Hamdok’s triple bind

Dina Ezzat and Haitham Nouri, Friday 26 Nov 2021

Despite the recent compromise to end the conflict in Sudan, a stable transition may be hard to secure.

Hamdok and Al-Burhan
photo: AFP

This week Abdalla Hamdok, the restored prime minister of Sudan, has three key tasks ahead of him. The first is to appeal to a furious Sudanese street and ask people to give a chance to the political agreement he co-signed with Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese military and Transitional Sovereign Council.

On Sunday, Al-Burhan ordered the end of the house arrest under which Hamdok had been placed since late October. Later, the ousted prime minister signed a 14-item political deal in the presidential palace that partially reversed the decrees that Al-Burhan had issued following the removal of civilian forces from government on 25 October, three weeks ahead of the transition of power from the military to civilians stipulated in the agreement the two sides signed in 2019 after Omar Al-Bashir was ousted.

Hamdok’s second task is to put together a new government of technocrats to replace the government that Al-Burhan removed during the 25 October events.

Unlike the previous government, Hamdok will have to avoid representatives of political parties in the new cabinet. He needs a government able to work together to address Sudan’s acute economic problems and improve the poor quality of services that the previous government failed to fix.

The third task is to encourage the international community, which had pressed for Hamdok’s return, to continue to push the Sudanese military to reverse course and allow for an eventual transition of power. Hamdok needs international support to get Al-Burhan to release all the political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the demonstrations against the 25 October decrees, get for international donors to reinstitute economic aid packages to help Sudan step away from the brink of economic collapse.

None of these tasks will be easy. According to Hamdi Salah and Mohamed Al-Asbat, two leading civilian political figures, Hamdok’s deal with Al-Burhan is not something that the street will find it easy to swallow.

“The deal gives legitimacy to” the 25 October decrees, says Salah. According to Al-Asbat, it falls well short of the demands of the demonstrators.

Speaking from Khartoum on Monday afternoon — the mobile service, cut on Al-Burhan’s orders on 25 October, has now been restored — Tarek Said, a medical doctor who participated in the demonstrations against the military decrees, said that while the deal signed between Al-Burhan and Hamdok on Sunday contained room for the head of the military to some of his decisions that “violated the agreement he signed in 2019”, Hamdok’s credibility remains on the line.

Al-Burhan, Said argued, clearly wanted to exclude civilians from government, and now, “after being forced to bow to international pressure after the street made its voice heard over and over again despite the bloodshed, is seeking a puppet government of civilian allies.”

In the course of the massive demonstrations that took to the streets of Khartoum and other Sudanese cities 40 protesters were killed. According to the Sudanese Medical Association, they died of injuries after the police fired live ammunition at the crowds, or were suffocated after inhaling tear gas.

While Sudanese police deny targeting demonstrators, Said said that in the wake of the bloodshed the feeling on the street is that any deal that falls short of restricting the role of the military to defence, and handing over the government to civilian forces, is unacceptable.

The fact that Hamdok is still waiting for Al-Burhan to release political prisoners who were arrested in recent weeks, argued Said, underlines that his role is restricted to providing Al-Burhan with a face-saving compromise. “But we are done with compromises. We want civilian rule, and we want it now.”

Said is far from being a lone voice. Protests have continued since Sunday, and more are expected.

This lack of public support for the deal struck with the military, with direct intervention by the US, the UK and Norway, is one of many reasons why Hamdok will have his work cut out assembling a new government.

According to a Khartoum-based foreign diplomat, many technocrats will find it difficult to join a government that will be working without significant public support, under a prime minister whose relationship with the head of the military is, at best, exceedingly fail.

“I am not sure people will be jumping to join a government which could well be short-lived given the street protests and the absence of any real confidence between Hamdok and Al-Burhan,” the diplomat said. “It is far from clear at all how things will work out between the two men once the military and civilian representatives begin to negotiate the rules of their partnership as stipulated in the deal they signed on Sunday.”

In the absence of an efficient government in place any time soon, Hamdok may be unable to convince international donors to reverse the October suspension of aid packages pledged to support democratic transition in Sudan.

On Monday, while Hamdok was still appealing for the release of political prisoners, and sounding out potential candidates on their willingness to join a government that needs to secure the backing of both the military and the street, he received a call from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken offering support.

Blinken also called Al-Burhan and told his Sudanese interlocutors that Sudan needs to make tangible progress towards democracy before Washington continues with its $700 million package of financial assistance.

“This is not just about the US, it concerns all other international donors,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat. He said the international financial assistance offered to Sudan was offered to a country that was moving towards democracy, not one that was on the cusp of sinking into military rule.

Sudan’s military, the same diplomat added, had breached the trust of its own people, and that of the international community that had backed the transition. To win back that trust, he said, the military will have to rebuild its standing with the Sudanese public and with the international community.

According to Amany Al-Tawil, a commentator on Sudan affairs, it is still too early to predict the outcome of confidence-building measures between the military and civilians. The process, she explained, extends beyond Al-Burhan and Hamdok to include the entire military establishment and civilian forces who openly disagree to the deal Hamdok signed on Sunday.

“Yes, the new agreement emerged because of pressure from the street and from the international community but there is a huge question mark over whether it can work,” she said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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