Many of those most opposed to "foreign interference" are self-identified Islamists, often former supporters of al-Bashir, whose National Congress Party had Islamist leanings. They, too, would like a path back towards political power.

Sudan's path to democratic transition
Will the Sudan deal hold?

Sudanese protesters have been calling for the removal of German diplomat Volker Perthes from the UN mission to the country. Despite the fractious nature of post-dictatorship politics, there are some reasons for optimism, such as the latest deal. By Cathrin Schaer

In recent weeks, the calls from protesters in Sudan have become louder. Carrying signs that say "Volker out!" and "No to foreign interference", thousands of Sudanese people have indicated they would like to see the back of German diplomat Volker Perthes, who heads the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS).

Established by a 2020 UN resolution, the mission is tasked with supporting Sudan in its transition to democratic rule.

"I do find it unpleasant when things get personal, as is the case here," said Perthes. "But at the UN we stand up for the right to peaceful assembly. And we know, as we try to progress a political solution, together with Sudanese parties, the military and others, that we become part of the controversy."

Perthes said there had been about 2,500 people demonstrating in front of UN headquarters in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, over the past few weekends, and he expects about the same number again this weekend.

Years of upheaval

A transitional civilian-military government was formed after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. It was described as a historic chance for a return to civilian rule and democracy, and elections were planned for 2023. But, in October 2021, the transitional government was itself overthrown, with the military half of the government ousting civilian politicians and taking over.

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum, October 2022 (photo: AP Photo/picture-alliance)
Neither the pro-democracy groups pictured here nor the Sudanese military have been demonstrating against UNITAMS and Perthes. Indeed, despite everything, there are glimmers of hope. Most recently, the military and civilian groups have been trying to agree on a set of rules that would set the country back on course towards elections and democracy

Since then, Sudan has not had a prime minister or Cabinet, and its economy has been in difficulties as international investment, debt relief and development aid stopped after the 2021 coup. The UN's World Food Program recently projected that one-third of people in Sudan would become food insecure in 2022 because of ongoing political and economic problems.

Civilian pro-democracy groups have continued to take to the streets to voice displeasure about the military takeover. They have suffered casualties as a result, yet have also managed to prevent a complete military takeover.

Opposing 'foreign interference'

Neither the military nor the pro-democracy groups have been demonstrating against UNITAMS and Perthes though. Many of the Sudanese people most opposed to "foreign interference" are self-identified Islamists, often former supporters of al-Bashir, whose National Congress Party had Islamist leanings. They, too, would like a path back towards political power. 

Despite the fractious nature of post-dictatorship Sudanese politics, there have been some glimmers of hope since the middle of this year. At the beginning of December, the military and civilian groups agree on a set of rules that should set the country back on course towards elections and democracy. 

News agency Reuters reported in November that Sudan's main civilian coalition, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) had announced it was planning to sign a new agreement with the military on how to go back to transitioning towards democracy.

"So, if we compare the situation today, with the situation a year ago, things have improved," Perthes said. "There is a general feeling that, after a year of standstill and of different groups trying to shut each other out, something is happening here and a compromise may be reached."

Sudan's many challenges

Even though a deal has been reached, all Sudan is doing is moving from one political impasse to another, believes Kholood Khair, founder of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory and an expert on Sudan's democratic transition.

 

"At first, the international community was very concerned about the impasse between the FFC pro-democracy umbrella group and the generals that are part of the coup," she said. "Now, there seems to be some level of agreement between the FFC and the generals."

But, Khair said, there are still a lot of people left out of the discussion who have not agreed to anything. That includes former rebel groups to the south, as well as youthful resistance groups and tribal and religious leaders. "Effectively the nature of the impasse has shifted," Khair said. 

Khair and Perthes say there are several other issues with the potential to wreck any deal.

This includes questions such as who gets to be prime minister and president during the transitional period and how to reform the military. The current plan is for a transition period lasting two years but this may be too short to achieve much, Khair said. After a year of political limbo, it is likely to fall short of people's high expectations and ultimately end in more protests — followed by more instability.

Distrust of the military

It's also important to be clear-eyed about the Sudanese military's role in all this. In a November study of how Sudanese military leaders had behaved "post-coup", researchers from the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg and the University of Central Florida concluded that, even though the military was now saying it wanted democracy, its leaders were making incremental changes that would continue to allow the army to dominate. "Even seemingly tame policy changes can fortify military rule against civilian challenges," the researchers wrote. When negotiators confine their focus to the more general outcome, they may miss such slight but significant changes, they concluded.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan raises a fist surrounded by his supporters (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
So what about the military? In a recent study of how Sudanese military leaders had behaved "post-coup", researchers from the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg and the University of Central Florida concluded that, even though the military was now saying it wanted democracy, its leaders were making incremental changes that would continue to allow the army to dominate. "Even seemingly tame policy changes can fortify military rule against civilian challenges"

Khair said officials needed to consult more with the population. "The nature of Sudanese politics has shifted," she said, "and we can no longer say that certain leaders are representative of large swathes of the Sudanese public." The FFC, for example, used to represent the majority of pro-democracy parties in the country, but it no longer has the same backing. "Without those large, diverse groups of people feeling they have been heard and are part of the process, this is not going to go anywhere," Khair said.

This is another criticism levelled at UNITAMS and other international bodies working in Sudan: rather than wanting them to get out of the country, these critics say they have not been present in enough of the country. "There's a grain of truth in that," Perthes said. "In an ideal world, we would have the resources to open more offices all around the country. But we have a huge mandate and relatively few resources."

As for the idea that Sudan is simply moving from one political impasse to another, the German diplomat was more sanguine. "You could look at it that way," Perthes said. "But I'd say it is more about gradually reducing the gaps and that any settlement – and any compromises – will come in stages."   

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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