After the ousting of Omar al-Bashir
Sudan holding out for real change

The political future of Sudan must now be hammered out from a precarious starting point. Demonstrators in Khartoum cannot instigate a new beginning without the old institutions; and the transition from toppled dictator to his former military allies will not be seamless. By Karim El-Gawhary

For Sudan's opposition parties and the Sudanese Professionals' Association (SPA), which co-ordinated the protests against long-serving dictator Omar al-Bashir, this can already be called a huge success: their four-month protest impelled the military to depose Bashir. Within 24 hours, his successor Awad Ibn Auf also had to go, as well as the despised and notorious security chief Salah Gosh. But the military continues to remain in the game. After all, with state institutions in such a weakened predicament there are few other institutions in Sudan that could implement a transition.

This responsibility now initially falls to the new transitional president and member of the military, Abdel Fattah Burhan. His first task is to try and gain the trust of the demonstrators. He has lifted the curfew, promised to free protesters detained since the rallies began in December and to bring those responsible for the deaths of demonstrators to justice. He has also announced that the "Bashir regime and its symbols would be uprooted".

Protests tolerated

The arrest of representatives of the old regime also got underway last weekend. Addressing the demonstrators, Burhan pledged that they would be allowed to continue gathering on the streets as long as no-one took up arms. His spokesman Major General Shams Eddin Shanto explained that the Military Council was ready to implement whatever was agreed by opposition parties. "We will not appoint a prime minister, they must do that," he said.

But the demonstrators continue to be vigilant. The word from their ranks is that although Burhan isn't perfect, he's the best possible option at the present time and so far, he's done everything right. But just to be sure, they have also announced that they plan to remain on the streets until the formation of a civilian government.

Head of the new Sudanese military council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Can a peaceful transition to civilian government succeed under the military? The head of the new Military Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in his first televised address last Saturday, at least announced the prospect of far-reaching political change. He said he would fight corruption and "remove the regime and its symbols from the root". The general also ordered the lifting of the night curfew and the release of detained demonstrators

Initial talks between the military and the opposition began at the weekend. At those negotiations, the opposition demanded a four-year civilian government under the protection of the military and a total restructuring of the security apparatus, as well as the liquidation of the militias that once operated in Bashir's name and that primarily rampaged in Darfur. The military called for a consensus agreement over a "patriotic and independent person" to head the government and availed itself of the strategic defence and interior ministry.

Each side needs the other. The military needs the legitimation of the demonstrators to gain international recognition and above all the financial aid so urgently required by the nation. The opposition needs the institution of the military to implement nationwide reforms and dislodge the old regime.

"Victory or Egypt"

At present, it would appear that those with access to arms are in a stronger position, although trusting them is difficult. The demonstrators in Khartoum are only too aware of the Egyptian example, in which the country's military co-opted the protesters following the toppling of Mubarak and later removed all traces of change. "El-Nasr or Misr" (Victory or Egypt) is a chant that can be heard now on the streets of Khartoum.

But there are also many indications of huge discrepancies within the Sudanese military over how to deal with the new situation. For example, there were evident differences of opinion between senior military leaders and the younger officers which led to the resignations of Auf and Gosh, as well as disagreements between the army and Islamist militias.

But there are still a few other external actors who may be a cause for concern among demonstrators and the opposition in Sudan. It is not in the interest of other autocratic Arab regimes for a civilian government to establish something genuinely democratic in Sudan. They view such an experiment as a direct threat to their own power. The Egyptian intelligence agency may make every effort to split the Sudanese protests. The Gulf States will deploy their financial clout and invest in hindering any democratic development there.

Burhan, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia

The opposition should also be sceptical of the fact that at the moment, the transitional president and military leader is enjoying the support of Egypt and the autocratic Gulf States. He is especially familiar with the latter, because he has co-ordinated the Sudanese troops deployed in Yemen since 2015 on the side of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates as ground troops against the Houthi rebels. Burhan, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia have a good working relationship.

But the opposition and the demonstrators in Sudan should also not be underestimated. They held out for four months before Bashir was finally ousted. They have shown that they can mobilise the streets peacefully against all resistance by security forces and not just in the capital Khartoum, but in many parts of the country and across all ethnic and confessional groups and social strata.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

More on this topic