The fall of long-standing regimes in North Africa has produced peculiar situations, spanning from the return of the authoritarian rule in Egypt to the faltering democratisation process in Tunisia. Sputtering transitions have also produced remarkable similarities in Libya and Sudan as both countries are now mired in crisis of governance that is leading to widespread warlordism.
In Libya the collapse of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi in the uprisings of 2011 paved the way for a political polarisation exploited by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a central figure in the civil war that is splitting the country in two, according to the east/west regional divide. In Sudan instead, the fall of President Omar al-Bashir during the second Arab Spring in 2019 produced an unfinished transition process that was derailed two years later by a coup promoted by the two leading figures of Transitional Military Council (TMC, the military junta): Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti).
Nevertheless, relations between the two Sudanese leaders reached a breaking point on the 15th of April 2023 when clashes erupted in Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF, the regular Sudanese army, of which Burhan is commander-in-chief) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF, led by Hemedti). The protracted fighting plunged Sudan in a new phase of the civil war that highlights the deep connections to the Libyan conflict, as well as mirroring the current geopolitical divides in the wider region.
Reports that Haftar had sent at least one shipment of ammunition to the RSF were promptly denied by the spokesperson for his Libyan National Army (LNA), but were further corroborated by unusual activity in air and military bases in both Libya and Sudan. Among the Libyan facilities interested, both the al-Khadim and the Jufra airbases have been known for hosting operatives of the Wagner Group, suggesting the involvement of Russian military contractors in supporting Hemedti as well.
The triangulation between the LNA, the RSF and the Wagner Group is in part the result of the latest round of major fighting in Libya when, in 2019-2020, Haftar was backed by the Russian private military company (PMC) and mercenaries from Sudan, including former Janjaweeds (now part of the RSF). They all have in common the backing of the UAE, which, according to US intelligence, has reportedly financed the operations of the Wagner Group in Libya and is among the main supporters of Hemedti in Sudan. On the other hand, Burhan seems fully backed by Egypt, evidently concerned about the ramification of the power struggle in a neighbouring country that is vital for its national interests, also considering the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (threatening water supplies to both Egypt and Sudan).
Once partners in the major conflicts that have ravaged the Middle East and North Africa (including Libya), the policies of Egypt and the UAE seem finally out of tune, pushed apart by the changing geopolitics of a region deeply transformed by a normalisation drive that is reshuffling the cards among the main players. The result has the potential to put Abu Dhabi and Cairo on a collision course in both Libya (where the UAE has made openings to authorities in Tripoli despised by Haftar, another point of contention with Egypt) and Sudan, further complicating peace efforts and consolidating the power of local proxies that continue to thrive in fragmentation.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region