Majzoub: Sudan’s Democratic Transition at a Crossroads

Together, protest and robust international pressure could restore Sudan’s democratic transition.

by Tala Majzoub | 11/5/21 4:00am

On Oct. 25, the Sudanese military seized power and declared a state of emergency. In response, thousands of civilians poured into the streets of the capital, Khartoum, in protest against the prospect of military rule. General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s power-sharing “Sovereignty Council,” which constitutes a lead civilian-military institutional setup, launched the military coup and took the prime minister captive. Although prospects of a return to military rule loom over Sudan, the counterrevolution could still be reversed with extensive street protest coupled with firm international pressure. 

Tension between civilians and the military in Sudan began to manifest soon after the army pulled its support from former dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. The military insisted on guarding the transitional period, but a coalition of civilian political groups, The Forces of Freedom and Change, called for a full return to democracy. In the end, military generals and civilian opposition leaders reached a provisional constitutional declaration establishing the power-sharing Sovereignty Council led by General Burhan. The agreement stipulated that the governing body would cede the presidency of the council in November to a civilian, who would then lead it for another 18 months. 

But since the agreement went into effect in July, the military has revealed its anti-democratic tendencies and shown no interest in relinquishing its control. Burhan has cited the strife and deadlock within the transitional government as justification for the coup — the popularity of which has deteriorated as the country’s economy has worsened. However, the true reason for the coup is a lot more direct than it first appears — simply put, General Burhan is not ready to give up power.

Despite his ambitious rationalization, it is difficult to see how military rule would reconcile the political differences or help address the record-breaking inflation in the country. The fundamental difference between the officers and civilians has always been about the extent to which they execute the democratic path charted by the 2019 agreement. Not only did the military dismiss the government and detain the prime minister — they also declared a state of emergency and imposed telecommunication blackouts to control the flow of information. And against the backdrop of international condemnation, the military leaders adamantly refuse to back down. In fact, the Sudanese security forces have barricaded the streets, responding violently to the anti-coup protesters by killing at least 12 people and injuring over 150. 

If similar experiences in the region have taught us anything, it’s that with increased militarization come grim prospects for democracy — greater repression, tyranny and violence.

In the authoritarian-afflicted Arab world, leaders do not seem too keen on sharing power or yielding it to civilians: For example, Egypt’s democratic transition was cut short by severe fissures in the revolutionary coalition and a complete military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. More recently, a video circulated of Lebanon’s minister of information stating in an interview that he wishes Lebanon would have a “temporary” five-year military coup to “give people their rights back.” To their credit, the interviewer laughed — and reminded the minister that there is “no such thing as a temporary military coup.”

Other uprisings have managed to avoid a full return to military rule, and the same could be true for Sudan. Old regime officers were met with a fierce revolutionary response when they attempted a coup in Burkina Faso in 2015 and power was quickly returned to civilians a week later. In Tunisia — while some activists encouraged the military intervention in 2013 — the main revolutionary parties opposed the temptation to turn to military rule and the coup failed. A decisive factor in whether a coup will successfully take hold is the scale of popular response. In Sudan, nationwide protests denounced the military coup and demanded that power be handed over to civilians. As of right now, the task of ensuring Sudan’s democratic transition falls chiefly on Sudanese supporters of democracy — a majority that showed its strength in ousting al-Bashir in 2019.

Yet, protest alone is inadequate. The pro-democracy movement can only be fully rectified with the help of foreign allies that hold the power to influence and dispel counterrevolutionary forces. In Sudan, the international response seems promising. Many foreign governments and human rights groups have demanded the immediate release of the civilian political leaders and condemned the coup. The United Nations Security Council expressed serious concern and solidarity with the Sudanese people — affirming its readiness to support efforts to realize Sudan’s democratic transition — and the United States halted $700 million in aid to Sudan. Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, the responses from the nearby authoritarian Gulf countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have been performative in nature. 

Little faith can be placed in Arab governments when it comes to standing in the way of authoritarian rule. In fact, they have consistently benefited from its regeneration. It is thus imperative that other international actors do everything in their power to facilitate a continuation of Sudan’s democratic transition. However, support from foreign nations should extend beyond sharp rhetorical condemnations and financial suspensions that are more likely to hurt Sudanese people than persuade the military to change course. Although the role of international actors is imperative in the fight for democracy, the role of those in the streets is equally indispensable. In fact, the massive turnout of protestors signifies the people’s deep mistrust of the army, which will always be a self-serving institution. If the streets were instrumental in toppling Bashir’s dictatorship in 2019, then the streets today hold the power to derail Burhan’s autocracy and dictate the return to civilian rule. 

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