How to Make Sudan’s Revolution Succeed

Previous uprisings have failed due to squabbling among elites, poor civil-military relations, and a lack of economic development. Both sides of the transitional government must avoid past mistakes.

Sudan's protest leader Ahmad Rabie (C-R), flashes the victory gesture alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C-L), the chief of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council, during a ceremony where they signed a constitutional declaration that paves the way for a transition to civilian rule, in Khartoum on Aug. 17.
Sudan's protest leader Ahmad Rabie (C-R), flashes the victory gesture alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C-L), the chief of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council, during a ceremony where they signed a constitutional declaration that paves the way for a transition to civilian rule, in Khartoum on Aug. 17.

On April 11, state television in Sudan announced that there would be an important proclamation by the Sudanese military. Hours later, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, then the Sudanese vice president and minister of defense, declared that long-serving President Omar al-Bashir had been removed by the newly established security committee. This was a moment that came only after more than four months of continued demonstrations, organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association. 

The protests started in mid-December 2018, triggered by the increased bread prices in the eastern Sudanese city of Atbara, and then spread across the country. Eventually, the lengthy negotiations between the Transitional Military Council and opposition political organizations made the Sudanese people increasingly impatient. The people’s sit-in area turned into a huge political rally to discuss the fate of the revolution. Slogans like “Madanyaa!” which means “civilian” in Arabic, resonated as protesters demanded a civilian-led government instead of a military council.

In response, on June 3, the last day of Ramadan, joint security forces dispersed the sit-in outside the Sudanese military headquarters without any warning, leaving about 100 people dead, and many others were injured and raped. Many believed that it was the end of any hope for a deal between the Transitional Military Council and the protesters. However, on Aug. 17, the two sides came to a surprise agreement. The agreement will allow the council and the opposition to share power for three years, after which elections are set to be held. Within that time, the military will take charge of the country for the first 21 months, and then there will be a civilian-run administration for the final 18 months before elections. 

This uprising is the third revolution that has brought regime change in Sudan, following the two previous revolutions in October 1964 and April 1985, which failed due to three challenges: the elites’ political bargaining to resolve their differences by democratic means, the civil-military arrangement establishing the role of the military’s present and future role in politics, and the economic development strategy. In order to not share the fate of the previous two uprisings, these challenges must be dealt with during this transitional phase.

Many fear the military’s inclinations toward autocracy, as shown in the June 3 massacre, will ultimately doom the Aug. 17 agreement. If such a scenario plays out—in which the military ultimately dismisses a coalition with civilian groups and rules the nation alone—the country could fall back into the repression and corruption that haunted Sudan for 30 years. 

The first obstacle to political stability in Sudan is that there are too many competing political organizations and entities—there are more than 120 registered political parties in Sudan. However, the revolution has so far united Islamists, secularists, traditional parties, and progressive groups behind the goal of removing Bashir’s corrupt regime. 

The transitional phase should be a reconciliatory one to avoid social factionalism—a phenomenon that has contributed to the democratic breakdown on two occasions in Sudan’s history. In the 1950s, the political establishment that replaced Gen. Ibrahim Abboud’s military dictatorship had banned the Sudanese Communist Party from political activities in Sudan. This undemocratic move led the Communist Party to support Gen. Gaafar Nimeiry’s military coup in the 1960s. The only way to protect the uprising from similar outcomes is to widen the revolutionary coalition to incorporate parties that did not sign the Forces of Freedom and Change declaration back in January.

The declaration, which was signed by the Sudan Call, the National Consensus Forces, the Unionist Gathering, and the Sudanese Professionals Association, called for the unconditional withdrawal of Bashir and his regime from power and the formation of a national transitional government. A wider national coalition would create a real chance for progress toward democracy and would ensure a broader consensus on the new constitution formation process. 

The second challenge is the troubled civil-military relationship that has haunted Sudan since independence. Sudan has seen over 40 years of military rule and more than 13 coup attempts, a figure that indicates the military’s inclination to involve itself in politics. Hassan Ali, a political science professor at the University of Khartoum, argued in an article that “coups in Sudan are politics by other means.” However, it was the political establishment that consented to the coups along with the army. The political parties—the Umma Party in 1958, the leftist parties in 1964, and the Islamists in 1989—supported military coups that toppled democratically elected governments. 

This time, Ibn Auf assumed the office of the Transitional Military Council but quickly resigned the following day, as his council did not meet the expectations of the people. In fact, a statement by the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance called it an “internal, military coup d’etat, through which they reproduced the same faces and institutions that our courageous people have revolted against.” Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the military general inspector, was then sworn in as chairman of the Transitional Military Council. Burhan has enjoyed support inside the military ranks, and, more importantly, he has the support of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti—the general of the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that played a significant role in removing Bashir.

There is a need for political elites to understand the tenuous nature of the alliance that brought three different security apparatuses together against Bashir in his last days. This coalition consisted of the Sudanese Armed Forces, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and Dagalo’s paramilitary RSF. Some reports suggest that Salah Gosh, the head of NISS, played a coordinating role in convincing Hemeti and the military leaders to topple Bashir and to secure their position in the new government. Furthermore, the meetings of the security committee that Bashir created to deal with the protests were used to coordinate the coup against him. 

It is important to stress that if the civilian side moves too quickly to reform or dissolve any one of these military institutions, civil war might be the result. Just as former Baath Party officials in Iraq resisted U.S.-led policy of de-Baathification, factions of the Sudanese armed forces will seek to protect their interests and power.

One of the important steps toward stabilizing the civilian-military relationship could be the institutionalization of the RSF as a new branch of the military joint staff to put the RSF’s combat and military capabilities to use. If the RSF were to be under the joint staff, there would be more civilian control of the paramilitary organization, because that would guarantee a national and diverse recruitment and hence a more professional force. Hemeti may be inclined to accept this, because he is seeking legitimacy. 

Bashir’s fallen regime has proliferated armed groups other than the Sudanese Armed Forces to exploit divisions and apply divide-and-conquer strategies in the country. However, the NISS and the RSF forces played a decisive role in the fall of the regime on April 11, as they refused to follow the order to remove the protesters violently, a move that contradicts what happened on June 3 and that suggests the existence of two different trends inside the security apparatus: the hard-liners and the moderates. 

The best strategy for civilian powers to prevent the military from sabotaging the Aug. 17 agreement is to highlight the differences between the two currents of thinking within the Transitional Military Council. The civil-military bargain must assure that the various armed forces play an equal and uniting role, without exploitation, in guaranteeing a peaceful and smooth transition to democracy.

Finally, there is the question of economic reform. When South Sudan seceded following a referendum in 2011, Sudan lost almost half of its budget resources. Consequently, Sudan’s oil revenue declined by 75 percent, resulting in a 60 percent loss of fiscal revenues and foreign exchange earnings. Although the United States removed most of the Darfur sanctions against Sudan in 2017, the Sudanese government failed to stabilize the economy due to corruption and the government’s mismanagement. Today, a hamstrung economy and a deteriorating public service sector continue to haunt the country.

The new government of Sudan will have to deal with a failing economy, and, at the same time, it has to sustain democratic reforms. It will not be easy to reform Sudan’s economy after South Sudan seceded on top of three decades of government corruption and domination. However, there are opportunities, including the promising agriculture sector, which has witnessed enormous development in the last two years. Sudan has some of the most fertile land in Africa, and the previous government leased land—often to foreign governments and investors—to raise cash. The government should encourage the private sector to increase investments in hard currency and enhance the country’s infrastructure such as ports, national railways, and interstate highways. This could be done as part of new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s two-year strategy in which he asked for $8 billion in foreign aid during the next two years to rebuild the devastated economy.

The other growing sector in Sudan is business entrepreneurship. Young entrepreneurs have managed to resist the regime’s monopoly in the private sector by creating innovative software-based enterprises that have changed many aspects of Sudanese daily life such as Tirhal and Yalla Natlob, which are smartphone applications for ordering taxis and food. This industry can flourish with international support.

Additionally, to stabilize Sudan’s progress toward democracy, the international community needs to step up its financial and technical support to Khartoum during this critical time. Sudan is a regional and international crossroads. Globally, Sudan has been cooperating with the United States and the European Union on counterterrorism and migration issues. In this critical time, Sudan’s Gulf partners, the EU, and the United States should help by creating a Sudanese Marshall Plan that would ensure a smooth and successful transition to democracy. Sudan also needs to be delisted from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list that has been blocking foreign financial aid to Sudan since 1993.

The current transition will decide the fate of the new democracy that the Sudanese people aspire to achieve. It is a delicate phase and requires wise and cautious handling. A broad and inclusive civilian front can prevent counterrevolutionary powers from using divide-and-conquer tactics to weaken pro-democracy forces. Likewise, a pragmatic approach to the armed forces would strengthen democratic and reformist voices inside the security apparatus, while a forward-looking economic strategy could give the country the resources it needs to reinvent itself.

Yasir Zaidan is a lecturer in international affairs at the National University of Sudan. Twitter: @YasirZaidan91

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