“If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knee, then you have a serious problem.”
In the post-colonial Arab world, dictatorships have kept the people on their knees for decades, that is until the popular Arab uprisings of 2011. As a political cartoonist, the Arab uprisings changed my life. They put me and many of my fellow activists on a track toward socially engaged work, which is, becoming more difficult to exercise with time. The recent formal UAE-Israel normalization agreement, and its repercussions for Sudan, is just another reminder that little has changed; omnipresent dictatorial systems of rule in the region never fail to remind us that the price for criticism is heavy handed and that censorship is the most effective means by which to subdue critical, oppositional ideas. This is especially the case now when it comes to criticizing Israel and the geopolitics of its allies in the region.
In my home country Sudan, artists played a major role in the 2019 revolution that toppled the thirty-year-old authoritarian regime of General Omar al-Bashir and his allied National Islamic Front. For many observers, developments in Sudan helped kickstart the so-called “second wave” of the Arab uprisings which manifested in Algeria and Lebanon. Some anticipated that Sudan would be a new inspiration for hope and a model of inclusive governance in the region. However, the Sudanese people face many obstacles to consolidating their gains and realizing their aspirations. One is the stability and success of the transitional government, which is based on a fragile alliance between civilian groups and the armed forces. Another is the struggle to negotiate peace deals with different rebel groups around the country. Perhaps one of the most burdensome obstacles is the continuing downward spiral of the economy—itself a legacy of leftover US sanctions on Sudan which continue despite the fall of Bashir. The African Union and European Union have provided new forms of support to Sudan since the fall of Bashir. The EU aid is in large part because for it, a stable Sudan can supposedly help control the flow of Sub-Saharan refugees toward European shores. Yet despite such support, the country has been unable to recover.
As alluded to, one of the main hurdles blocking the revival of the Sudanese economy is the persistence of US sanctions resulting from the inclusion of Sudan on the US list of State-Sponsored Terrorism (STT) countries. Some claim its continued placement on the list is tied to the US request that Sudan pay 330 million US dollars in compensation to relatives of US victims of al-Qa‘ida because Bashir harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Such dynamics, are puzzling and makes one question whether Sudan is being pushed—perhaps deliberately—back toward instability.
In parallel, while the new transitional government has been trying to cosy up to the Donald Trump administration, the leader of the Sudanese armed forces secretly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda in February 2020. The latter meeting revolved around discussions about the prospect of normalizing relations with Israel, knowing full well that such a move would please Washington and could be used as a bargaining chip to remove Sudan from the SST list. Netanyahu’s publicizing the fact of the meeting took the Sudanese government by surprise and instigated an intense internal Sudanese discussion both online and offline. Why should Sudan support the Palestinians? Would the Palestinians do the same for us? Did they or any other Arabs even care for the death of millions in Darfur? These are some of the questions used to justify the potential normalization. Some used the historical anti-Blackness prevalent in the Arab world and asked the never-ending Sudanese question: “Are we even really Arab?” The replies ranged from claims that “protecting Palestine is our duty as Muslims” to the assertion that support of the boycott of Israel is a human rights issue and not a religious or racial one.
As this debate about Sudan, the Palestinians, and Israel raged, the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) & Israel’s Netanyahu announced their “peace” deal on the 13 August 2020. Many view this deal as merely a PR stunt to formalize and popularize the acknowledged relationship between the two states, while helping Trump and Netanyahu in their upcoming elections. It is a deal that excludes the Palestinians yet claims to be a forward step in Jared Kushner’s Peace and Prosperity Plan. Trump, Netanyahu, and MBZ have widely celebrated the deal as an achievement of their respective reigns. The next objective is to expand “the deal” to other countries through a sort of domino effect in the region. Of course, the obvious next domino, after Bahrain, is the shaky, broke, and indebted Sudan.
On 24 August 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bragged on Twitter about boarding the first “official'' direct flight from Tel Aviv to Khartoum. At the same time, Israeli media was already celebrating the upcoming normalization agreement. The Sudanese people, meanwhile, were almost certain that within a few hours the transitional government would agree to whatever Pompeo had laid out. However, against all odds, Pompeo’s trip to the country ended with Sudan’s civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok announcing that the transitional government did not have the mandate to decide on normalization with Israel. For most Sudanese, including myself, this is a bittersweet decision. Do we stand for what is right? Or do we bear the cost of 330 million dollars? The sum represents less than 0.0007 percent of the 2020 US budget. Yet it is a significant figure for our state budget and national economy. For me, it was never the amount that grabbed my attention. Rather, it was the ultimatum that seems to be the price to pay for going against the tide and voicing one’s own opinions.
The Arab uprisings were (and are) part of a historic demand of the peoples of the region for meaningful representation, accountability, and social justice—that is, to live with dignity under a democratic political system wherein we would elect leaders to make decisions that reflect the will of the majority and (perhaps more importantly) where we would have the right to oppose elected leaders and their decisions without fear. However, in the aftermath of the counter-revolutions, including its local, regional, and external perpetrators, it seems that we have gone full circle.
In the post-truth age, targeted social media ads, and paywalls, the idea that what matters is to have one’s “party” in power and that other “parties” are to blame for all that is wrong is easily transmuted and promoted. This has encouraged the rise of rival, right-wing, populist conservatives facing off with each other on several fronts, but with a single common agenda: the demonization of democracy, critical intellectuals, and on-the-ground activists. Since the Arab uprisings began in 2011, I have watched this repeatedly being done using similar propaganda and social media tactics. The UAE-Israel peace deal and its imposition on the people of the region, despite their clear criticism of it, is a prime example that shows how the leaders that have stood against the will of their people during the Arab uprisings are those same leaders that are now pushing for peace deals with Israel, which in turn opens the door for securing new cyber-security collaborations and arms deals.
With all that in mind, it appears that the Trump administration, Netanyahu, and MBZ over-estimated the Sudanese transitional government's willingness to agree to normalize relations in return for the promised aid and the removal of Sudan from the SST list. In a meeting that took place on 24 September 2020 in Abu Dhabi, the Sudanese negotiating team refused to agree to any deal. Thought it seems to be doing so to gain leverage on the negotiating table: in return for joining the coalition of regimes selling out the Palestinian cause, the Sudanese transitional government wants to secure guarantees from the United States.
For artists like myself, the pressure to normalize is simply another top-down decision over which the population has little say. Expressing disagreement with or total rejection of normalization is risky. The arrest of Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajaj, the intimidation of a Jordanian prince, and threats issued by Emirati influencers all highlight the risks of expressing this disagreement. Peace must come from an organic, authentic conscience of justice for all. Not by imposition from those who are unaccountable. The only deal here is a deal to keep the people on their knees. But, for how long?
[Join or die]
[No . . . and whats more is that his name is Abdel Fattah]
[Burhan meets Netenyahu]
[What do you mean money was never the issue?]
[Signing the "agreement"]
[Do you want us to remove you from the list?]
[Bye bye Palestine]
Writing and cartoons by Khalid Albaih. Edited by Maryam al-Khasawneh.