“Volker, leave! Your’e German. The solution belongs to Sudan.” So chanted hundreds of protesters outside the UN mission headquarters in Khartoum last week. The rally, organised by Islamist groups, was in opposition to efforts by UN Envoy Volker Perthes to resolve the political crisis that has gripped the country since 25 October 2021, when General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan dismissed the government of prime minister Abdallah Hamdok, dissolved the Sovereignty Council and assumed exclusive power. He thus ended the military-civilian partnership that had prevailed during the transitional period following the grassroots mass uprising that overthrew the Omar Al-Bashir regime in 2018.
A bumpy path lies ahead for UN mediators. The Islamists are not alone to oppose their efforts and differences over them are many, although the main bone of contention concerns the parties involved and their aims. While the mediation began as a UN-sponsored process, it eventually took on board the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), becoming what has been termed a “trilateral mechanism”. It soon turned out that these three partners had differing conceptions and aims, which further complicated matters.
Siddiq Tawer, a member of the former Sovereignty Council, believes that the AU is biased in favour of the military and trying to sideline IGAD. The AU came into the process with its mind set on a pro-military solution, he said. “Volker Perthes had made it clear from the outset that he does not have an initiative of his own and that he merely wants to help the Sudanese reach a solution. When the AU mediator entered the picture, they began to speak of a trilateral mechanism aiming to restore the partnership with the military.”
On the other hand, Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi, chairman of the Umma Party, claims that the UN envoy is biased in favour of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC)-Central Council, and that his aim is to bring them to power rather than to forge a new transitional administration. This, it seems, was the crux of the dispute between Perthes and the AU, which erupted during their meeting with the political parties.
Some political forces have stated their conditions for taking part in the dialogue while others, including the Islamists, reject the process in its entirety. Capitalising on the country’s fragile circumstances and the military-civilian conflict to reassert themselves, the Islamists hope to commandeer the transitional period and position themselves to resume power.
The radical Islamist preacher, Mohamed Ali Al-Jazouli, the chairman of the State of Law and Development Party in Sudan and the coordinator general of the One Nation Current, said that the UN envoy has no chance of succeeding in Sudan. Volker Perthes’ initiative is doomed to fail, he said, because it is “condescending”, “rash” and comes from a person who is not from Sudan and does not know the nature of the Sudanese people. “He is not welcome here at all. The anger against him is more social than political,” he said.
Al-Jazouli claims to advocate a “third way” that involves neither the military nor the FFC. This is to appoint a non-partisan government of technocrats, with the army remaining at the head of the Sovereignty Council for the rest of the interim period, which would culminate in general elections in 18 months.
Tribal leaders also warned the head of the UN mission not to violate Sudan’s national sovereignty. Mohamed Al-Amin Turk, chairman of the Supreme Council for Beja Tribal Leaders in East Sudan, held that Perthes had no knowledge of the affairs of East Sudan. He threatened to close off the region if Perthes continues his exclusion.
Perthes launched his initiative in January. In a briefing to the UN Security Council in March he expressed concern over rising human rights violations perpetrated by security forces, noting that 16 women had reportedly been raped during protests in Khartoum in the period preceding 22 March, although the figure could have been under reported. This angered Burhan so much that he released a statement denouncing the UN envoy and threatening to expel him. Perthes responded that he was appointed by the Security Council, not by the Sudanese government. As though to back him up, the Security Council then renewed the mandate for the mission Perthes heads, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), for a year until 3 June 2023.
The military authorities also lack confidence in the trilateral mechanism, which is why they tried to include other civilian parties in the dialogue, to offset their former Sovereignty Council partners, the FFC. According to a civil official close to Sudanese military leaders, the “leftists” in the civilian organisations are trying to undermine the state with calls for restructuring the army. “This is to weaken, diffuse and paralyse it,” they told Al-Ahram Weekly, “They’re serving a foreign agenda. The solution, in my opinion, is for the army to assume power.”
On 29 May, General Burhan lifted the state of emergency he had imposed in October and ordered the release of political detainees. Regional and international powers welcomed his decisions as an important step towards creating a climate conducive to dialogue and a peaceful political solution to Sudan’s crisis. These powers also urged the Sudanese political forces to engage constructively in the political process under the trilateral mechanism.
The FFC-Central Council, which has indicated that its participation in the dialogue hinges on which other parties took part, stated that Burhan’s recent steps were only part of a set of measures that needed to be implemented in order to provide for a democratic climate. FCC spokespeople stressed that these measures also included halting the implementation of the retrograde decrees that followed the 25 October coup, which re-empowered figures from the old regime.
Subsequently, FFC spokespeople said they would boycott the dialogue process unless they saw Burhan’s decisions translated into realty on the ground, with political detainees including Bashir regime paragons released.
The main aim of any political process, the FCC stated, should be to end the consequences of the 25 October coup and to constitutionally establish a new transitional process based on an exclusively civilian authority to carry out the tasks of the December Revolution. The parties of this process must be clear and not hidden behind artificial facades. To fill the dialogue process with former allies of the Bashir regime of the past and allies of the army today would only turn it into a “dialogue of the deaf” or a shouting match.
The resistance committees, which have led grassroots protests, since General Burhan’s actions of 25 October reject out of hand any partnership or negotiations with the military. Their stance is supported by the Sudanese Communist Party, which believes that it is pointless and futile to attempt to reconstruct the failed partnership between civilians and the military.
According to Sudanese experts, in remarks to the Weekly, the talks spearheaded by the trilateral mechanism are not intended to discuss the roots of the problem in Sudan but rather to help the Sudanese reach a political settlement. Power sharing and the quotas involved will always be an important point in the process, which means that there will always be a chance of failure.
The international community has tried to encourage and stimulate Sudanese dialogue in the hope it will achieve a desperately needed breakthrough. As Perthes pointed out in his March briefing to the UN Security Council, time is not on the Sudanese people’s side. The longer the current political impasse, the greater the risks for the Sudanese people who are already suffering of economic dire straits and instability. The situation could worsen if a civilian government is not formed by mid July. Over $4 billion in international aid could be frozen and, worse, Sudan could be staring once again at the kind of international sanctions the Bashir regime frequently courted.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.