A People Power Bid to Defy History in Sudan
As talks between the military junta and civilians stall, demonstrators thronging the streets say this won’t be just another Arab Spring outcome.
KHARTOUM, Sudan—As protesters gathered in 100-degree-plus heat Thursday for what was called a “million-strong” march to push the military junta out of power, the demonstration’s organizers knew they were haunted by their history—a past full of failed Arab Spring uprisings and Sudan’s own dashed expectations for democracy.
But many of the demonstrators interviewed said the protests would continue in the face of deadlocked talks between the military coup plotters and civilian activists over the country’s transition from the long rule of Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted last month.
“Bashir is gone, but the system remains,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that has been spearheading the demonstrations. “The first goal of our protests has not been met, which is to remove the previous regime. The first objective is complete handover of power unconditionally and peacefully.”
Participants in the march say their nation’s grim history is informing their tactics now. Samahir Mubarak, a member of the Sudanese Pharmacists Association, said that Sudan’s people learned after a coup in 1985 that the military will not willingly return power to the people. “We need to keep protesting to save the revolution,” he said.
Some protesters say they know they’re also dealing with the cynical expectation—both among the military and governments abroad—that the demonstrations will eventually peter out as in the past. But they’re determined to dash those expectations, as they’ve done for the last several months. When activists were spearheading protests to oust Bashir in December 2018, they said they were snickered at by American and European diplomats during meetings, as if they were destined to be the “revolution that was not,” as in Bahrain in 2011. Demonstrations continued anyway. And when the activists pushed the protests into a fever pitch that caused Bashir’s grip to wobble on April 6, they were warned that their country could descend into a civil war, like Libya’s. Bashir was ousted anyway.
Finally, when the Sudanese military junta that removed Bashir on April 11 stacked negotiations to keep its grip on political power, some of those in control again expected the resistance to be broken, as happened in Egypt when a new dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eventually replaced the old dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
But the organizers of Sudan’s protests say they are intent on defying the Arab Spring script that has been handed to them. Demonstrators have not left the army headquarters since Bashir’s fall in their bid to force a civilian-led transition. At night, demonstrators hold up their smartphones with flashlights turned on to create beams of light in the darkness.
“We will sit here until next year, because we want to take our rights. You must take them—they are not given,” said Mona Abaker, a student, her face aglow in the orange streetlights. She paused, and smiled at the riot of democracy unfolding before her in front of the army headquarters. She eyed a troupe of young men dancing and singing in the crowd. “We will sleep here!” they chanted. Abaker pointed to the young men: “See? We are here to stay.”
On Thursday, protests began anew in neighborhoods across the dust-swept capital city of Khartoum with the intention of reaching the military headquarters. Temperatures reached 110 degrees, yet the demonstrations continued with the aid of copious quantities of coffee and water served on street corners. The hope was that the protest’s size would show the military how unified demonstrators are. The street in front of the army headquarters was transformed into a carnival of hope as mobs coalesced into a soundtrack of thumping drums and screeching whistles. “Freedom, peace, justice,” many shouted. Dust-coated demonstrators and soldiers alike intermingled.
The march comes at an inflection point in Sudan’s history, as whoever controls Sudan’s transition will dictate the country’s political future, probably for a long time to come. When the alliance of activists and opposition parties first met with the military council last week to negotiate the transition, the junta was welcoming, according to Siddig Yousif, one of six civilian negotiators. But the army council, which is led during the negotiations by Mohamed “Hemeti” Hamdan, the head of a feared paramilitary unit called the Rapid Support Forces, turned aggressive in later meetings.
“If you don’t agree with us, don’t come to the negotiations,” Hemeti told the civilian negotiators on Monday, Yousif said. “Hemeti is the real power, not the military,” Yousif said.
On Thursday, opposition parties plan on giving the military junta a 72-hour ultimatum demanding civilian control of the transitional council or they will call a nationwide general strike next week, according to Yousif. “Initially it will be trade unions, but once it starts others will join,” he said. The Sudanese Professionals Association, which is also part of the coalition of civilian negotiators, did not comment on the record about details of the negotiations.
The military junta is backed by a trifecta of Arab nations that are trying to ensure they outnumber civilians on the transitional council. The United Arab Emirates backed the coup against Bashir because of its relationship with Hemeti, whose Rapid Support Forces serve in Yemen, according to a Sudanese diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from the military council. Egypt’s military leader, Sisi, met with leading members of the coup plot shortly before it was launched. After the coup, the Arab nations cemented their support. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion in financial support to Sudan. At the African Union, Egypt has pushed to give the military leaders more time to control the country’s political transition. An emissary of the Emirati royal family described to Foreign Policy how they are distributing cash and sweets across Sudan before the Ramadan holiday in early May.
U.S. diplomats have recognized the Gulf states’ power in Sudan and are meeting with the Emirati ambassador in Khartoum, but some Sudanese officials who are sympathetic to the demand for civilian rule hope for more. “Sudanese need America to deal with them directly and not through a third party,” the Sudanese diplomat told Foreign Policy.
Behind the scenes, the United States, Canada, and European nations have promised opposition parties that they will not support the legitimacy of the military if they keep power.
Squabbles inside Sudan’s military and intelligence service may be crucial to the fate of the country. The Rapid Support Forces are sprawled throughout the Khartoum area and often wear Saudi-style camouflage uniforms. Hemeti and his forces are accused of human rights violations for their actions during the genocide in Darfur.
Sudan’s feared former intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, is free to travel in his signature white jalabiya and turban across Khartoum to meet the country’s elite. Gosh resigned as intelligence chief two days after Bashir’s removal, but rumors of his arrest have apparently been exaggerated. “Yes I am free, of course,” Gosh told Foreign Policy.
Both members of the Sudanese Professionals Association and experts say there is a possibility the protests could encounter violence. Many cite a repeat of 2013, when the Sudanese government allegedly killed around 200 people who participated in protests.
Protesters hope that because many junior troops have joined the marches, they will not be fired on by the Sudanese military. One demonstrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described smoking marijuana with soldiers near the Nile River.
“Why the Sudanese Armed Forces and other parts of the security apparatus have been refraining from violence is mostly due, I believe, to the fact that a large share of the protesters belong to the same ‘riverine’ elite from northern Sudan which is dominating the security apparatus,” said Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher specializing on Sudan. “But Hemeti’s forces are from Darfur and have no reason to refrain from using violence against anyone except their own limited Arab tribes.”
Yet despite the military junta’s power, there are no signs that the protesters are fading. The Sudanese Professionals Association is intricately organized and has become stronger. They are not communists, as the junta claims. The Sudanese Professionals Association is really an umbrella group consisting of trade organizations that can be further divided by business type, creating a chain of organizations activated to dissent. The group takes substantial measures, like using false names, to avoid infiltration by the security services and keep their plans secret until the last minute.
They key to figuring out who will win in the battle between protesters and the military is “splits on both sides,” said Naunihal Singh, the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. “How unified are the protesters? Can some be peeled off and others be made to seem like they are the problem?” Singh asked. “How unified are the military and security forces? If someone wants to move against the protesters, will anyone block them or complain?”
If no resolution comes, the longer-term possibility is civil war, said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA and White House official in the George W. Bush administration. “Security services turn on each other and it is open warfare, or talks break down and protests get broken up forcibly,” Hudson said. Another worry is the proliferation of militias and military units that are deployed across Sudan. “The militias are much more powerful outside of Khartoum and seem likely to feed off of the population,” he said.