Mass demonstrations planned in Sudan to support civilian-led government

Thursday’s protests are latest chapter in showdown between government of Abdalla Hamdok and the military

A pro-democracy alliance that serves as the power base of Sudan’s civilian-led government has called for protests on the streets of Sudanese cities on Thursday.

In its latest escalation in its month-long quarrel with the military, the Forces of Freedom and Change called on the military to hand leadership of the Sovereignty Council to the civilian component of the power-sharing group.

Also on its list of demands is a restructure of the military to purge it from loyalists to former dictator Omar Al Bashir and absorbing paramilitary groups in its ranks. Intelligence and security agencies, the FFC says, should be placed under the direct supervision of the government, not generals, as is the case now.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend demonstrations on Thursday in the capital, Khartoum, and other major cities.

The FCC was at the centre of Sudanese resistance to Al Bashir and organised the deadly protests in 2018-19 that eventually led to his removal by the military.

They went on to enter a power-sharing deal with the military and become the political sponsor of the transitional government, appointing career UN economist Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister and selecting members of his Cabinet.

But the group has fallen prey to divisions within its ranks that hurt its image and undermined its sway over the streets it once controlled.

Relations between the military and the FFC-backed government have also been fraught with tension since a failed coup attempt last month, with both sides publicising their differences for the first time. Their bitter quarrel quickly turned into a mud-slinging match, with the military and their supporters openly calling for Mr Hamdok’s government to resign.

“Our country is going through a delicate historic juncture that places the revolutionaries in confrontation with those who are striving to kill the spirit of the revolution and its choice of a civilian state,” said a statement by the organisers of Thursday’s planned protests.

“We are fully aware that the road ahead is filled with barriers and thorns, given that the military is laying in ambush to kill the democratic shift and creation of a state of law.”

The demonstrations constitute a potentially dangerous escalation in the trial of wills between the military and the FFC-backed government, risking an outbreak of violence between rival supporters.

A sample of what could be in store was on display on Monday when a small group of army supporters tried to break into the Cabinet offices as it held an emergency meeting. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse the crowd and sealed off the area with barbed wire and barricades to prevent a repeat.

The protesters belonged to a larger group that is camping outside the walls of the republican palace at the heart of Khartoum to press demands for the removal of Mr Hamdok’s government. They chanted slogans urging the military to seize power.

Mr Hamdok has described the crisis as the “worst and most dangerous” Sudan has faced since Al Bashir’s removal.

US support for transition

Washington will send its chief envoy for the Horn of Africa to the country this week, the second such visit in less than a month.

The US has made it clear that it supports Mr Hamdok’s government, which is battling a dip in popularity caused by harsh economic conditions made worse by a month-long blockade of the country’s main commercial sea port.

But it has Washington’s support. Prior to the blockade, enforced by protesters suspected of acting at the behest of the military, Sudan’s economy had been showing signs of slow recovery, with inflation rates falling and the local currency holding its ground against the US dollar.

Sudan, a vast and underdeveloped Afro-Arab nation of about 40 million people, is no stranger to rivalry between civilian politicians and the military. Its generals have tried to seize power at least two dozen times since independence in 1956. Of these, three ushered in long spells of military rule, from 1958 to 1964, 1969 to 1985 and 1989 to 2019.

The consequences of another military takeover, whether directly or through proxies, would plunge Sudan back into the pariah status it had for most of Al Bashir’s 29 years in power, removing access to the foreign assistance it desperately needs and putting it at risk of international sanctions.

“Things are clearly worrisome,” said Michael Hanna, director of the US programme at Crisis Group, a think tank. “Politics should not be contested on the streets. It’s a very dangerous proposition,” he said, an allusion to Thursday’s planned demonstrations.

Significantly, the government appears to be enjoying wide support from the international community. The military, on the other hand, is believed to enjoy the support of some of the region’s heavyweights and has at its disposal an unmatched firepower.

But activists and witnesses said the military had resorted to the tactics of authoritarian regimes this week when it bussed anti-government protesters to the city centre from Khartoum’s outlying districts. The protesters included so many children that Sudan’s human rights groups publicly denounced the operation as an unlawful exploitation of minors.

Thirty identical tents and a military-style field kitchen popped up at the sit-in site, giving credence to widespread suspicion that the military was involved.

“The military’s actions are rooted in its narrow interests, betray a desire to hold on to power and is oblivious to the consequences for the nation,” said Adel Khalafallah, a senior FFC member.

The FFC and government demands are difficult, perhaps impossible, for the military to meet without losing face, which does not bode well for a fast resolution of the crisis, said Othman Al Mirghany, editor in chief of Al Tayar, a Khartoum daily newspaper.

“Sudan’s generals will not accept a demotion or civilian supervision,” he said. “To do so goes against the norms and traditions they have lived by while in uniform.”

Updated: October 21st 2021, 7:14 AM