Can Sudan withstand threats to its democratic transition?

A Sudanese protester runs past a recently painted mural during a demonstration near the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 24, 2019.
5 min read
19 October, 2021

Sudan’s democratic transition faces enduring threats following protests and a failed coup attempt, generating the country’s worst political crisis since its move towards a democratic transition two years ago.

Sudan’s revolution was initially received with enthusiasm in late 2018, as protestors driven by opposition towards corruption and dire economic circumstances took to the streets to demand the fall of former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

However, recent events show the risks of Sudan reverting to authoritarianism and the consequences of allowing impunity for military figures responsible for past war crimes.

Although the country’s political conditions may have appeared stable to observers following a unity agreement between civilian and military leaders in August 2019, reactionary aspirations from military figures have lived on under the surface.

"Recent events show the risks of Sudan reverting to authoritarianism"

Raging protests

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital Khartoum over the weekend, expressing support for military rule and the dissolution of the transitional government.

Met with an unusually limited security presence, the protesters called for Sudan’s post-revolution government to be dismantled, saying it had "failed" them politically and economically.

"The sit-in continues, we will not leave until the government is dismissed," Ali Askouri, one of the organisers of the protest, told AFP.

"We have officially asked the Sovereign Council," the military-civilian body that oversees the transition, "not to interact with this government anymore," he added.

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Meanwhile, a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian alliance that led the anti-Bashir protests from late 2018, and to which military leaders have demanded reforms, organised protests in favour of the government and against the military.

This highlights sharp divisions within the government and civil society, creating another obstacle for the country’s transition.

On Monday, however, police fired tear gas at pro-army protesters outside the office of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, as protests raged on for the third consecutive day. Before police intervened, pro-military protesters were heard shouting "down with Hamdok!".

Prior to the latest protests, the government said on 21 September that it had thwarted a coup attempt by a small, pro-Bashir sector of the Sudanese military. Indeed, since the revolution, there have been actors within the military who still have ties to the old regime.

sudan flag
In 2018, protestors driven by opposition towards corruption and dire economic circumstances took to the streets to demand the fall of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. [Getty]

It comes as Bashir is still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in Darfur, and the transitional government has previously said it will hand him over to the court for trial.

The divisions within both the street and government reflect a lack of national unity which could drive further chaos and threaten Sudan’s political transition, if no common ground for both sides is found.

Exploiting civilian grievances

However, the military is clearly keen to exploit grievances from the country’s worsening economic situation. Indeed, the army has tried to change the narrative in the streets and claim that the supposed ‘ineptitude’ of civilian rulers is responsible for societal woes.

Following the coup attempt, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti”), deputy head of the Sovereign Council, accused political leaders of “fighting over seats and divvying up positions,” which is evidently anti-democratic rhetoric.

"Divisions within both the street and government reflect a lack of national unity which could drive further chaos and threaten Sudan's political transition"

While there is growing opposition towards Sudan’s interim government as it has struggled to meet many people’s expectations, elements of the military are looking for an opportunity to exploit the situation and gain power, as they have sought to do so since the transitional agreement was brokered in August 2019.

Sudan has indeed faced grave domestic challenges since its transition, including grappling with a fragile economic situation which includes soaring inflation and hard currency shortages. The Covid-19 lockdowns have compounded these economic woes, prompting Sudanese protestors to take to the streets multiple times in the last year.

A recent example is the four-week-long blockade of Port Sudan, with protestors behind the blockade blaming the government in Khartoum for neglecting the eastern regions. While there are theories circulating that the military is behind the protests, Sudanese analysts have argued that people’s grievances in that region are justified.

However, the blockade has posed further risks for Sudan’s economic stability, as the government has said it is running low on fuel and wheat as a result.

Although the removal of Sudan last year from the United States’ restrictive list of state sponsors of terrorism was a sign of hope - the listing previously prevented international investment in Sudan - the government has still been unable to provide a solution to its domestic woes.

At this point, it is unlikely that various countries will step in to address the political crisis. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Kuwait all denounced the coup attempt and stressed the need for the country’s transition to meet the aspirations of the Sudanese people.

The role of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh is indeed curious, given that both offered support to the military immediately following the revolution in April 2019.

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However, Abu Dhabi is likely to step away from the crisis given that it is less willing to adopt bellicose foreign policy actions under the Biden administration, as shown by its recent rapprochement with its fierce rival Turkey, which also has strong relations with Sudan.

Moreover, the UAE expanded a strategic partnership with Sudan in August, which shows it would be keen to maintain its ties with the current government.

While Hamdok’s administration could indeed adopt more decisive leadership and offer a solution for ordinary people’s woes, Sudan’s wider economic challenges will worsen the country’s transition and pose severe risks.

A more stable government, which can address people’s needs while upholding economic stability, would be a necessary factor to attract more investments which could revitalise the country’s transition.

Moreover, reforms to the military and paramilitary groups would be an important step, as well as holding those responsible for historic violations to account.

In the meantime, the lurking threats to Sudan’s transition have clearly manifested themselves, showing its transition could face further road bumps.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey