BY ASA COOPER
In 2019, Sudan appeared to be at a turning point, with a sharp 3.2 point drop on the FSI as civil society demanded change. Protests sparked by economic grievances quickly evolved into a widespread movement against 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir. The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad-based political coalition of armed groups, political parties and civil society organizations, formed in January 2019. The group organized sustained protests that eventually led the military to force Bashir to step down in April.
Civilians remained in the streets to protest against the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that was formed in Bashir’s wake, demanding a full civilian government that would lead the country to elections. The military was forced into negotiations with the FFC following the June 3 Khartoum Massacre during which over 100 protestors were killed and hundreds more injured. In response, the FFC organized widespread a civil disobedience campaign that brought the country to a standstill and forced the military into negotiations. A Constitutional Declaration was signed between the military and the FFC in August 2019, establishing the Sovereignty Council through which the military and civilians would share power during a transition to elections.
However, in 2021 (FSI 2022) the scores worsened by 3.2 points as the transition seems to have derailed. On October 25, 2021, General al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese military and chairman of the Sovereignty Council, had the civilian members of the council arrested three weeks before a civilian representative was due to take his position as head of the transition. Since then, he has declared that he will lead the country in the transition to elections. However, much of the country has rejected this notion with sustained protests against any military involvement in government. Nearly 100 protestors have been killed since October 2021. Unfortunately, both the domestic and international context have changed significantly since then, with profound implications for Sudan’s democratic future.
The landscape of civil society in Sudan has shifted significantly since the signing of the Constitutional Declaration. The movement that brought down Bashir has fractured along several fault lines. Issues began to arise from the beginning of the transition when the FFC failed to adequately include women in the transitional government despite their outsized role in the revolution. Divisions increased over time resulting in multiple groups quitting the coalition and its eventual split into two factions.
The coup exacerbated divisions within civil society as groups have taken sides on whether or not to participate in a UN-AU-Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) tri-lateral initiative to promote dialogue between civilians and the military. While some civilian groups have agreed to participate, key leading groups from the 2019 revolution, along with much of the population, remain firmly against any negotiations with the military, namely the Resistance Committees, a decentralized network of activists spread across the country that enjoy broad support from “the streets” of Sudan. Without their support, there can be no meaningful dialogue.
Many of the armed groups’ leaders that stood in opposition to Bashir in 2019 have been integrated into the government under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. While this bodes well for the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement as government positions are likely to keep the signatories from returning to war, it greatly reduces the ability of civilian groups to put pressure on the military. This, combined with a fractured civil society, leaves the pro-democracy movement in Sudan in a significantly weaker position than it was in in 2019. This was demonstrated when the FFC declared a second civil disobedience campaign in the wake of the October coup but failed to achieve the same result as they did in response to the Khartoum Massacre.
The strong domestic response to the Khartoum Massacre in June 2019 was strengthened by international support. The backlash from the international community was swift including suspension from the African Union and strong condemnation from across the world. A “Western Troika” made up of the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States used their influence in the region to pressure the military into negotiations with civilians. But now there is a broader trend toward the outsourcing of US-led foreign policy to allies in the region, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Sudan maintains deep connections with the “Arab Troika” on which it relies heavily for economic, political and diplomatic support, going so far as to contribute troops to the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The pro-democracy movement has lost significant external support as Western influence in the region declines. The US’s unipolar moment has begun to fade as traditional allies, including the Gulf States, have demonstrated their increased willingness to sacrifice alignment with Washington on certain issues in order to build or maintain favor with other major players in the region. Additionally, Russia and China’s growing influence and interests has given the military multiple options for support from anti-democratic regimes that actively contest US hegemony while Israel has signaled support for the military after steps were taken to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. This marks a profound shift from the geopolitical context of 2019 during which Western influence was much stronger and pro-democracy groups in Sudan could rely on a certain level of international support.
There is no clear way out of the current situation in Sudan. The military maintains a tight grip on the country even though much of the population refuses to recognize their authority. While civil society currently lacks the cohesion necessary to relaunch a civil resistance campaign against autocratic rule as they did in 2019, the Sudanese people’s fight for democracy has not diminished. The cycle of protests and violent repression is bound to continue in Sudan unless civil society groups are able to reignite the cooperation that sparked the extraordinary 2019 movement.