Transitional fault lines threaten revolution

Transitional fault lines threaten revolution
  • PublishedJune 4, 2019

As the mood sours in Khartoum, with the military beginning to use force against peaceful protestors, Tom Collins assesses the fault lines which threaten to derail any would-be agreement between civilian and military entities.

Amid shouts of “no place for Islamists”, dozens of protesters surrounded a building where the Popular Congress Party (PCP) – an Islamist group with close links to Bashir, founded by the late Hassan al-Turabi – were holding a meeting.

Emerging out onto the dusty streets, party members were met with a volley of rocks and improvised missiles as the two groups began to clash – leading to 67 injured.

While the revolution is led by a liberal and progressive cohort – championing female rights and youth participation, as well as seeking reconciliation with protesters such as those who had arrived on a bus from Darfur, where non-Arabised Sudanese have been the target of state-sponsored violence – the clashes with Islamists represent one of Sudan’s many ideological fault lines, which have the power to derail the objectives of the revolution if aggravated.

As New African went to press the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) were struggling to find consensus with their civilian coalition counterpart – the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association – as they tirelessly debate the nature of the power structure which will lead their country into a new era.

As it stands, both sides have agreed on the structure of future authorities – a sovereign council, a cabinet and a legislative body. A three-year transition period to a civilian administration has been set in place and the coalition body will hold two-thirds of the seats on the legislative council, the rest belonging to fringe opposition groups.

With the protesters ever-fearful of a military power grab, the main sticking point thus far has been the military-civilian balance on the sovereign council, as this body will act as the executive.

Yet subtler issues, outside the brute make-up of power, are also at play. One draft constitutional document handed to the military council for review was rejected on the grounds that it did not refer to Islamic law as its guiding principle.

“Our view is that Islamic Sharia and the local norms and traditions in the Republic of Sudan should be the sources of legislation,” TMC spokesman Shams al-Din Kabashi told reporters in Khartoum.

These divergent views of what Sudan means as a country, secular versus Islamic, Arab versus non-Arab, represent very tangible fault lines which could hamper nation-building long after the makeup of the transitional body has been decided.

Sudan, old and new

Since Bashir was toppled and sent to prison on 11 April, Sudanese youth – who make up around 60% of the population – have enjoyed unprecedented freedoms.

In what has been described as a “carnival atmosphere”, the ongoing sit-in outside the military headquarters has been the scene of jubilant celebration and togetherness as protesters chant traditional songs; volunteers distribute round-the-clock food and tea; and impromptu security guards check fellow demonstrators for weapons.

The now-famous photo of Alaa Salah – the female student and anti-government campaigner pictured atop a white car pointing defiantly in the air while giving a speech to a dusty crowd in Khartoum – quickly became the image of the uprising and is symbolic of the important role that women have played.

In stark contrast, women under Bashir’s Public Order Law could have been escorted to a police station by anyone who deemed their clothing inappropriate and judges dished out whippings to any citizen publicly contravening the law.

With the streets now in control, a new level of self-expression has taken hold with women wearing less conservative clothing and youths gathering to enjoy previously unthinkable indulgences such as hookah (water pipes) and date wine.

“There is a real sense of social capital; people redefining and identifying with Sudan in a way that they haven’t publicly been able to in the past,” comments Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House.

“The role that women and young people have played in the protest movement has been extremely significant in driving change and that’s something which shouldn’t be forgotten when we think about what is coming next in Sudan.”

Yet the TMC and political parties such as the PCP have strong connections with Bashir’s ‘deep state’; a covert web of politicians, generals, security officials and Islamists who were able to wield enormous power through close collaboration and patronage links to the former president.

Though the military has tried to distance itself from a regime in which it played an integral role – by dismissing key military figures and charging Bashir with killing protesters while in office – ceding power to a protest movement with a radically different interpretation of the country may be a step too far for Sudan’s old guard.

Deep state

Many figures leading the military council through the transition period are generals who made a name for themselves carrying out Bashir’s dirty work.

Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto head of state, and former General Inspector of the Sudanese Armed Forces, set out with a conciliatory tone towards protesters and is considered to have a cleaner record than many of his peers.

Nonetheless, his name is linked to a massacre in Nirititi in Central Darfur State in 2016, in a conflict which is ongoing despite government claims to the contrary and the broad withdrawal of the international community.

The war in Darfur, which has left 300,000 dead since 2003 according to the UN, is a simmering conflict between Arab Sudanese and non-Arab Sudanese in the west of the country towards neighbouring Chad.

The military council’s vice chair, Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ has an even darker record in the region as a leader of the Janjaweed: Arab militia forces who have wreaked death and destruction across Darfur.

As Bashir’s right-hand man, Hemedti was referred to by his boss as ‘himayti’ – a play on his name which literally translates into ‘my protection’. With figures such as these overseeing the transition to democracy, Soliman argues, the protesters have good reason to be sceptical of real change.

“General Burhan and Hemedti have both been very open in saying that they have no intention of holding on to power but people aren’t sure of their sincerity as two individuals who are at the top of the military tree,” he says.

“We still aren’t certain about their claims and the fear is that they will ultimately replace a military leadership with another style of military leadership.”

The atrocities committed by the military in Darfur – for which Bashir is wanted by the ICC – also mean that the reconciliatory space created by the protest movement will likely be snuff ed out.

Despite a bus packed full of excited Darfuri protesters entering the streets of Khartoum to calls of “please forgive us”, reconciliation and justice at the higher levels of governance look unlikely as the military will make up at least half of the sovereign council going forward.

Cheque book diplomacy

Pulling at the strings of this already shaky transition process are numerous regional players, many with divergent interests.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia announced a joint $3bn aid package, with $500m pumped into Sudan’s central bank to ease the country’s economic crisis. Originally adopting a hardline Islamist stance by partnering with Iran, Turkey and Qatar, Sudan has tilted on its geo-political axis over the last few years towards the competing regional bloc of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, who fashion themselves as tough on terrorism in return for Western support.

The money from the Gulf was an attempt to ensure the continuation of this allegiance, long after Bashir is gone. Both Burhan and Hemedti, the two key figures in the military council, have strong connections with Saudi Arabia as generals associated with Sudanese troops fighting in Yemen.

While there is no indication that the money was intended to specifically endorse the leadership of the military council, an alliance with Sudan is an important asset in Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions and tangible links to key figures could very well assume greater importance in the future.

“There’s a lot of connections that are still there,” says Sim Tack, global security analyst for Stratfor. “Saudi Arabia wants to reassure the Sudanese leadership that they can work with them.”

In reality, the deep state is a major obstacle to the beauty of the Sudanese revolution, which has been defined by progressive social ideas and reconciliation with besieged Darfur.

Regardless of what the power-sharing agreement may eventually look like, the free space which has blossomed outside the military headquarters in Khartoum over the past few weeks may not find meaningful expression in Sudan for quite some time. NA

Written By
Tom Collins

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