Will Sudan's political process restore civilian rule?

Illustration - Analysis - Sudan civilian rule
5 min read
18 January, 2023
Analysis: The Framework Agreement to end military rule in Sudan has polarised pro-democracy forces, with many fearing that security elites are simply offering political parties and western diplomats empty promises.

As Sudanese politicians and security elites build on a December agreement to end the 2021 military coup, experts and activists say the process is being stained by a lack of inclusion, repression against anti-coup protesters, disregard for the high cost of living, and unrealistic time frames.

The second phase of the UN-backed deal – known as the Framework Agreement – was launched at the start of the year in order to address outstanding issues such as the retrieval of state assets from cronies affiliated with former dictator Omar al-Bashir, justice, and the role of security forces in a future democratic state.

The process has so far polarised pro-democracy civilian forces, according to Kholood Khair, the founding director of a think-tank in the capital of Khartoum called Confluence Advisory. 

She said that key signatories such as the broad coalition of political parties known as the Forces for Freedom and Change – Central Council (FFC-CC) are hailing the process. But most resistance committees and trade unions, which are spearheading anti-coup protests on the street, remain distrustful. 

"The Framework Agreement is a betrayal of (the street pro-democracy movement) and we don't agree with it"

“People in the FFC-CC maintain that these workshops are inclusive…and diverse enough to reflect Sudanese society. But when you look at what civil society groups are in the talks…it’s only those that support the FFC-CC,” Khair told The New Arab

“The Framework Agreement is a betrayal of (the street pro-democracy movement) and we don’t agree with it,” added Sammar Hamza, a member of a resistance committee in Khartoum.

“We will not be participating in [the talks] in the days ahead. Since the agreement was signed there have been no steps to even stop the violence against us.” 

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Repression and poverty

On the day that the Framework Agreement was signed, dozens of anti-coup protesters were injured for opposing the deal. Security forces have continued to repress anti-coup marches with tear gas and by shooting stones, glass, and other shrapnel from hunting rifles, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors. 

“The idea of creating the space for people to express their opinion is a crucial element of public participation,” said Mohamad Osman, the Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The situation now is that there is a climate of safety ensured for people engaged in the agreement, but it’s not the same treatment for people who are opposing the agreement.”

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo Array
The Framework Agreement has so far polarised pro-democracy civilian forces. [Getty]

Violence has also flared up in the country’s peripheries such as South Darfur, which has seen dozens of people recently killed in what authorities describe as ‘inter-communal’ clashes. 

However, the term ‘inter-communal’ is often misleading since it obscures the political drivers of conflict and the role that security forces play in orchestrating the attacks. 

For instance, a number of fighters from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is a powerful paramilitary group participating in political talks, reportedly took part in the attacks against non-Arab villages in South Darfur. 

Civilians across Sudan are also struggling to cope with the increasingly high cost of living that many activists and commentators blame on the policies of the putschists. 

"The [framework agreement] possesses nothing [in it] that will make [the putschists] actually commit to it"

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revealed that about 11.7 million people – a quarter of Sudan’s population – suffer from food insecurity. 

In Khartoum, many students have taken to the streets to protest an 800 percent hike in tuition fees. Teachers and bus drivers are also striking to protest poor wages and an increase in licensing fees, traffic fines, and taxes, respectively. 

To express solidarity with the workers, Sudan’s resistance committees called for a march on 17 January to demand that price hikes be reversed.

“The resistance committees are not solely occupied with reacting to the agreement. They are also reacting to the economy,” Osman told TNA.

“Yet despite the terrible economic situation and ongoing repression, the international community is muted about these protests because they don’t want to spoil the political momentum [of the talks].”

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Moving too fast? 

The first workshop of the political process concluded on 12 January after the two sides outlined the legal parameters and technical operations of the Empowerment and Removal Committee, which is tasked with retrieving stolen state assets from the former regime. 

But while that process enjoyed relatively broad consensus, the coming workshops are expected to lead to fierce disagreements between the security and civilian camps. 

Transitional justice, a revision of the Juba peace agreement that was signed in 2020 to end protracted wars between the government and armed groups, and security sector reform are the most contentious matters. 

Progress on any of those files would directly undermine the power and privileges of the two figures that led the October coup: military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, who is better known as Hemeti. 

Sudan protest
Security forces have continued to repress anti-coup marches. [Getty]

“Not everyone agrees that Burhan and Hemeti should face justice. Not everyone agrees that Juba should be reformed and not everyone agrees on how long the transitional process should be,” Khair said. 

While the FFC-CC signalled that a Final Agreement could be reached in the next few weeks, experts say that the process needs significantly more time and clear benchmarks to ensure that there is no room for misinterpreting the role of the incoming civilian cabinet and different security branches. 

“The deadline that the FFC-CC gave…is quite ambitious and unrealistic because the preparation needs to be meticulous,” said Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese expert and founder of the Transparency Policy Centre which crafts policy recommendations on Sudan. 

There are also concerns that regional countries – who rely on the military and armed groups to safeguard their interests in Sudan – won’t allow their clients to give up genuine power. 

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Egypt, which is dealing with its own economic crisis, may be particularly worried about losing privileged access to cheap food exports from Khartoum if the Sudanese military dilutes its power.

The main fear of protesters is that security elites are simply offering political parties and western diplomats empty promises that they will submit to civilian rule, just as they did in the past. 

“The [framework agreement] possesses nothing [in it] that will make [the putschists] actually commit to it,” said Hamza, a member of the resistance committee.

“It doesn’t consist of any guarantees.” 

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile.

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed