Sudan’s ruling military and a major pro-democracy coalition have signed a milestone agreement hailed by the international community to restore the country’s democratic transition that was upended when the generals seized power 13 months ago.
The "framework" agreement lays out the powerful military's withdrawal from politics, a move the country's top generals confirmed when they addressed the signing ceremony held on Monday at the Republican Palace in central Khartoum.
The deal was negotiated by the military and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).
The modest ceremony was attended by representatives of the foreign powers that mediated between the two sides in months of secret negotiations. These included the UN, the African Union, the US, Saudi Arabia and the UK.
The agreement was welcomed by the Quad and Troika, groupings that include Norway, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK and the US.
They said it was "an essential first step toward establishing a civilian-led government and defining constitutional arrangements to guide Sudan through a transitional period culminating in elections."
Their joint statement urged Sudan's stakeholders to place national interests above narrow political interests.
Egypt, Sudan's ally neighbour to the north, also welcomed the agreement.
Outside the Nile-side palace in central Khartoum, the Sudanese capital was quiet with many shops closed and little traffic on the streets.
Signing the document from the civilian side were representatives of about 30 political parties, associations, professional unions and rebel groups that are either members of the FFC coalition or have separately embraced the plan.
Army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, his deputy on the ruling, military-led Sovereign Council, signed the document for the military.
The framework agreement provides for a civilian-led government to lead the country during a 24-month transitional period that will begin once a prime minister is sworn in and followed by free elections.
It also provides for the exclusion of the military from politics and the creation of an assembly to act as a parliament during the transitional period. A defence and security council is to be created and led by the civilian prime minister and include top military officers and leaders of the intelligence security services.
Addressing the ceremony, Gen Al Burhan repeated a slogan often chanted by protesters opposed to military rule, saying soldiers must return to their barracks, affirming his resolve to pull the military out of politics.
"The departure of the military from politics is final," said Gen Al Burhan, who led last year's coup. "The army will be transformed into a constitutional institution that is subject to the law, the constitution and democratic institutions."
He, however, warned civilian politicians against meddling in the "technical affairs" of the armed forces and appealed to them to leave the military to formulate the policies required to protect Sudan's national security.
The military's role, he explained, will be restricted to defending Sudan against "outside threats."
Gen Dagalo, also addressing the ceremony, said the October 25, 2021 coup was a “political mistake” that allowed “counterrevolutionary groups” to make a comeback, and also stressed that the military must withdraw from politics.
"The withdrawal of the military from politics is necessary to establish a sustainable democratic regime," he said. 'This requires building a strong national army and undertaking deep reforms."
The agreement, roughly based on a draft transitional constitution presented by the Sudanese Bar Association, leaves for later discussions two thorny issues: the reform of the armed forces and transitional justice.
“It's not ideal, but it is an important step on the civilian and democratic path,” UN representative in Sudan Volker Perthes, told the ceremony after the signing.
“The next phase requires a broad dialogue with youths, martyrs' families, political forces and peace partners to form a credible government to deal with the political, security and economic challenges,” he said.
The agreement, first announced on Friday, has not been met with the vehement opposition most people in Sudan had expected. Boycotting Monday's ceremony was the Resistance Committees, the neighbourhood-based, pro-democracy group that has spearheaded anti-military protests in the past year. The group has recently been splintered.
Also absent was the hard-line Communist party, a long-time fixture in Sudan's complex political landscape with a limited but hard-core following among intellectuals.
Activists say many Sudanese are desperate for political stability in hopes that it will ease their economic hardship.
Sudan's economy has been devastated since the joint military-civilian administration was toppled by the generals in October last year.
The vast nation of 44 million people now faces three-digit inflation with soaring food and fuel prices, as well as lengthy power cuts and high unemployment.
The economic crisis, the worst in living memory, was deepened when the West and international financial agencies such as the World Bank suspended billions of dollars worth of aid and debt forgiveness after the military takeover.
On Monday, the US and its partners said they would offer Sudan a sizable aid package once a civilian-led transitional government takes office.
The coup sparked a wave of street protests in which at least 120 were killed and more than 6,000 injured at the hands of the security forces. A security vacuum following the coup allowed outbreaks of deadly ethnic and tribal clashes in Sudan's outlying regions, leaving hundreds dead and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.
The deal, which was read out in full in Monday's ceremony, spoke of lofty goals that could prove difficult to realise. Ironically, they echo a historic agreement between the military and the FFC in August 2019 that underpinned a unique, albeit fragile, military-civilian government that took the reins of the nation after months of political tumult.
Sudan has been ruled by the military for most of the nearly 70 years since independence in 1956, with power-hungry generals toppling democratically elected governments.
Neither the generals nor civilian politicians have resolved Sudan’s many chronic problems. These include ruinous civil wars, ethnic and religious rivalries, the uneven distribution of wealth and a lack of political inclusion.
The deal stipulates the integration into the army of former rebels whose groups signed a peace deal with the military in October 2020 as well as the powerful Rapid Support Forces, RSF, a once-notorious militia that fought on the government’s side during the civil war in the western region of Darfur in the 2000s.
Gen Dagalo, Gen Al Burhan's deputy on the Sovereign Council, commands the RSF.
In general terms, the deal declares Sudan a federal and democratic state with a parliamentary system. The Sudan envisioned in the document also enshrines peaceful politics and the rejection of all forms of violence, extremism and military coups.
It denounces any breach of constitutional legitimacy or undermining of the democratic system.