Q&A

‘The Possibility of Violence Is Very Real’

Sudan’s transition hangs in the balance, says Zachariah Mampilly, an expert on protest movements and African politics.

Sudanese protesters gather for a sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum on May 15.
Sudanese protesters gather for a sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum on May 15. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, which rapidly moved into the vacuum left by ex-President Omar al-Bashir, isn’t looking to step out of the spotlight and allow a civilian-led transition to democracy just yet. On Thursday, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the military’s interim government, announced that it would halt any talks with representatives of the uprising for 72 hours. The two sides had reportedly been on the verge of closing a deal to form a new, 300-seat legislative council that would govern the country for three years before holding elections.

To gain some insight, Foreign Policy spoke to Zachariah Mampilly, a professor of political science at Vassar College, who has done extensive research on African protest movements as drivers of political change.

Foreign Policy: It looks like we’re in a particularly thorny point in Sudan’s transitional moment. How would you describe it?

Zachariah Mampilly: Mostly, the military was feeling pressed into a corner, and it was trying to make concessions that it doesn’t necessarily have the full support of the rank and file to offer. And so there is a lot of disagreement within the military, as they have made some nods to the protesters’ demands, but they are not comfortable with the arrangement that is being worked out.

FP: And how would you characterize the violence that we’ve seen in the last couple of days? I’ve seen all kinds of ambiguities around who is killing protesters.

ZM: Ambiguity is the correct word for it. There are at least two possibilities—one that these are rogue elements within the Rapid Support Forces and that they’re not being directed from above. But I would say it is more likely that this reflects dissension within the higher ranks of the military and that there is some degree of coordination, where signals are being sent by the higher-ups that it’s OK for this violence to go forward.

FP: Do you think that Mohamed HamdanHemeti” Dagolo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces and a key figure in Transitional Military Council, was involved in the decision-making loop that led to those shots being fired?

ZM: I think it is unclear, and anybody who says they know is probably exaggerating. Mainly that’s because there isn’t a unified military command in Sudan—that is one of the key legacies of the Bashir regime. So it is certainly possible that some of these elements are operating independently, and it’s very hard to pin responsibility on any specific individual.

FP: It was being reported that Sudan was in the last mile of these conversations between the civilian opposition and the Transitional Military Council, and now it looks as if those have been derailed. What do you think of this current freeze in negotiations?

ZM: The military is not powerless in this moment. They have quite a lot of support from external actors in particular [Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others]. So giving into the demands of protesters that civilians be given greater responsibility for the transition period is a decision that the military understands as being very threatening to their position within Sudanese society. The idea that they are going to give that up—it’s not clear to me that the protesters yet have the upper hand to force the military to cede that position.

FP: It seems like the military is really trying to exert their control over the situation by reining the protesters back into a narrower area of Khartoum rather than allowing roadblocks to spread out into neighborhoods.

ZM: The possibility of violence is very real, and there has to be a lot of scrutiny over what happens next. As far as where the protesters go from here, I think they are reaching a point where concessions have to be made. Though I think their core demand is legitimate, and protesters should hold onto that demand, it may be necessary to offer some sort of assurances to figures within the military that if the civilian-led Transitional Military Council is allowed to go forward, there wouldn’t necessarily be individual prosecutions for certain figures within the military ranks.

FP: And what do you think is the best possible outcome in terms of this transition period that the protesters are working to build out for the next three years?

ZM: For me, it would be something beyond an electoral process, because I think that’s too prone to all sorts of corruption and intervention by other forces. So I would strongly hope to see a broader discourse around accountability for the Bashir regime. I have called for, and I think it’s still warranted, something like a truth and reconciliation process to accompany the electoral process, which will get priority during this transition period. I think that an election without any sort of frank and honest national dialogue is unlikely to make much progress.

FP: How do you think this kind of volatility affects people beyond Khartoum—especially in Darfur?

ZM: The biggest issue really hasn’t been much representation from some of the armed groups in places like Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. And I think that is intentional. They have chosen to remain somewhat aloof from the process. Not because they don’t care—I think they’re just waiting to see what happens before they throw their support behind the opposition forces. So they remain somewhat of a wild card. As soon as this agreement between the protesters and the military is reached, they’ll have to turn their attention to the peripheries and ensure that all the different stakeholders are going to buy into this broader transitional process.

FP: Is there anything else that we should be paying attention to as this continues to progress?

ZM: One big question mark for me is the strength of the opposition coalition. There are organized forces that are negotiating on behalf of the opposition, but I’m curious to understand better to what degree they actually represent the broader will of the protest movement itself.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Jefcoate O'Donnell is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @brjodonnell

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