One week after protests erupted in Sudan

The rift between the military and civilian wings of the government is deepening in the face of internal pressures and external influence
Manifestación Sudán

AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -   Mass demonstrations against ex-president Omar al-Bashir

Thousands of people marched in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, this week in protest against the unsustainable climate of political tension that is rocking the government alliance between the military and civilians. The democratic transition process is at its lowest ebb since it was launched in 2019 following the coup attempt on 21 September. An uprising led by soldiers loyal to former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir sought to re-establish military rule.

The hangover from the coup ended up fracturing the executive, whose members have publicly staged their disagreements, centred on the two visible heads of the transition: the president of the Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok. But above all, the coup ended up dividing a society experiencing a deep economic and tribal crisis. A perfect breeding ground for the outbreak of a new civil conflict with devastating consequences.

Coinciding with the day of the 1964 revolution, 21 October, when the Sudanese people rose up against the dictator Ibrahim Abboud, the population has taken to the streets across the country to defend its position. This heterogeneous stance is divided into two main camps: those who support the transition process and demand a civilian government, and the nostalgics who call for a return to military rule.

Omar al-Bashir
ARCHIVO/SUDAN FILES  -  In this photo taken on August 19, 2019 former ruler Al-Bashir faces a corruption trial in Khartoum

In the absence of other options to ascertain the majority sentiment of the Sudanese people, both factions are trying to impose their truth and hegemony on the streets. As a result, the country has witnessed a considerable increase in mobilisations in recent days, which promise to continue until one of the two sections of the executive makes a false move. Some blame others for the precarious state of affairs in the Horn of Africa nation.

Sudan is experiencing power cuts, shortages of basic supplies, rampant inflation and the devaluation of the Sudanese pound. These ingredients have exhausted the patience of the Sudanese and explain the relentless search for culprits. The transitional government has absorbed widespread anger and confidence in the Hamdok-led interim cabinet has collapsed due to the ineffectiveness of its reforms.

The Forces for Freedom and Change (FCC), the broad coalition front that signed the transitional agreement with the Transitional Military Council (CMT), called on its militants to surround the presidential palace for the sixth consecutive day and demand the dissolution of the government. The group believes that four groups have hijacked the revolution and monopolised the civilian representation of the executive, demanding the entry of more political forces into the cabinet. This position was shared by President al-Burhan.

AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -  President of the Sovereign Council of Sudan General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

The Sudanese authorities have been forced to set up a security perimeter to protect institutions and government buildings, as well as the peaceful conduct of the demonstrations. So far, no direct clashes between protesters have been reported. However, the action plan is focused on the Kobar prison, where former President Omar al-Bashir and several senior members of his regime are being held.

The Sovereign Council, the main organ of power comprised of military and civilian members, will transfer power after the next elections, scheduled for 2023. And while volatile events could unravel the democratic transition period, General al-Burhan has reinforced his commitment to preserving the civil-military alliance "until an elected civilian government is in place". These statements have been questioned by some observers who are familiar with the situation within the army, where supporters of military rule are to be found.

Meanwhile, the civilian side of the government, led by civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, last week unveiled a roadmap for resolving the pressing Sudanese crisis. During his appearance, Hamdok maintained his position: "I am neither neutral nor a mediator in this conflict. My clear and firm position is full alignment with the civilian democratic transition".

AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -  Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok (centre) and Major General Malik Tayeb Khojali (left) inspect a guard of honour in El-Fasher, North Darfur
External influence

Sudan is a powder keg. But the African nation is located in a strategic enclave, close to the Horn of Africa and acting as a nexus between the north of the continent and sub-Saharan Africa. It is bathed by the Red Sea and rich in oil. Quasi-ideal conditions that attract foreign powers. So much of what is happening in Sudan is preceded by foreign influence, especially from the Persian Gulf, where countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to gain ground.

Riyadh is trying at all costs to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from regaining influence in a country where al-Bashir was closely connected to certain Islamist movements and eventually became a haven for radical leaders. To this end, however, he is backing military power over civilian power. Doha, on the other hand, has not taken a clear stance and is moving closer for economic and commercial interests.

The Western powers, led by Washington, have expressed their support for the civilian wing of the government. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has expressed his support for the civilian wing, urging the parties to complete the planned roadmap. However, US support for Sudan could be cut short if the transition is not completed. US diplomacy has warned its Gulf partners that this process depends on maintaining civilian-military leadership until the elections.

AFP/AFP  -  Map of Sudan and neighbouring countries. Sudan's main rebel alliance has agreed a peace deal with the government to end 17 years of conflict

US special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman told The National this week: "If the transition is disrupted, if one side or another of this society tries to assert itself, then US support for all of these issues, including debt relief, will be in question," although he did not single out any of the parties.

The diplomat will visit the Sudanese capital Khartoum in the coming days for the second time in less than a month. A sign that underlines its strategic importance. Sudan's relevance on the geopolitical chessboard is reflected in the 337 million dollars that Washington has earmarked for the country to promote the transitional process. The United States has even acted as mediator with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unblock an influx of 2.4 billion dollars and debt relief.