Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy at stake as rival camps flex muscles

Supporters of Sudan’s transitional government have called for mass rallies in Khartoum on Thursday amid fears the military is plotting to withdraw its support for an uneasy power-sharing agreement, more than two years after a popular uprising led to the overthrow of veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

Sudanese demonstrators take to the streets of the capital Khartoum to demand the government's transition to civilian rule, on October 21, 2021.
Sudanese demonstrators take to the streets of the capital Khartoum to demand the government's transition to civilian rule, on October 21, 2021. © Ashraf Shazly, AFP

The call to protest sets the stage for a possible showdown between rival camps in the Sudanese capital, where supporters of military rule have held a sit-in outside the presidential palace since Saturday, calling for the dissolution of the country’s embattled transitional government.

The looming confrontation on the streets caps a month of escalating tensions between the military and a coalition of civilian political parties, who have ruled the country under a precarious power-sharing deal following Bashir’s removal in April 2019. 

The two camps have repeatedly traded barbs since an apparent coup attempt in late September, with army leaders demanding a cabinet overhaul and politicians accusing the military of plotting a power grab. Civilian officials have blamed both Bashir loyalists and the military for stirring up unrest, including in the east of the country where tribal protesters have been blocking shipping at the crucial Red Sea hub of Port Sudan, exacerbating shortages stemming from the country’s long-running economic crisis.

Pleading for unity last week, Abdallah Hamdok, Sudan’s civilian prime minister, said the attempted coup had “opened the door for discord, and for all the hidden disputes and accusations from all sides". In this way, he added, “we are throwing the future of our country and people and revolution to the wind."

Ousting Bashir, and then what?

The escalating tensions in the troubled nation of 40 million have raised alarm bells in the region and beyond – though experts sound unsurprised. If anything, it is remarkable that Sudan’s uneasy transition has made it this far, says Professor Natasha Lindstaedt of the University of Essex, stressing the toxic legacy of three decades under Bashir’s autocratic rule.

“Bashir was a very personalistic dictator who caused institutions around him to decay, leaving behind a weak state and an institutional void,” she explains. “With this type of regime what often follows is complete collapse and chaos, as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, [Muammar] Gaddafi’s Libya or [Ali Abdullah] Saleh’s Yemen.” 

Instead, the “monumental undertaking” of Bashir’s ouster has seen relatively little bloodletting – aside from a bloody June 2019 crackdown on protesters – and, so far, a bumpy but largely peaceful transition, notes Lindstaedt, who has written extensively about attempts to transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes.

“It could’ve turned into a civil war, but it didn’t,” she says. “Some feared a Libyan-style plunge into chaos or a military takeover, as in Egypt. In the end, Sudan took a middle way, even though the unity between civilians and the military is largely a façade.”

Civilian leaders remain suspicious of the army’s intentions, while key military figures are fearful of losing privileges acquired during the Bashir era. Some have been unnerved by calls for the extradition of the former strongman and his allies to the International Criminal Court, where they are wanted for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Other civilian goals include purging Bashir’s allies, seizing assets and putting the military’s extensive economic holdings under civilian control.

The trouble, says Lindstaedt, is that Sudan is largely deprived of the key requirements for a successful democratic transition, such as political parties and functioning state institutions. Moreover, its civilian leaders have struggled to find much common ground beyond their opposition to Bashir, undermining their pitch in a sprawling country scarred by regional conflicts and a biting economic crisis.

“The civilian camp is too weak, too loose a coalition of different groups and interests,” adds Lindstaedt. “It needs a platform, a programme that is not just, ‘We don’t want Bashir’.” 

Fake news and real grievances

Divisions within the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) – the umbrella civilian alliance that brought together Bashir’s opponents in 2019 – have presented the military with an opening to portray itself as the one stable entity that is above the fray, says David Kiwuwa, a professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham-Ningbo in China.

“Are they [the military] looking with glee as the civilian camp starts to unravel? Of course they are, because the more the civilians are unable to get their act together, the more they put the military in sharp contrast,” he explains. 

Politicians have accused army leaders of exploiting divisions in the civilian camp and fanning popular discontent against the transitional government. They point out that pro-army demonstrators have been bussed into the capital, swelling the ranks of anti-government protesters, and have been left alone by unusually lenient security forces. 

Senior military figures, like Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, the former head of the notorious Janjaweed militia and current head of the ruling Sovereign Council, have spoken disparagingly of politicians’ self-interest and compared it with the military’s purported selfless dedication to the good of the nation.

The battle for public opinion has also moved online, Reuters reported on Tuesday, noting that Facebook has recently shut down large networks used by Bashir loyalists to spread misinformation and agitate for a military takeover in Khartoum and civil disobedience in the east.

Fears of manipulation are certainly founded, says Michelle Gavin, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, though cautioning that they should not distract from the real concerns and discontent voiced by the Sudanese people.

“While it is very likely that the apparent popular enthusiasm for military government is orchestrated by those in the security services who fear losing access to power, there are genuine grievances they can seize on to bolster their case,” she points out. “There is no question that many Sudanese civilians are impatient with the pace of reform and economic recovery, and dismayed by infighting within the transitional government that distracts from tackling larger social issues.”

Only a month ago, civilian officials were celebrating signs that Sudan’s protracted economic crisis was easing following promises of debt relief and international financing. Since then, however, unrest in the east has resulted in Khartoum experiencing acute shortages of bread and imported staples. This in turn has stoked anger at the government and overshadowed its less tangible achievements.

“The transitional government has made some progress, for instance in negotiating peace deals with rebellions, in matters of justice and reconciliation, freedoms in the public space and political prisoners,” says Kiwuwa. “But, at the end of the day, it’s matters of bread and butter that are the real pressing concern.”

Nation building

After precipitating the fall of Bashir back in 2019, will spiralling bread prices – a traditional trigger of popular uprisings – now help the military topple civilian rulers?

According to Kiwuwa, the Sudanese army will be reluctant to attempt the kind of takeover that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in neighbouring Egypt, abruptly ending the country’s experiment with democracy.

Sudan’s power-sharing deal “was always going to be an uneasy marriage", he says. “But we haven’t necessarily reached a tipping point. The military is still wary of being seen to shove aside its civilian partner, which would spell the failure of the revolution and trigger widespread anger. It needs civilian help.”

Moreover, Sudan’s powerful military is no match for the Egyptian army with its sophisticated military apparatus and huge economic leverage, he adds. 

International pressure is also being brought to bear, with a flurry of high-level officials recently stopping in Khartoum, including World Bank President David Malpass and US Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman. Washington has warned that any military takeover would result in a return to the sanctions that hobbled the country under Bashir, and a rollback of debt forgiveness and international financing that are among the transition's biggest achievements.

As for the motley coalition that makes up Sudan’s “civilian” camp, it has “no other option than to continue the conversation, hoping to build some form of consensus in the years to come", says Kiwuwa.

“Sudan is facing an existential problem in how to build a Sudan for all the Sudanese,” he adds. “But you need to reach a measure of consensus in the first instance in order to understand what institutions to build.”

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