The uncertain struggle for democracy in Sudan


In Sudan, civil disobedience is almost constant.

On Thursday, the country witnessed another round of pro-democracy protests, the latest riot in the days following the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok. The protests had also preceded Hamdok’s resignation, which came just over a month after he was reinstated and resigned during an October military coup. There were also mass protests that time.

“The protest began to become a way of life,” said Nazik Kabalo, a Canadian-based women’s rights activist and researcher based in Canada. In pro-democracy demonstrations, you meet your friends, your neighbors, your friends, or your boyfriends. “This is where people really share their dreams of a better country together,” he added.

The struggle for a better country began in earnest in 2019, after Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by a grassroots revolution. As a result, civil and protest leaders and the military reached a power-sharing agreement aimed at making the transition to full civilian rule, including a new constitution and democratic elections.

This transitional government was always a tenuous and flawed agreement. But the October 25 coup showed how fragile the country’s democratic transition really was. The army, led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power and arrested Hamdok and other civilian leaders. Hamdok was reinstated following an agreement with the army on November 21, which was seen largely as an attempt to quell street riots and respond to international pressure.

Many pro-democracy and civil society groups saw this agreement as a betrayal. Hamdok was shaking hands with the same military who deposed him, the same military who still had control. “They just thought it was a legitimacy for the military coup,” said Maha Tambal, a Sudanese civil society activist and Fulbright-Humphrey member at the American University.

Hamdok’s resignation is an acknowledgment of the failure of this agreement and shows, once again, the profound challenge to Sudan’s democratic transition. Also, as one of the US a congressional source described it to Vox, pulling out the “fig leaf” for both the international community and Sudan’s civilian coalitions. “It’s a mechanism that forces them to face reality.”

The reality is that the coup was largely successful. This is something that those who fight for democracy understand, and that is why many Sudanese take to the streets again and again and call for a transitional government free of military leadership. But the army has shown that it does not want to relinquish power, calling into question the future of Sudan and any democratic transition. Turning the clock back on the status quo before the coup is unsustainable, but finding a peaceful alternative that satisfies civilians or the military is just as difficult.

“It’s a country in a very fragile state,” said Eric Reeves, a Sudanese researcher. Those on the street say they will not give up. “And that means the military will respond strongly,” he said. “There will be more bloodshed.”

What is happening in Sudan, explained briefly

Cracks in Sudan’s transitional government existed even before the October 25 coup. The government was an “awkward marriage” between the Transitional Military Council, headed by al-Burhan, and the Freedom and Change Forces, a coalition of opposition civilian groups once led by Hamdok. On paper, there was a shared power plan. In reality, power remained in the hands of the military. There was also a commitment to civilian rule on paper, but this transition depended on the army accompanying it.

And the military did not have much incentive to do so, as it would jeopardize its political and financial interests. Any transition to civilian government would probably have meant the responsibility of the military officers who were allegedly involved. corruption and other abuses, even war crimes. “There are many generals with a lot of power and a lot of money. Al-Burhan found himself in a position where he could not continue to enjoy his support without a military coup overthrowing Hamdok, “Reeves said of the coup.

Al-Burhan justified the coup by saying that the divisions within the transitional government were too deep and that it was necessary to start again to avoid internal struggles; he said the army was still committed to democracy and elections. (You know, set aside the fact that the Prime Minister was under house arrest and his cabinet was dissolved).

Obviously no one bought it. Protests erupted after Hamdok was ousted, demanding his reinstatement and that of other civilian leaders, the responsibility of military leaders, and his withdrawal from the transition process. Security forces clashed with some of the protesters. The international community, including the United States and its partners, condemned the coup and the use of force against protesters. The seizure of power also jeopardized international financing and debt relief, a vital element in Sudan’s deep economic crisis.

These conditions were also not exactly sustainable for the military, which is why, with some external intermediaries, negotiations began for a solution to restore transitional government. At the same time, the army continued its crackdown on protesters, arresting opposition leaders and cutting off Internet access. The army moved to consolidate control of the government, placing “civilians” in government positions that were also ex-officers of the Bashir era.

In late November, an agreement was reached that restored Hamdok to his role as prime minister, where he would lead a new “technocratic cabinet” until elections could be held. It came with some concessions from the military, such as the release of political prisoners.

But pro-democracy activists and civilian leaders flatly rejected the deal. People had protested in the streets in support of Hamdok, but more for the restoration of the government before the coup. That agreement was not that.

“It was kind of a shock to them,” Tambal said of Sudanese activists. “We’re protesting, we’re dying for you, not for you as a person, but for the position, the configuration we had. And just kick us in the ass and say, ‘I’ll just have a deal with the military component for me same “.

A more generous reading of Hamdok’s motivation is that, in an impossible situation, he took what he considered the least worst option. Hamdok, in accepting the deal, said he wanted to end the “bloodshed” following the coup. Experts said Hamdok probably thought he could be the mediator, a link between pro-democracy groups and the military, but eventually disconnected from street protests and local groups, making him a doomed effort.

That is why the protests and the bloodshed continued. Hamdok acknowledged his resignation on January 2. “I have done my best to prevent the country from slipping into disaster,” he said, warning that the country was reaching a dangerous turning point that “threatened its survival.”

Where is Sudan going from here?

As of January 3, at least 57 people had been killed by Sudanese security forces since the October 25 coup, according to the Sudan Central Committee of Physicians (CCSD). At least three more protesters were killed on January 6, according to the CCSD, bringing the total to 60 as protests erupted across the country. More than a dozen cities saw demonstrations on Thursday, from the capital, Khartoum, to Khartoum Port of Sudan to the west, in the cities of Darfur, a region that has seen a wave of renewed violence since the coup, with some militia groups capable of acting with impunity or even with the implicit support of security forces.

This is the dangerous dead end of Sudan. On the one hand, protesters and activists, determined to ensure Sudan’s democratic transition; on the other, a soldier determined to entrench himself. The departure of Hamdok did not really change the bet for either side, but it did expose very real and dangerous fractures.

Protests are expected to continue, and a big question will be to what extent the army may be the answer. Al-Burhan has suggested he will appoint a new prime minister, but no legitimate candidate is unlikely to run for office, as he comes with the baggage of being another seal of the coup.

The United States and some of its allies have also recently rejected this path, saying any prime minister must be appointed through a “civilian-led consultative” process, according to the terms of Sudan’s 2019 constitutional declaration.

But wanting to consult is one thing. Getting there is another. The first challenge is whether the pro-democracy movement can become a more cohesive and unified front. The Forces for Freedom and Change, the coalition that helped negotiate the transitional government in 2019, also needs the consensus of street protesters and local civil society groups, known as resistance committees.

He Pro-democracy groups have called for the release of political prisoners and a return to the pre-coup transition, but for control of civilians, not the military. This is, in a way, a completely different kind of transition. “A lot of people are really thinking that they’re really correcting the first revolution through this process,” said Kabalo, a women’s rights activist. “The demand now is to make it this fall, and that would mean, in the first place, at least the removal of the army chiefs right now.”

As for the military, external pressure is likely to be key, specifically from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sudan’s main benefactors. Hamdok’s resignation makes it difficult for them and the rest of the world to ignore the crisis on the ground. The potential for continued instability and violence is something no one wants, especially in an already volatile region. The military needs money, so pressuring the Gulf states, or cutting Sudan back out of the international economy or debt relief, are seen as leverage points. Sanctions against military leaders, especially if violence against civilians increases, are also an option.

But even if the military is forced to negotiate, experts and analysts I spoke to said that this cannot be a repeat of the power-sharing agreement, or Sudan could end up in the same place. To avoid a future of ongoing violence, some awkward options will be needed, which may not fit well with protesters demanding responsibility on the streets. It could mean some kind of amnesty and / or immunity agreements for some of Sudan’s top generals, basically giving them a way to withdraw richly to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. It is not exactly a victory for civilian forces defending the rule of law.

All this does not really alleviate the immediate crisis, which some say could worsen if protests escalate, or repression against them does. “People are desperate. They are desperate for many reasons. Many are present right now in Sudan. There is no money. There is no food, no opportunity. There is a lot of violence, there is no place for security. moment people say, “No, I can’t stand it anymore?” I don’t know where that point is. But I think there’s that point, “Reeves said.

Even those who hope that Sudan can recover and restart this democratic transition recognize what is yet to come. “No matter how many people die, that’s the cost we all agreed to pay,” Tambal said.