Will the Military or the People Lead Sudan?

Sudan has seen more change in the last four months than in the previous 30 years, and there is now a mixture of euphoria and caution about the future, following the removal of Omar Al Bashir.

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Sudanese protesters open their smartphones lights as they gather for a million-strong march outside the army headquarters in Khartoum on April 25, 2019. Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images.

Sudanese protesters open their smartphones lights as they gather for a million-strong march outside the army headquarters in Khartoum on April 25, 2019. Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images.

Many Sudanese believe that the uprising is moving in the right direction and will ultimately deliver a transition to a legitimate civilian government. However, this outcome remains finely balanced and there are valid concerns about the intentions of the new transitional military council and a possible return to dictatorship.

The military council maintains the need for a transitional period of up to two years before handing over power to civilians. But the protests have continued, despite the military’s attempts at gentle dispersion, and there are worries about how much patience the armed forces will continue to show.

There is significant potential for increased violence, particularly if demands for a rapid transition towards an inclusive, transitional civilian government are not met.

Will the military monopolize power?

The critical issue remains whether the armed forces will monopolise power and ultimately replace one military leadership with another, or whether power will be shared with, and then transferred to, a legitimate popular government.

The military council has positioned itself as the guardian of the democratic aspirations of Sudan’s people and met a range of political parties and foreign dignitaries.

But Sudan’s Islamist deep state and patronage networks are deeply embedded and cannot be disassembled overnight. The military has taken some immediate measures, including freezing government bank accounts, replacing senior officials, including the country’s chief justice and attorney general and arresting several key members of Al Bashir’s National Congress Party and two of his brothers on corruption charges.

The public prosecutor has also begun investigating Al Bashir himself on charges of money laundering after suitcases stuffed full of millions of dollars were allegedly found at his home.

Further steps will depend, at least initially, on the commitment and sincerity of General Al Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (known as Hemeti) the commander of the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia.

Al Burhan and Hemeti will look to unite the fractious elements of Sudan’s security state and have history of working together in Darfur and co-ordinating the deployment of Sudanese forces in Yemen.

But their increasing power could foster greater ambition and Sudanese people will be wary of another military figure taking over permanently. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi emerged in similar fashion in neighbouring Egypt and is now amending the constitution to enable him to remain in office until 2030. The plurality of political and civil space could act as a deterrent to Sudan following the Egyptian experience.

Justice and accountability for crimes committed by the security apparatus - crucial for national reconciliation - will necessitate officials going after their own at a time when they are trying to rebuild unity. It might prove their toughest test.

Al Bashir is now in Kobar prison and key regime figures such as Ahmed Haroun, the former acting party chairman, ex-presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie and Al Bashir’s previous deputy Ali Osman Taha have also been detained.

Al Bashir will likely be prosecuted in Sudan rather than by the International Criminal Court and his investigation for corruption will lead to fears that the military council might offer him a soft landing. The limited number of arrests so far could have given other regime figures time to cover their tracks, hide stolen resources and leave the country.

Other important Al Bashir allies, including former intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh and short-lived council leader General Ibn Auf, have stepped aside but remain both at liberty and influential.

There are multiple visions for how Sudan should now be governed. The forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change - steered by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of unions orchestrating the protest movement - are calling for peaceful resistance to continue until the military hands over power to civilians.

These forces, which include the main political opposition groups and civil society organisations, propose to govern the country for four years to bring about peace and accountability, followed by general elections.

The alliance has become more coherent but still needs to establish a leadership structure and policy positions. They have kept consistent pressure on the military council, pushing them to remove Islamist generals and form a joint committee that will work to establish a transitional civilian authority.

One proposal that might be more palatable is for power to be invested in a four-pronged interim transitional civilian government, of which they would be part. This administration would consist of an executive council, comprised of apolitical technocrats, including the prime minister; a constitutional council, with legislative powers made up of political parties; an independent judiciary; and a well-integrated and restructured security apparatus, with elements of the old regime removed.

The former ruling party has come out in support of the military council, although this is unlikely to secure them a position in any emergent administration. The role for Sudan’s broad spectrum of Islamist views and organisations is unclear. The protests have taken on an anti-Islamist tone but there are Islamists within the opposition too and alienating reformists could further divisions.

Regional alliances and international support

External perspectives are equally divergent. From within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have welcomed the military council and Al Burhan, who oversaw Sudan’s troops in Yemen in support of the Saudi-led coalition.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia announced a joint aid package of $3 billion, with $500m to ease the economic crisis. Many of the military were educated in Egypt and remain close to their counterparts.

In addition, this coalition has sought to halt the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and regionally, an organisation that Qatar and Turkey have both supported in its attempts to build influence in Sudanese politics. Sudan could be drawn back into a regional tug-of-war that Al Bashir proved ultimately unable to balance.

The African continent has also provided mixed messages. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council strongly condemned the coup and initially gave the military council a fortnight to hand over power to civilians before suspending Sudan’s membership, despite the fact that Egypt, which has supported the body, is currently the union’s chair.

However, after a recent meeting in Egypt, African leaders revised their recommendation to three months, recognising that more time was needed to implement reforms.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met a military delegation in Addis, expressing both his aspirations for strengthened democracy in Sudan and admiration for the council’s efforts in overseeing the transition.

Western officials have been meeting the military council but the European Union has made it clear it will not recognise the military council. The US, the UK and Norway have already called for a swift and credible transition to civilian rule.

Co-ordinated external support by regional and international partners will be critical to address the economic crisis, as well as reforming government institutions, ministries and security agencies.

Further down the line, development assistance, investment, debt relief and the lifting of the US designation of Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism can come into play. But all of this will depend on the establishment of a civilian transitional government which enjoys the trust of the population.

Sudan has come a long way in a short space of time. But the post-Bashir balance of power remains uncertain and untested. There is a real opportunity to capitalise on the momentum to build a new, unified Sudan – and as much chance of regression towards further conflict.

All sides must think beyond short-term power gains and be reasonable and realistic in order to find middle ground. Ultimately, whatever dispensation emerges needs to reflect the courage and determination of the huge numbers of Sudanese people calling for inclusive democracy.