Sudan has come a long way – but the post-Bashir balance of power remains uncertain

Support by regional and international partners will be critical to address the economic crisis, as well as the reformation of government institutions, ministries and security agencies

TOPSHOT - A Sudanese protestor waves a national flag during a protest outside the army complex in the capital Khartoum on April 20, 2019. Protest leaders are to hold talks on April 20 with Sudan's military rulers who have so far resisted calls to transfer power to a civilian administration, two leading figures in the protests told AFP. / AFP / OZAN KOSE
Powered by automated translation

Sudan has seen more change in the last four months than it has in the previous 30 years. There is a mixture of euphoria and caution about the future, following the removal of longstanding president Omar Al Bashir and members of his ruling regime. Many Sudanese believe that the uprising is moving in the right direction and will ultimately deliver a transition to a legitimate civilian government. However, this outcome remains finely balanced and there are valid concerns about the intentions of the new transitional military council and a possible return to dictatorship.

Protests against the 30-year rule of Al Bashir started in December last year and came to a head on April 6, when hundreds of thousands marched towards the Sudanese army headquarters to commemorate the uprising that ousted Sudan's previous dictator, Jaafar Nimeiri, in 1985. This huge sit-in, with young people and women playing a lead role, became the inspiration for Al Thawra, or "the revolution", this spring.

Soldiers defied orders to remove civilians, raising the real prospect of fighting between elements of the security services. Coupled with pressure from the Sudanese streets, this spurred leaders from the army, paramilitary and intelligence forces to remove Al Bashir from office in a coup d’etat on April 11.

Revolutionaries won a further victory when his successor, general Awad Ibn Auf, was himself ousted within 30 hours, deemed unacceptable because of his close links to Al Bashir and the Islamist regime. He has been replaced by a less controversial figure, general Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, the former inspector general of the army. Gen Al Burhan has distanced himself from the previous regime, removing the curfew, releasing political prisoners and allowing activists to return.

The military council maintains the need for a transitional period of up to two years before handing over power to civilians. But the protests have continued, despite the military’s attempts at gentle dispersion, and there are worries about how much patience the armed forces will continue to show. There is significant potential for increased violence, particularly if demands for a rapid transition towards an inclusive, transitional civilian government are not met.

Sudanese protesters chant slogans during a rally outside the army complex in Sudan's capital Khartoum on April 20, 2019. / AFP / Ebrahim Hamid

The critical issue remains whether the armed forces will monopolise power and ultimately replace one military leadership with another, or whether power will be shared with, and then transferred to, a legitimate popular government. The military council has positioned itself as guardians of the democratic aspirations of Sudan’s people and met a range of political parties.

But Sudan's Islamist deep state and patronage networks are deeply embedded and cannot be disassembled overnight. The military has taken some immediate measures, including freezing government bank accounts, replacing senior officials, including the country's chief justice and attorney general and arresting several key members of Al Bashir's National Congress Party and two of his brothers on corruption charges. The public prosecutor has also begun investigating Al Bashir himself on charges of money laundering after suitcases stuffed full of millions of dollars were allegedly found at his home.

Further steps will depend, at least initially, on the commitment and sincerity of Gen Al Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemeti, the commander of the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia. Gen Al Burhan and Hemeti will look to unite the fractious elements of Sudan’s security state and have history of working together in Darfur and co-ordinating the deployment of Sudanese forces in Yemen.

But their increasing power could foster greater ambition and Sudanese people will be wary of another military figure taking over permanently. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi emerged in similar fashion in neighbouring Egypt and is now amending the constitution to enable him to remain in office until 2030. The plurality of political and civil space could act as a deterrent to Sudan following the Egyptian experience.

One proposal that might be more palatable is for power to be invested in a four-pronged interim transitional civilian government, of which the military council would be part

Justice and accountability for crimes committed by the security apparatus, crucial for national reconciliation, will necessitate officials going after their own at a time when they are trying to rebuild unity. It might prove their toughest test. Al Bashir is now in Kobar prison and key regime figures such as Ahmed Haroun, the former acting party chairman, ex-presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie and Al Bashir's previous deputy Ali Osman Taha have also been detained.

Al Bashir will likely be prosecuted in Sudan rather than by the International Criminal Court and his investigation for corruption will lead to fears that the military council might offer him a soft landing. The limited number of arrests so far could have given other regime figures time to cover their tracks, hide stolen resources and leave the country. Other important Al Bashir allies, including former intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh and shortlived council leader Gen Ibn Auf, have stepped aside but remain both at liberty and influential.

There are multiple visions for how Sudan should now be governed. The forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change, steered by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of unions orchestrating the protest movement, are calling for peaceful resistance to continue until the military hands over power to civilians. These forces, which include the main political opposition groups and civil society organisations, propose to govern the country for four years to bring about peace and accountability, followed by general elections. The alliance has become more coherent but still needs to establish a leadership structure and policy positions. They aim to keep pressure on the military council by suspending negotiations with them and announcing names for a sovereign civilian council.

Sudanese protesters gestures as they sit on a bridge during a protest outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 19, 2019.  Protest leaders on April 19, 2019 announced plans to unveil a civilian ruling body to replace the current transitional military council as crowds of demonstrators kept up the pressure outside army headquarters and Washington said it will send an envoy to encourage the transition.  / AFP / OZAN KOSE

One proposal that might be more palatable is for power to be invested in a four-pronged interim transitional civilian government, of which the military council would be part. This administration would consist of an executive council, comprised of apolitical technocrats, including the prime minister; a constitutional council, with legislative powers made up of political parties; an independent judiciary; and a well-integrated and restructured security apparatus, with elements of the old regime removed.

The former ruling party has come out in support of the military council, although this is unlikely to secure them a position in any emergent administration. The role for Sudan’s broad spectrum of Islamist views and organisations is unclear. The protests have taken on an anti-Islamist tone but there are Islamists within the opposition too and alienating reformists could further divisions.

External perspectives are equally divergent. From within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have welcomed the military council and Gen Al Burhan, who oversaw Sudan's troops in Yemen in support of the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed $3 billion to the flagging Sudanese economy. Many of the military were educated in Egypt and remain close to their counterparts. In addition, this coalition has sought to halt the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and regionally, an organisation that Qatar and Turkey have both supported as its attempts to build influence in Sudanese politics. Sudan could be drawn back into a regional tug-of-war that Al Bashir proved ultimately unable to balance.

The African continent has also provided mixed messages. The African Union's Peace and Security Council strongly condemned the coup and has given the military council a fortnight to hand over power to civilians before suspending Sudan’s membership, despite the fact that Egypt, which has supported the body, is currently the union's chair. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met a military delegation in Addis Ababa, expressing both his aspirations for strengthened democracy in Sudan and admiration for the council’s efforts in overseeing the transition.

Western officials have begun meeting the military council but the European Union has made it clear it will not recognise them. The US, the UK and Norway have already called for a swift and credible transition to civilian rule.

Co-ordinated external support by regional and international partners will be critical to address the economic crisis, as well as the reformation of government institutions, ministries and security agencies. Further down the line, development assistance, investment, debt relief and the lifting of the US designation of Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism can come into play. But all of this will depend on the establishment of a civilian transitional government which enjoys the trust of the population.

Sudan has come a long way in a short space of time. But the post-Bashir balance of power remains uncertain and untested. There is a real opportunity to capitalise on the momentum to build a new, unified Sudan – and as much chance of regression towards further conflict. All sides must think beyond short-term power gains and be reasonable and realistic in order to find middle ground. Ultimately, whatever dispensation emerges needs to reflect the courage and determination of the huge numbers of Sudanese people calling for inclusive democracy.

Ahmed Soliman is a researcher for the Africa programme for Chatham House in London