In Sudan, the old power structures have not entirely gone away

Now the second stage begins, as protesters and opposition figures push for further reform

Sudanese demonstrators protest outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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First the protests, now the political negotiations. After months of demonstrations across Sudan, a popular uprising helped bring about the downfall last week of the president of 30 years, followed – within 30 hours – by a close ally who replaced him. The army has now formed a military transitional council and pledged to hold elections in two years.

Now the second stage begins, as protesters and opposition figures push for further reform. Protesters should be under no illusions: this is politics at its highest, most urgent level. The army has functioned as guarantors of a political transition before, but certain elements within it are also close to the former ruling party and the powerful intelligence agencies. None will relinquish power easily.

With thousands of people on the streets, the protesters have momentum. As they negotiate with the army, they must be wary of anything that could curb that leverage. This is the most precarious moment of the transition, when the victories that have been painstakingly won by protest could very easily be swallowed up by politics.

Street protests in Sudan have continued since December, first in response to rising food prices, then escalating into calls for the long-time president Omar Al Bashir to step aside. Now, with Mr Al Bashir gone, swiftly followed by his successor, general Awad Ibn Auf, protesters are emboldened in demanding the whole system be reformed and refusing to leave the streets until that happens. The army says it has no intention of holding onto power and merely wants to bring stability back to the streets. The protesters don't believe them. After all, Sudan has been here before.

If the Sudanese protesters are suspicious of the intentions of the army, that is only because this is not the first time the winds of change have blown through Khartoum – and not the first time the incumbents have found a way to cling to power.

In early 2011, as protests swept across the Arab republics, thousands of students took to the streets of Khartoum with a familiar list of demands: an end to one-party rule and economic hardship. The Sudanese government responded with arrests, beatings and live fire.

But the protests did not stop and in mid-February, just days after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the ruling National Congress Party announced that Mr Al Bashir would not seek re-election in 2015. Another Arab ruler was apparently stepping aside. Subsequent protests were forcefully suppressed.

Three years passed and in the run-up to that election, Mr Al Bashir announced there would be a national dialogue. And yet nothing substantive happened then. In the autumn of that year, Mr Al Bashir did a U-turn by saying he would, after all, seek re-election. By that time, the protest movement had died down, the media were muzzled, there was serious unrest in other parts of Sudan and the attention of the international community was elsewhere. In 2015, Mr Al Bashir was re-elected.

This time, then, the protest movement is digging in for the long-term, seeking decisive change. The situation is moving rapidly but the army appears to have learned a lesson from past mistakes by seeking ways to minimise confrontation and persuade protesters to go home. As in countries such as Algeria, recently affected by protests, the army has taken the side of the demonstrators, in opposition to the previous regime.

In Sudan, protesters have been galvanised by the rapid succession of three leaders in three days. A 10-member delegation from an umbrella group, the Alliance for Freedom and Change, put forward a list of demands on Saturday; meanwhile the Sudanese Professionals' Association has called for the military transitional council to disband and hand over power to a civilian interim government sooner rather than later, a demand backed by the EU.

What happens now turns on two related questions: how far the army is willing to restructure the institutions of power and how adept it is in maintaining stability.

For most of Mr Al Bashir's time in office, power in Sudan rested with three institutions: the army, the ruling National Congress Party and the intelligence service, the NISS.

For now, the army wields the power. The president has been removed and some of his coterie have been arrested. The NCP has been sidelined in transitional talks. The NISS is also being defanged: its powerful head Salah Abdallah Gosh was removed, although the army has stopped short of reforming the institution, as protesters have demanded.

All this has historical precedent. It was the army that shepherded the state after the popular revolt that overthrew Jaafar Nimeiri as president of Sudan in 1985. At that time, the transitional military council dissolved the ruling party, the Sudanese Socialist Union, broke up the secret police and paved the way for elections the following year. There is a possibility it could do something similar this time.

Civilians must be engaged in dialogue at every stage to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Bringing elections forward to next year as originally planned, instead of a two-year timeline, could help minimise the risk of crisis or need for another state of emergency. While the transitional council offers a necessary step towards security and stability, it should not be seen as a vehicle for the ambitions of any military-backed figures.

Further, the eventual administration must include regional representation. The problems in Sudan are not limited to the capital alone. The states of South Kordafan, Blue Nile and Darfur are still suffering from conflict and the protest movement must bring in representatives from beyond Khartoum.

Sudan is at a precarious point. The protest movement has won some victories and the army is now listening to the grievances of ordinary citizens. Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan has lifted a curfew and pledged to disassemble state institutions to "fight corruption and uproot the regime and its symbols". But the old power structures have not entirely gone away and they did not remain in power so long by simply relinquishing it under pressure. At this pivotal moment, both sides will need to make some compromises to end the stalemate on the streets.