Will Sudan’s military crush hope for democracy?

The long-simmering standoff between Sudan’s military regime and civilian protesters encamped in the capital of Khartoum exploded this week.On Monday, troops from the Rapid Support Forces, an infamous paramilitary unit,attacked the sit-in protest sitethat activists had occupied for the past two months. At least 60 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. By the following day, the site had been dismantled and cleared by the paramilitary forces, which also set up checkpoints and locked down parts of Khartoum.

“Pockets of defiant protesters gathered at mosques on Tuesday, turning their prayers for the Eid al-Fitr holiday into calls for sustained civil disobedience,”my colleagues reported. “Sporadic gunfire could still be heard throughout Khartoum and its suburbs.”

The violence marked a grim turn for what had beena hopeful moment in Sudan. In scenes redolent ofthe Arab world’s 2011 pro-democracy uprisings, an emboldened grass-roots protest movement had taken root in the heart of the Sudanese capital, clamoring for democratic reform and political change. Their stamina and courage led to the April ouster of long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir by top military officials within his regime.

But the protestersnever trusted the Transitional Military Councilthat came into place after Bashir’s removal and insisted that the generals transfer authority to civilians. They had good reason to distrust the top brass — the senior officials of the TMC all have deep ties to Bashir and the complex security apparatus he built. The military and protest leaders met for rounds of failed negotiations concerning the way forward, while a generation of Sudanese activists gathered in hopeful vigil and protest in the heart of Khartoum. On May 28, they called for a two-day general strike.

The military’s response was to crack down. After the Rapid Support Forces moved in, TMC head Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announcedthe end of dialogue with the protest movement, deemed the protest site as a potential “threat to national security,” and said the military council would fast-track the transitional period and stage presidential elections within nine months. That’s bad news for pro-democracy activists and opposition parties, which need more time to muster the resources to contest an election against entrenched regime forces.

“The concern is the TMC … will now link up with old regime elements and so the elections will open the way for the old regime to come back into power. It is very worrying,” Rosalind Marsden, a Sudan expert at Chatham House,told the Guardian.

It’s alsoa blueprint seen elsewhere in the Arab world.In Algeria, a committed protest movement that forced the departure of the country’s aging, enfeebled president is still locked in a tense standoff with a military elite that is bent on preserving their control over large sections of the state. In Egypt, Sudanese protesters have a clear example of what happens when a pro-democratic revolution eventually gets swept away by a vicious counterrevolution led by the military establishment.

A coup against Egypt’s unpopular but democratically elected government in 2013 was followed by a massacre of Islamist protesters that drewparallels to the killings at Tiananmen Square in 1989. That coup leader, Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, is now the country’s strongman and potential president for life.

Not surprisingly, Burhan and his allies recently called on Sissi and also paid visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The two gulf monarchies are especially hostile to the prospect of democratic upheaval in their wider neighborhood and promised $3 billion in aid to Sudan to provide for the country’s “stability.” But experts see a disturbing trend in play, where Arab authoritarians guarantee their preferred political order, preside over shocking repression and human rights abuses and pay little price for it.

Sudan’s military rulers are drawing “lessons from the impunity for murdering opponents enjoyed by [Saudi crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman and Sissi who are now backing them,” Timothy Kaldas, a Cairo-based analyst for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Today’s WorldView. “Their backing by regional authoritarians who themselves have escaped any consequences for violently repressing opponents may have emboldened them to follow their example and use deadly force against protesters in Sudan.”

“If the military prevails in Sudan, it will mark a victory as well for these ruthless despots and their road-to-nowhere style of governance,”noted an editorial in The Washington Postthat called out the negative role played by the Saudis and Emiratis.

Kaldas cautioned, though, that Sudan “lacks the comparable strategic value” that a country like Egypt or Saudi Arabia has for many Western governments. For more than a decade, Bashir, who is wanted on genocide and crimes against humanity charges by the International Criminal Court, was a global villain in the eyes of the West and his regime the subject of various international sanctions. The RSF has its antecedents in the notorious Janjaweed militia that carried out mass atrocities in Sudan’s restive Darfur region.

U.S. officials slammed the crackdown this week, with White House national security adviser John Bolton describing the move to attack the protesters as “abhorrent.” Tibor Nagy, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, decried “a brutal and coordinated attack, led by the Rapid Support Forces militia, that mirrors some of the worst offenses of the Bashir regime.”

Protesters set up a barricade in Khartoum to stop military vehicles from driving through the area on Tuesday. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

But analysts aren’t convinced that the United States will do much more than scold. “The international community — so interested and morally exercised by Bashir’s human rights abuses in the past that it has left Sudan hobbled by years of economic sanctions and international isolation — has now moved on,”wrote British-Sudanese columnist Nesrine Malik. “It will only issue the usual boilerplate condemnations of violence.”

Malik summed up the grim struggle ahead: “What the Sudanese revolution is reckoning with now is the very heart of Bashir’s government distilled into its essential parts: networks of patronage with too much to lose, militias grown too large to disband, and dirty deals with regional allies too important to jettison.”

Nevertheless, pro-democracy activists are promising to carry out more civil disobedience in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country. Makeshift barricades sprang up in the capital on Tuesday.

“We have no choice but to continue,”said Mohammed Yousef Mustafa, a spokesman for one of the lead protest organizations.

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