ammar told Sudan Tribune that divisions within the council, fading clout and public opinion turning on them have prompted the return of Ayla to salvage the situation.
Ammar claimed that the council worked to further the agenda of the Islamic Movement and the NCP over the last three years which centred around wreaking chaos in the east and weakening the civilian-led transitional government.
As the gap widened between the council and the people of the East that resulted partially from their policy of imposing an extended blockade of Port Sudan, Ayla’s apparent goal seems to end disagreements among tribal elements of the East.
According to political analyst Mohamed al-Amin Osheikh, the head of the Beja Council Sayed Tirik has previously worked against Ayla’s return in coordination with the military.
Osheikh explained that Tirk believes Ayla is working to unseat him with the help of the military in order for the latter to maintain control over the Eastern issue. The military thinks Tirik’s grip over the council has weakened, he added.
Days after Ayla’s return and Tirk’s acceptance under military pressure, the former announced that his initiative for Beja unity was a success.
But Tirk refused to personally sign the truce document and instead delegated a tribal figure.
Osheikh noted that the power struggle inside the Beja Council involves Tirik on one side and figures associated with Ayla on the other.
Two weeks after his return to Sudan, a source told Sudan Tribune that Ayla visited Khartoum and met secretly with the leaders of the military including Burhan but did not meet with Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti).
The source said that during those meetings Ayla proposed that he assumes political leadership of the council while Tirik takes over tribal administration.
But several of the top military brass including Hemedti objected to these proposals and even the meetings.
The same source warned that the East is on the brink of an all-out conflict amid feverish recruitment efforts by Tirik among the youths which increased the state of polarization in the region.
However, Professor of International Relations at the University of Khartoum, Dr Tamadir al-Tayyib told Sudan Tribune that the issue of tribal polarization in the east emerged only recently with Tirk.
She also called out foreign interference through some of the diplomats in the country who she said are allowed to roam freely in the region.
Al-Tayyib asserted that these interventions are driven by economic interests in the coastal area.
Ammar on the other hand argues that not all foreign intervention is malignant and singled Saudi Arabia for its positive role.
He asserted that for some neighbouring countries it is natural they take interest in what is going on given that any conflict in the east has an impact on them.
But he acknowledged that some of those actors seek to push for control of the ports.
Russia reached a preliminary deal with Sudan during the Bashir regime to establish a naval base in Port Sudan.
The US has warned the Sudanese government this year that proceeding with this plan will have a negative impact on their relationship with Washington.