The irreconcilability between Sudanese protestors’ demands and those of the military junta will likely complicate international efforts to facilitate a negotiated return to the country’s democratic transition.
As security forces continue their violent crackdown on anti-coup demonstrations in Sudan, the irreconcilability between protestors’ demands and those of the military junta will complicate international efforts to facilitate a negotiated return to the country’s democratic transition.
– Security forces will continue to use violence to confront weekly protests that demand the military’s withdrawal from domestic politics
– Acts of civil disobedience are also likely to continue, crippling trade with neighboring countries
– The US may attempt to induce political concessions by the coup regime through sanctions targeting military-owned companies, though this policy is unlikely to loosen the generals’ grip on power
CONSENSUS-BUILDING COLLIDES WITH THE THREE NOES
On February 28, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) released a paper summarizing insights from its first round of consultations with 800 Sudanese stakeholders, including the military, civil society groups and non-state armed movements. Announced on January 8, days after civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s resignation solidified a military power grab that had begun with a coup three months before, the consultations aimed to facilitate Sudanese efforts to build consensus on “a path towards democracy and peace.”
Despite agreement that Sudan’s political transition, initiated after President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019, had been derailed, consultees’ opinions on how the process should be brought back on track—especially regarding the role of the military in domestic politics—diverged, leading UNITAMS to recommend further rounds of inclusive dialogue.
Inclusive dialogue is a controversial prospect in Sudan’s current political climate. In a political charter released one day before the UNITAMS paper, the Khartoum chapter of Sudan’s neighborhood organizing groups, known as resistance committees, called for the fall of the coup regime and the total rejection of negotiations with the putschists. The document thus codifies the vision embodied by the three noes—no negotiation, no partnership and no legitimacy—a phrase repeated at weekly “Marches of the Millions” organized by resistance committees across Sudan.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), another prominent pro-democracy group, also cited the three noes in its rejection of the UNITAMS initiative. On the other hand, the Central Council of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) — an alliance of peaceful and armed groups that united against former President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 — broke ranks with the SPA and most of the resistance committees by engaging in the UNITAMS consultations.
In contrast to its fraught reception within Sudan, the UNITAMS initiative has enjoyed widespread support outside of the country. The Quad for Sudan, a diplomatic bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, UK and US, welcomed the UN-facilitated dialogue when it was announced, as did the Friends of Sudan, a forum featuring the aforementioned countries, Norway and the European Union.
A TRANSITION BOOKENDED BY COUPS
As the Sudanese Revolution entered its fifth month in April 2019, a group of generals acquiesced to protestors’ demands that President Bashir be removed by arresting the country’s 30-year leader in a palace coup. Despite the arrest, the mass mobilization did not abate until August 2019, when the military junta that had replaced Bashir agreed to share power with the FFC.
This power-sharing arrangement established a 39-month transitional period, during which a civilian-led Transitional Cabinet and a Sovereignty Council, chaired initially by an individual nominated by the military, would rule the country until elections could be held. The FFC nominated Hamdok to head the Transitional Cabinet as prime minister while the military chose General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan to chair the Sovereignty Council.
On October 25, 2021, Burhan used growing unrest over Sudan’s struggling economy as a pretense to lead another military coup, this time to oust Hamdok and suspend the Sovereignty Council and Transitional Cabinet. Though he claimed to have acted to prevent public discontent from spiraling into civil war, it is more likely that Burhan was concerned that his term as Sovereignty Council head was slated to end in November 2021.
Sudan’s 2019 constitution stipulated that an FFC-nominated civilian would replace Burhan. This change would have weakened the military’s ability to influence the transitional agenda. Of particular concern for the military were the Transitional Cabinet’s efforts to dismantle the Bashir regime’s foundations, including the military’s $2 billion shadow economy.
The Cabinet also voted in August 2021 to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. A possible trip to The Hague for Bashir—who stands accused of committing genocide and war crimes in Sudan’s 19-year-old Darfur Conflict—represents a frightening prospect for Burhan, Dagalo and other figures the former president’s testimony might implicate.
Though protests and international pressure—including decisions by the US and World Bank to freeze a combined $3.7 billion in aid pledged to Sudan—led Burhan to reinstate Hamdok in November, the prime minister’s return did not reverse the effects of the coup. Rather, Burhan remained in charge and his new deal with Hamdok froze out the FFC in favor of a cabinet composed of technocrats.
The Quad and Volker Perthes, the head of UNITAMS, received Hamdok’s reinstatement as a positive step towards restoring Sudan’s transition. The FFC, SPA and resistance committees, on the other hand, denounced the agreement as window dressing for the coup. For the SPA and resistance committees, international legitimation of the coup regime has only continued since then, with Quad support for UNITAMS’ efforts to facilitate a national consensus between Sudanese stakeholders—the military included—constituting the latest example.
A RETURN TO TRANSITION
In his resignation speech, Hamdok emphasized that an inclusive consensus-building effort was needed to rescue his nation’s civil-democratic transition. UNITAMS’ decision to invite all Sudanese stakeholders to participate in its consultations reflects this vision. However, the UN initiative’s failure to garner widespread support highlights that attitudes towards collaboration and compromise have hardened. In their place, a more divisive politics of resistance, repression and coalitional consolidation will likely prevail in the short-term.
In practice, this means that the fundamental incongruence between roundtable dialogue and the three noes will probably remain insurmountable. Thus, it is unlikely that the SPA or the resistance committees will formally agree to any initiative that recognizes the military junta as a legitimate and coequal political stakeholder.
Resistance committee-led protests against the military’s involvement in politics will almost certainly continue, as will state-sanctioned crackdowns on these demonstrations. Furthermore, it is possible that the committees will increase acts of civil disobedience like the ongoing blockade of highways connecting Sudan with Egypt. This display of solidarity with marginalized farmers and herders has brought trade with Sudan’s northern neighbor to a standstill, underscoring the economic power the resistance committees are capable of wielding.
Acts of civil disobedience, Marches of the Millions, and the Khartoum political charter underline the resistance committees’ divergence from the FFC Central Council’s strategy of engagement. Such fissures within Sudan’s revolutionary coalition will presumably play into the hands of the military junta, in large part because of the international dynamics surrounding the country’s domestic political situation.
While the resistance committees’ vast popular support base rejects the coup regime, it is possible that a veneer of civilian involvement in governing the country—through, for instance, a new agreement between the FFC Central Council and the generals—will suffice to secure a stamp of approval from foreign powers. In the case of the Quad, such a reaction would adhere to its stated desire to preserve Sudan’s democratic transition, a commitment that differs from protestors’ demand that the military depart the political scene completely.
The Quad’s commitment to the transition, and the military-civilian power-sharing it entails, stems from the group’s internal differences and the disparate ability of its members to influence the Sudanese political situation. The UAE and Saudi Arabia hold considerable sway in the halls of power in Khartoum, having pledged $3 billion to Sudan after Bashir’s downfall and cultivated close ties with Generals Burhan and Dagalo.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh currently view the two military men as the most reliable facilitators of a predictable, transactional relationship with Khartoum, which Emirati and Saudi leaders believe is key to ensuring that Sudan serves as a bulwark against food insecurity in the Gulf and a supplier of fighting forces in regional conflicts.
Though less averse to a democratic Sudan than the Gulf monarchies, the US prefers a more muted approach that relies on the shuttle diplomacy of Special Envoy David Satterfield and the country’s ability to leverage its financial power as a coercive instrument. Thus, while the US may impose sanctions on Sudanese military-owned companies, this move would likely be coordinated with the Emiratis and the Saudis, and its intent will not be to bolster the approach embodied by the three noes. Rather, these targeted sanctions would seek to provoke concessions from the coup leaders within the framework of a UN-facilitated return to a civilian-military power-sharing agreement.
The yet-irreconcilable tension between the three noes and the junta’s insistence that it be included and legitimized is likely to shape the development of Sudan’s fraught political situation in the short term. While Hamdok’s November plea that “Sudanese blood is precious” has failed to bring the country back from the brink, it remains to be seen if economic carrots and sticks—including sanctions and the conditional resumption of much-needed foreign aid—might produce a painful compromise. If not, the cycle of protest and repression will probably continue escalating until someone in Khartoum, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi blinks.