Sudan’s ruling generals and some civilian groups sat down on Wednesday for talks on their nation's political crisis, even as several major political parties and pro-democracy groups shunned the UN-sponsored meeting.
The boycott casts doubt on whether an agreement could end Sudan's worsening economic and security woes. It has also drawn analogies with political dialogues held during the rule of Omar Al Bashir from which real opposition groups were excluded and whose outcome never altered or diluted the authoritarian nature of his 29-year regime.
Addressing the inaugural session at a luxury hotel in the capital, Khartoum, UN special representative Volker Perthes acknowledged some stakeholders have stayed away from negotiations and urged participants to try to persuade them to change their mind.
"We don't own this process, we are only its facilitators," said Mr Perthes, who has been preparing for the direct negotiations since March.
The military is being represented by a four-man team of senior generals.
Teaming up with the UN in this political mission is the African Union and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development group, better known by its acronym, IGAD.
Mr Perthes urged army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, who lifted the state of emergency he declared when he seized power last October, to do more to create a climate conducive to reaching an agreement.
"We don't want to miss this historic opportunity," the UN envoy said.
Addressing the nation late on Tuesday night, Gen Al Burhan repeated his assurances that the military would work with everyone to “realise the dreams and aspirations of the Sudanese people to build a democratic state; a country of freedom, peace and justice”.
Gen Al Burhan's power grab ended the democratic transition, deepened Sudan’s economic troubles and sparked a rapid deterioration in the security situation.
More than 100 people have been killed and about 5,000 injured in almost daily anti-military street protests since the takeover on October 25.
Gen Al Burhan said the dialogue was a “historic opportunity” to complete the transition and urged Sudanese groups participating in the dialogue not to obstruct the process.
“We in the military and security institutions — and based on our belief in the shift to democracy — renew our commitment to implement the outcome of the dialogue and our intention to take the military out of politics once the conditions for that are met and these are either a national agreement … or the outcome elections,” he said.
But pro-democracy activists and analysts say the UN-led process was unlikely to produce a deal that would end Sudan's political crisis or restore peace to the country.
Some say the dialogue may inadvertently enable the military to enshrine its grip on power and ensure it has the final say on policy even if it is not directly represented in government after elections promised for the summer of 2023.
Yasser Irman, a veteran opposition leader who served as political adviser to the civilian-led government toppled by the generals in October, said the UN-led dialogue mirrored similar undertakings under Al Bashir that brought together representatives of his regime and those who supported it.
"We demand a process led by two parties: Those who led the October coup and those who represent the real revolution," Mr Irman said.
Al Sadeq Al Muqaly, a retired ambassador and now a political analyst, also made the analogy with the Al Bashir-era dialogues, dismissing Wednesday's negotiations as a "waste of time".
"A dialogue anywhere in the world will inevitably be like a conversation among the deaf unless there is a minimum level of trust between participants," he said.
"This dialogue will produce a deal that will be rejected by the Sudanese street," said Salma Nour of the Sudanese Professionals' Association, a leading pro-democracy group that played a key role in the uprising against Al Bashir in 2018 and 2019. "It will not meet the demands of the street."
Gen Al Burhan initially welcomed the UN-led effort to bring Sudan’s civilian groups to negotiate directly, but he and other generals later accused Mr Perthes of meddling in Sudan’s affairs.
Gen Al Burhan had threatened to expel Mr Perthes after he said that Sudan would head towards chaos if its political crisis was not quickly resolved.
Staying away from the talks are the pro-democracy Resistance Committees, the driving force behind the anti-military street protests engulfing Sudan.
Also boycotting the process is the main faction of the Forces of Freedom and Change, the military’s chief partner in the transitional administration that ruled the country after dictator Al Bashir's ousting and until the power grab.
The main faction of the powerful National Umma Party said it will not participate either. The influential communist and republican parties are also staying away.
These boycotts meant that in the military’s corner are rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the generals in 2020, breakaway factions of political parties and pro-democracy groups, as well as tribal chiefs from remote areas in Sudan’s west and east. Also on the side of the military are Islamic parties that once supported Al Bashir.
Wednesday’s session comes amid grim reminders of the cycle of violence that has spread across the vast Afro-Arab nation of about 44 million people.
A girl, 5, was killed on Tuesday after being run over by security forces in Khartoum's Kalakla district, according to medics aligned with the opposition.
On the same day, residents said heavy fighting in Sudan's tense Darfur region in the west and South Kordofan in the south has killed at least 27 people and left dozens wounded.
“I am deeply concerned about intercommunal clashes,” Mr Perthes said of the fighting in South Kordofan.
Wednesday's televised session was mostly taken up by opening comments and procedural issues.
The UN has set the objectives of the dialogue, which include agreeing on the criteria for picking a new prime minister and his Cabinet, on rules for the elections expected next year and drafting a new constitution.
The pro-democracy groups are demanding that the military quits politics altogether and brings to justice anyone found to have played a part in the killing of protesters and the alleged sexual abuse of female demonstrators.
While Gen Al Burhan has repeatedly told the Sudanese people he has ordered an investigation into the killings and abuse, he has yet to share the progress of these inquiries or announce their findings.
A high-profile investigation of the violent break-up of a sit-in protest outside the army headquarters in Khartoum by security forces in June 2019 has yet to announce its findings. At least 128 protesters were killed in that incident, popularly known as the "massacre of the headquarters".
Some of the bodies of the victims were tossed into the Nile and scores of women complained of being sexually assaulted by members of the security forces who took part in the operation.