Sudan's joint civilian-military council is split on handing former autocrat Omar Al Bashir to the International Criminal Court, foreign minister Mariam Sadiq Al Mahdi told The National.
Also, Israel will not be opening an embassy in Khartoum any time soon, Ms Al Mahdi said, in a discussion focused on the country's democratic transition.
In an exclusive interview at the Foreign Ministry in the Sudanese capital, she downplayed progress in building ties with Israel just 11 months after the two countries agreed to end hostilities.
Last October Sudan joined the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in agreeing to normalise ties with Israel.
But, unlike the other states, Sudan said the normalisation agreement needed the endorsement of parliament, a body that has yet to be established under the transitional process, to come into force. The current Cabinet repealed an Israeli boycott law in April, but little public progress has been made.
Ms Al Mahdi firmly denied reports about visits by Israeli delegations to discuss co-operation in different sectors and said there were no plans to build an Israeli diplomatic outpost.
“There's not any sign of normalisation with Israel … and there are no talks at any official level,” Ms Al Mahdi said. “I’m telling you this as the foreign minister … Abolishing a law on boycotting Israel does not mean that we consider opening an Israeli embassy in Khartoum.”
She reiterated the need for Sudan’s new parliament to address the issue of Israel relations when it is formed before anything could be done.
“Any decision in this respect should be taken by the interim legislative parliament during the transitional period,” she said.
The announcement last October ended the state of belligerency that had existed since 1948. Khartoum took part in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel.
Ms Al Mahdi said improving relations with Israel was necessary to improve ties with Washington and the West and said it was tied to support for Sudan joining the World Trade Organisation after nearly two decades of failed attempts.
“This file has been completely linked to lifting Sudan off the US state sponsors of terrorism list,” she said.
“We have been trying to be a member of the WTO, whose terms stipulate that there should be no boycotts between member states. We want to be a country open to the world and different partnerships.”
Sudan is facing a number of crises and transitional representatives have been trying to sign accords to end long-running civil and ethnic conflicts in the country, to bring peace and divert state funds devoted to security towards fixing the economy.
They are also in dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia over borders and the construction of the $5 billion Grand Renaissance Dam project, which Khartoum fears will cause flooding and water shortages without live information sharing and a legal mechanism for dispute resolution — two things Addis Ababa has refused.
The political dynamics of Sudan have changed remarkably in the nearly two and a half years since Al Bashir was removed by the military after huge popular protests against his almost 30-year rule.
The US and Sudan are working together to remove sanctions and unfreeze assets as Sudan agreed to compensate victims of Al Qaeda attacks in Africa carried out with the support of Al Bashir.
'Handing Al Bashir to the ICC is divisive'
Ms Al Mahdi said the issue of handing Al Bashir to the International Criminal Court had become extremely divisive in the joint civilian-military Transitional Partners Council that brings together military and civilian representatives including the prime minister and head of the army.
Speaking to the international press for the first time since last week’s failed coup blamed on Al Bashir loyalists within the military’s ranks, Ms Al Mahdi described it as a bid to “dampen the beacon of real democracy flashing in Sudan”.
She said the incident showed the Sudanese people that there are divisions in the army because of remnants of the old regime. But she said she believes that Sudan, which has witnessed repeated military takeovers since its independence in 1956, has become coup-proof.
“The citizens on the street will never allow any coup against their revolution,” she said.
Al Bashir has been convicted of corruption and faces a number of other charges in Sudan but is also wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC for the conflict in Darfur that left more than 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced.
Ms Al Mahdi said there simply was not any consensus in Sudan about “how to implement the process of handing Al Bashir to the ICC”.
There has been discussion about sending Al Bashir to The Hague to stand trial, forming a hybrid Sudanese-ICC court in Khartoum, or having him stand trial in a Sudanese court with ICC oversight.
“The Transitional Partners Council needs to be clear about this issue and reach consensus, not just on Al Bashir but on a variety of other issues. We as civilian politicians stated clearly our position — namely, our pledge to help hand Al Bashir and other suspects like former minister [of humanitarian affairs] Ahmed Haroun to the ICC,” she said.
“We have a commitment not just to hand Al Bashir over but to do justice to the victims of Al Bashir in Darfur. And we want the ICC to look into the wider time scale of the crimes committed by the regime of Al Bashir and not only to limit the trial to the period from 2002-2004. But unfortunately, there’s no conformity among the members of the Transitional Partners Council on how to put into effect several decisions including handing Al Bashir to the ICC.”
Despite the international arrest warrant and crippling international sanctions, Al Bashir won consecutive elections in 2010 and 2015, which were not seen as free and fair by the international community and which were boycotted by the main opposition parties, including Ms Al Mahdi’s National Umma Party.
Ms Al Mahdi’s father, Sadiq Al Mahdi, was Sudan’s last freely-elected democratic leader until he was ousted by Al Bashir in a coup in 1989, after which he became a leading critic of the regime until his death from Covid-19 last year at 84.
Ms Al Mahdi said US-Sudanese relations had greatly improved since the removal of Al Bashir. She discussed the current administration in a positive light, nine months into Joe Biden’s presidency.
“The Biden administration has been dealing wisely with many issues, to mention but a few - its courageous decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite the consequences as a superpower and re-join the Paris climate agreement [in February]," Ms Al Mahdi said.
“On Sudan, I do believe the US officials when they say they are fully supporting our transition towards democracy. This is not a mere wish but an objective talk as Sudan’s stability is pivotal for East Africa and the entire region.”