Mediation helps start a fragile transition in Sudan

The fall of al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan can be seen as the demise of just another African strongman. Yet in a large state divided along complex ethnic, religious, and political lines, his tyranny made political stability possible. Tensions between the civilian opposition and the military suggest that the road ahead may not lead to democracy.

Protesters in Khartoum celebrate the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
April 11, 2019: Demonstrators celebrate the arrest of Sudan’s ousted President Omar al-Bashir outside the Defense Ministry in Khartoum. As the military crackdown two months later showed, their optimism may have been premature. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Sudan’s dire economic straits doomed the 30-year regime of President Omar al-Bashir
  • After his ouster, civil-military tensions continue and could plunge the country into chaos
  • So far, outside mediation has supported a transition to civilian rule, but regional players may still favor the military

Bread riots that began in December 2018 ultimately toppled the man who had ruled Sudan for 30 years. President Omar al-Bashir (1989-2019) was forced out in a military coup after failing to contain the ever-expanding protest movement. At first sight, his fate seems identical with many other African strongmen – Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia – whose political destinies were settled in the streets.

However, as happened with some of Mr. al-Bashir’s peers, the popular mobilization against him was part of a more complex power dynamic. Sudan, like Egypt and Algeria, is a large and populous state divided along ethnic, religious and political lines. Political stability was only made possible by the personalized leadership of a repressive, highly militarized state.

Many see a glimmer of hope in the four-month protest wave that forced Omar al-Bashir’s fall and the seizure of power by the Sudanese military. Yet escalating violence and the seeming absence of any common ground for agreement between military and civilian actors suggest that Sudan’s road ahead is winding and may not necessarily lead to democracy.

Toppling a dictator

The trigger for the “Sudanese spring” was the removal of wheat subsidies. After bread prices tripled, students and workers in the town of Atbara, 350 kilometers north of Khartoum, took to the streets in protest. These origins resemble Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, in which localized demonstrations sparked by specific incidents – especially the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi – escalated to a national scale and ultimately led to a leadership change.

The regime’s economic failure explains the scope and durability of the protests.

Sudan’s economy had been underperforming ever since breakaway southern provinces won independence in 2011 as South Sudan. Faced with shrinking oil reserves, cash shortages and hyperinflation, President al-Bashir was forced to impose austerity measures that bit deeply into living standards. 

The elimination or reduction of state subsidies on basic goods like fuel, electricity and wheat was painful in a country where an estimated 36 percent of the population lives below the global poverty line. While many groups opposed the rule of Omar al-Bashir on political grounds, the growing sense of material deprivation, economic marginalization and the regime’s self-evident failure in economic policy help explain the broad scope and durability of the protest movement.

On April 11, the Sudanese Army announced the ouster and arrest of President al-Bashir. The country’s defense minister declared that political detainees would be released, but that the state of emergency declared in February would be extended for another three months. Power was vested in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which was made responsible for maintaining “peace, order and security” during the transition period. 

Escalating tensions

While Sudan has many registered political groups (including unionist and Islamic parties), the umbrella for opposition to the regime – first under Mr. al-Bashir and now under the military – has been the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). When the protests broke out in December 2018, the SPA quickly picked up on their demands for regime change. In January, the organization published its Freedom and Change Declaration, a political manifesto calling for the “immediate and unconditional end” of President al-Bashir’s rule and the formation of a National Transitional Government. This set the stage for the SPA’s later transformation into the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).

There were sharp disputes over the proposed transitional authority.

Immediately after Mr. al-Bashir’s overthrow, there were signs of an accommodation between the civilian opposition and the military, as the titular head of the TMC, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, promised an inclusive dialogue and the formation of a civilian government. Both sides agreed to a three-year transition period. However, there was sharp disagreement over the proposed transitional authority, with the military demanding majority representation. Finally, negotiations were broken off after the TMC proposed elections in nine months instead of three years, a period the opposition feared would not give them time to ensure a free and fair ballot.

As tensions between the civilian opposition and the military escalated, important changes were also taking place within the TMC. Sudan’s military and security apparatus was beset by institutional and personal rivalries. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a paramilitary formation charged with enforcing internal security – were growing in importance. Their commander, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was a former leader of the Janjaweed militia that fought against rebels in Darfur and a close associate of President al-Bashir. Although General Dagalo was officially the deputy head of the TMC, many considered him the most powerful figure in the military junta.

Basic dilemma

The confrontation came to a head on June 3, when the TMC violently cracked down on civilian protesters, killing more than 100 and wounding about 500 people in Khartoum alone. There were reports of more killings, beatings and rapes in smaller cities. The so-called Khartoum massacre created a deep breach of trust between the civilian population and the military. Many FFC leaders went into hiding as the organization staged a nationwide general strike, while the authorities shut down internet access across the country to disrupt the organization of further protests.

Even so, tens of thousands of protesters heeded opposition calls to take to the streets on June 30, demanding an immediate transition to civilian rule. Security forces again intervened to repress the protests, resulting in at least 11 deaths.

The military has the hard power but lacks the political legitimacy to rule.

This internal escalation showed Sudan’s basic dilemma. The military has the hard power but lacks the political legitimacy to rule, while the opposition has plenty of support but not the organizational capacity, cohesion or leadership to guide the country through a tricky transition period without descending into chaos. While the FFC has assumed a leading role, Sudan’s political opposition is a mosaic of splinter groups, ranging from civil society organizations and armed militias to coalitions of parties with every conceivable ideological orientation and strategy. What they lack above all is unified leadership with the strength and ability to lead a transition.

Outside players

Yet behind the internal deadlock, external actors were maneuvering.

On June 6, the African Union suspended Sudan’s participation in all of its activities until a civilian-led transitional authority was established. This swift response contrasted with the United Nations, which was hamstrung by the refusal of Security Council members Russia and China to consider any form of intervention. Sudan is an important part of Russia’s economic and military strategy in Africa, while China considers it an important part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. 

The United States can apply limited leverage, mainly due to the TMC’s eagerness to see Sudan removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list, which has cut off American investment and aid since 1993.

The head of Sudan’s powerful paramilitaries speaks to supporters in Khartoum
July 13, 2019: The deputy head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has pledged to work with the civilian opposition, but many are worried about his ambitions and his tight grip on the security forces. © dpa

Another external dynamic is the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies on one side and the Turkey-Qatar coalition on the other. For its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa, Sudan has two main attractions: its strategic position on the Red Sea at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers and its vast tracts of fertile farmland. To prop up Sudan’s deteriorating economy, Omar al-Bashir’s regime had already leased extensive land parcels to Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom are anxious to increase domestic food supplies.

A Saudi-UAE delegation visited Sudan shortly after President al-Bashir’s fall with a desperately needed $3 billion aid package in hand. The move was intended to secure continued Sudanese support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, but also to avoid the consummation of an Arab Spring-style popular revolution and possibly to roll back the rapprochement between Khartoum, Ankara and Doha that took place after the 2017 Qatar-Gulf crisis. One of Africa’s strongest former military rulers, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, also supported the TMC, using his position as this year’s AU chairman to soften a two-week ultimatum for the TMC to form a civilian-led government.

Surprise agreement

Against this backdrop, the most surprising and effective intervention was by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who dispatched Mahmoud Drir as a personal emissary to Khartoum to mediate between the two sides. With support from the AU and the U.S., Mr. Drir was able to get the opposition groups and the TMC back to the negotiating table – even as protests and repressions continued.

On July 5, they reached a verbal agreement to set up a sovereign authority to manage a 39-month transition period. The military and civilians were allowed to choose five members each on the 11-member council, with the final member, a civilian, to be chosen by mutual agreement. For the first 21 months of the transition, the body would be led by a military member, followed by a civilian leader for the final 18 months leading to democratic elections.

Important details of the July 5th agreement have yet to be sorted out.

Among other key points, both sides agreed in principle to form a technocratic government and to conduct a transparent and independent investigation of violence against unarmed protests. But important details have yet to be sorted out, including the “absolute immunity” claimed by the TMC, the status of the RSF vis-a-vis the national armed forces, and the powers conferred on the Sovereign Council. 

Most disturbingly, the continuing negotiations were marked by increasing signs of destabilization, including a cryptic announcement by the TMC that army officers and members of the security forces had recently attempted a coup. Street protests have not abated, the Communist Party has already refused to participate in the transition government, and armed rebels from the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) have maintained a hostile attitude to the peace process. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the presentation and signing of the final draft of the July 5 agreement have been delayed.



Even assuming the verbal agreement is finalized, Sudan is at the start of a long and volatile political changeover. With so many things that could potentially go wrong, three scenarios seem the most likely.

Egyptian solution

In the absence of a clear-cut leader or organized movement with both the soft and hard power to lead a post-Bashir tradition, this must be regarded as the baseline scenario. Following the Egyptian pattern, after a period of chaotic civilian-led government or power sharing, a uniformed strongman will emerge to take control of the situation. Many still regard General Dagalo as the most likely candidate.

Arguing for this outcome is the dire condition of Sudan’s economy, which will resist stabilization efforts by the transition government. Real incomes are declining, the state budget deficit is estimated at a staggering 20 percent of gross domestic product, prices of basic commodities continue to increase, and more than 5.7 million people now face food shortages. Meanwhile, the prevailing power vacuum and political uncertainty in Khartoum could spur violence in Sudan’s conflict regions, especially Darfur and the Nuba Hills, where secessionist hopes could revive.

The threat of renewed civil war will prompt most regional and international players, including the U.S. and the European Union, to favor security and stability over freedom. Under this scenario, the Gulf countries and Egypt would assist any military seizure of power. However, equally likely is a gentler version of the Egyptian scenario, in which the military and external players would try to co-opt some opposition leaders and parties into a law-and-order regime.

Transitional deal

This second, slightly less likely scenario assumes that the current fragile understanding between the military and civilian forces – or something closely resembling it – takes root and holds. This will depend on two main factors. First, the close engagement of regional mediators, especially the African Union, and active financial support from foreign donors will be crucial. An important trigger for this positive scenario would be a commitment from the U.S. to remove Sudan from the SST list, opening access to international debt relief and funding. The recent visit of Donald Booth, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, is a strong indication of Washington’s commitment to a stable transition. 

Even so, Sudan’s recent past suggests that external pressure may not be enough to overcome internal tensions. That would require the country’s civilian opposition and military to reach a basic consensus, between each other and within their ranks, on principles of political representation and procedure.

Even under this best-case scenario, pockets of instability would remain. Both of the country’s main political blocs – the military and the opposition coalition – are riddled with rival factions and interest groups, each holding different ideologies and cherishing different ambitions.

Civil war

The third scenario of civil war is less likely but still possible. It would be induced by a combination of events: a split within the military between those willing to honor the July 5 agreement with the civilian coalition and “hardliners,” quite possibly under the leadership of General Dagalo; irreversible ruptures within the civilian opposition; or a new upsurge of urban unrest and secessionist movements in rural areas, giving the military justification for another coup d’etat.

If this scenario is realized, it would have a devastating effect on regional security. The knock-on effects could destabilize South Sudan and the Central African Republic (where Khartoum plays an important stabilization role). Rebels in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile would step up pressure, while Islamist groups would capitalize on a collapse in central authority to recover and regroup. For Ethiopia, a civil war in Sudan would compromise its most ambitious development project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, at a moment when the country has been forced to ration electricity for household and industrial use.

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