Time on the side of Sudan's ruling generals as protests wane

UN-led effort to break political deadlock said to be buying leaders time to strengthen grip on power

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ِAs anti-coup protests die out, time may well be on the side of Sudan’s ruling generals, seven months after their power-grab upended the country’s democratic transition and mired it in economic and security problems.

Barely hundreds took part in street protests against military rule in recent weeks, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who just months ago regularly filled the streets in the face of live rounds, tears gas and arrest.

For their part, the generals are routinely calling for a dialogue to agree on a vision for Sudan’s future. But Sudanese analysts say they may in reality have no wish to relinquish power or resurrect their partnership with the politicians behind the popular uprising that ousted dictator Omar Al Bashir in 2019.

“Both sides are digging in their heels and seeking to impose their views on the other,” said former political science professor Hamza Awad, now a presenter on a TV talk show.

“I don’t think there’s much hope for an agreement. The street will at the end decide the outcome of this stand-off.”

Sudan's military ruler Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan. AFP

The fate of Sudan, a vast Afro-Arab nation of about 44 million ethnically and religiously diverse people, is of significant interest to the entire region and beyond.

It has a 750-kilometre-long coastline on the strategic Red Sea and its much-touted potential as a regional bread basket has taken on added relevance given soaring world food prices, the disruption of grain supplies from warring Russia and Ukraine and the region’s worsening fresh water scarcity.

Sudan’s security and stability are key to international efforts to combat human trafficking from Sub-Saharan Africa, through Sudan and all the way to the Mediterranean coast in Libya. Sudan is also a vital link in international efforts to check the spread of Islamist extremists in North Africa and the sub-Sahara regions.

But the generals in Khartoum, according to analysts, appear to be more preoccupied with holding on to power than allowing the restoration of the democratic transition they derailed when they seized power in a coup last October.

The generals have also been forging alliances against the pro-democracy groups with the rebels they signed a peace deal with in 2020, while wooing tribal leaders who traditionally made political and financial gains from throwing their lot with whoever has the reins of power in Khartoum.

Hundreds of opposition politicians and activists have been arrested since the coup in October, as the military projected itself as the sole legitimate guardian of the nation against meddling foreign powers.

Sudanese taking part in a protest against worsening economic conditions in Khartoum. AP

On the other hand, pro-democracy groups and parties are rejecting direct talks with the military, insisting the generals must step down and be held accountable for the overthrow of a legitimate government when they seized power seven months ago.

They also want the generals be put on trial for the killing of nearly 100 protesters in the near daily rallies that have swept Sudan since the October coup.

While the political crisis is deepening, the economy is inching closer to the point of meltdown after it showed signs of recovery in the final days of the civilian-led government toppled by the military.

Security in much of the country appears to be unravelling amid the revival of sectarian and tribal conflicts, such as the one in Darfur, or a rise violent crime in places such as the capital Khartoum.

“The generals are buying time so that people finally accept their rule and the revolutionary fire on the streets is slowly extinguished,” said Hodeiby Yassin, editor of Riyah News, a Khartoum-based website.

“If they had any intention of restoring the democratic transition they destroyed, they would have made some concessions to improve the political climate, like freeing political detainees.”

UN special representative in Sudan Volker Perthes. AFP

The UN, in partnership with the African Union and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development group, is spearheading a months-long initiative to bring political stakeholders together in a dialogue that would eventually produce a road map for the restoration of the democratic transition and elections, now scheduled for 2024.

But several key pro-democracy groups are viewing the process as a waste of time that is playing into the hands of the generals who say that the UN has exceeded its mandate and is meddling in Sudan’s domestic affairs.

“The way the UN has handled its effort to bring together the stakeholders handed the generals the time they needed to strengthen their grip on power and find allies,” said Adel Khalafallah of the Forces of Freedom and Change, the pro-democracy group that shared power with the military in the civilian-led government overthrown in October.

“We will never be a part of any political effort whose ultimate objective is not to bring down military rule,” he said. “The UN and its partners are at fault for treating the party that brought down a democratic government as equal to the party that defends democracy.”

Updated: May 23, 2022, 9:52 AM