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

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

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

The imminent confrontation in the streets culminates a month of mounting tensions between the military and a coalition of civilian political parties, which have ruled the country under a precarious power-sharing agreement following Bashir’s removal from office in April 2019.

The two camps have repeatedly exchanged criticism since an apparent coup attempt in late September, with army leaders demanding a cabinet review and politicians accusing the military of plotting a takeover. Civil officials have blamed both Bashir loyalists and the military for causing unrest, including in the east of the country, where tribal protesters have been blocking shipping in the crucial Red Sea center of Port Sudan, exacerbating shortages. derived from the prolonged economic crisis in the country. .

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

Topple Bashir, and then what?

Rising tensions in the troubled nation of 40 million have sounded alarms in the region and beyond, though experts don’t seem surprised. If anything, it is remarkable that Sudan’s uneasy transition has gone so far, says Professor Natasha Lindstaedt of the University of Essex, emphasizing the toxic legacy of three decades under Bashir’s autocratic rule.

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

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

Sudan’s prime minister urges restraint as military and civil divisions deepen

“It could have turned into a civil war, but it didn’t,” he says. “Some feared a Libyan-style fall into chaos or a military takeover, as in Egypt. In the end, Sudan took a middle path, even though the unity between civilian and military is largely a facade. ”

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

Other civilian objectives include purging Bashir’s allies, confiscating assets, and putting the army’s vast economic properties under civilian control.

The problem, Lindstaedt says, is that Sudan is largely deprived of key requirements for a successful democratic transition, such as functioning political parties and state institutions. Furthermore, its civil leaders have struggled to find many common ground beyond their opposition to Bashir, undermining his discourse in a sprawling country marked by regional conflict and an acute economic crisis.

“The civil camp is too weak, too loose a coalition of different groups and interests,” adds Lindstaedt. “You need a platform, a show that’s not just ‘We don’t want Bashir.’

Fake news and real grievances

Divisions within the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the general civil alliance that brought together Bashir’s opponents in 2019, have presented the military with an opportunity to present themselves as the only stable entity standing by. on top of the fray, says David Kiwuwa, a professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham-Ningbo in China.

“Are they [the military] watching with glee as the civilian encampment begins to crumble? Of course they are, because the more civilians are unable to act together, the more they contrast with the military, ”he explains.

Politicians have accused the army leaders of exploiting divisions in the civil field and fueling popular discontent against the transitional government. They note that pro-army protesters have been bussed into the capital, increasing the ranks of anti-government protesters, and have been left alone by unusually lenient security forces.

Senior military figures, such as Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, former head of the notorious Janjaweed militia and current head of the ruling Sovereign Council, have spoken dismissively of politicians’ self-interest and compared it to the military’s alleged selfless dedication to good. . of the NATION.

The battle for public opinion has also moved online, Reuters reported Tuesday, noting that Facebook 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 this.

Fears of manipulation are certainly well founded, says Michelle Gavin, Ralph Bunche’s senior fellow for African policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, although she cautions that they should not distract from the real concerns and discontent expressed by the Sudanese people. .

“While the apparent popular enthusiasm for military rule is most likely orchestrated by those in the security services who fear losing access to power, there are genuine grievances that they can leverage to bolster their case,” he says. “There is no doubt 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 addressing larger social issues.”

Two years after Bashir’s ouster, protesters in Sudan condemn slow political reform

Just a month ago, civil servants were celebrating signs that Sudan’s protracted economic crisis was easing on promises of debt relief and international financing. Since then, however, unrest in the east has caused Khartoum to experience an acute shortage of imported bread and staple foods. This, in turn, has fueled anger against the government and overshadowed its less tangible achievements.

“The transitional government has made some progress, for example in negotiating peace agreements 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 bread and butter issues that are the real pressing concern.”

Nation building

After precipitating the fall of Bashir in 2019, will rising bread prices, a traditional trigger for popular uprisings, now help the military to overthrow civilian rulers?

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

Sudan’s power-sharing deal “was always going to be an awkward marriage,” he says. “But we have not necessarily reached a tipping point. The army still fears that it will be seen to push its civilian partner aside, which would spell the failure of the revolution and unleash widespread anger. It needs civilian help.”

Furthermore, Sudan’s powerful army is no match for the Egyptian army with its sophisticated military apparatus and enormous economic influence, he adds.

International pressure is also being exerted, with a wave of high-level officials recently detained in Khartoum, including World Bank President David Malpass and US Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman. Washington warned that any military takeover would result in a return to the sanctions that hampered the country under Bashir, and in a rollback of debt forgiveness and international financing that are among the greatest achievements of the transition.

As for the heterogeneous coalition that makes up Sudan’s “civil” camp, “it has no choice but to continue the conversation, hoping to build some kind of consensus in the years to come,” Kiwuwa says.

“Sudan faces an existential problem about how to build a Sudan for all Sudanese,” he adds. “But it is necessary to reach a certain consensus in the first instance to understand which institutions to build.”