Sudan has drastically changed since the military takeover of 25 October, closing the year with more questions than answers and more threats than stability indicators. The current protests on the street are facing challenges never seen during the revolutions that toppled the first and second military regimes.
It is violence that is the greatest cause of worry among the Sudanese, be they civilian, military, tribal; Islamist, liberal or leftist. Arms are widespread and they are not only held by the state, but also by militias, foremost among which are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), armed resistance movements and large numbers of Bedouin tribes.
Since late October, Sudan’s streets have been seeing mass demonstrations in protest at sidelining the civilian component from the power-sharing agreement that came into force following the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir.
If anything, the protests are proof that the latest deal between Army Commander General Abdul-Fattah Al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok did not resolve the crisis, but rather complicated the matter further.
The deal was publicly rejected, and led to Hamdok losing much of his popularity and legitimacy, cornering him; he either has to find a formula to make amends to Sudanese supporters of the revolution or tender his resignation.
Continuous protests show that the Sudanese people reject the militias and their role in the 25 October events. This manifested in the public chant “No to a militia that governs a state.”
DIVISIONS: Sudan is clearly divided between the camp of conservative forces, represented by the Native Administration that is made up of tribal leaders, especially in the central west of pastoral tribes, Sufi orders, the Umma Party, representing the Ansar sect, the largest religious sect in the country and Islamists from various fronts, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement.
This is in addition to the armed movements that fought against Al-Bashir’s regime, including the Islamists in Darfur, represented by the Justice and Equality Movement, led by the Minister of Finance Jibril Ibrahim, and the pragmatists such as Arko Minnawi, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement. Both Ibrahim and Minnawi have combatants fighting in Libya. The United Nations demanded the exit of these fighters.
All these groups support, and are supported by, the army.
On the other hand, there is the middle class that roughly extends from north Khartoum up until the border with Egypt. It stands in support of the civil forces and was the main contributor in the three revolutions of October 1964, April 1985 and December 2018, which toppled Al-Bashir following five months of protests.
However, the civil camp is replete with rifts, tempting the military to remove it.
Meanwhile, the military camp is also seeing sharp fissures, albeit under the surface. Sudan’s military, who ruled the country for more than half a century, since its independence from Britain in early 1956, will never accept an armed partner.
This means that the RSF, which belongs to the Armed Forces only as much as the latter needs, is threatened with liquidation or the integration of its elements into the ranks of the army. This was repeatedly rejected by its leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hamidti, even openly when he said, “Leave the RSF to me.”
Moreover, armed factions in Darfur and other regions are benefiting from their weapons politically and financially. They refuse to contest the general elections because that would reveal their real influence. These factions, throughout the history of Sudan, have claimed to represent marginalised non-Arab ethnicities, but the fact is they have never been elected by those groups.
Standing in support of the military are two archenemies: the armed movements in Darfur and the RSF whose majority of elements are Janjaweed militias accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity against non-Arab groups in Darfur.
This makes it more difficult for the army to appease its supporters.
DEMANDS: The transitional period in Sudan began with a government of technocrats, which was brought down by politicians, claiming “it was unable to take major decisions due to its lack of political cover,” in the words of Umma Party leader Othman Al-Bushra.
However, the government of politicians did not have enough professionals, according to Fayez Al-Salik, a former media adviser to the prime minister.
Because the government represented a limited number of parties, the military demanded that it should expand into a “broad-based government” to represent Sufi orders, tribal forces and armed movements, among others. After the 25 October takeover, the military and its supporters demanded a “government of technocrats”, putting Hamdok in a difficult position, again.
ANGRY STREET: Since his refusal to accept the finance portfolio in the late period of Al-Bashir’s rule, Hamdok, the professional politician with an international face, was accepted among the circles of those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood regime that remained in power for 30 years.
Indeed, the civil forces agreed to make Hamdok their candidate for prime minister. Increasing his popularity were his economic capabilities and his exceptional acceptance in the West. However, after the deal that reinstalled Hamdok weeks after his house arrest in his position, he lost much of his popularity with the public.
In his first move to pacify the street, Hamdok said he was unable to form a government, regardless of its components, without public support, and that he would resign if he lacked such support. This would detonate a bomb in the midst of the camp of revolutionaries and their civilian supporters who find it difficult to agree with the military on one candidate that would also be welcomed by the West.
Even if Hamdok can find the right formula to appease the street, he will encounter major obstacles when forming a government of technocrats. Jibril Ibrahim, the minister of finance, refuses to step down, which means that Hamdok will not be able to manage the key economic files.
For months Ibrahim stood in opposition to the prime minister and his directives, which resulted in the disruption of much work in one of the most important ministries in the country.
Hamdok’s resignation will harm the civilian camp and benefit the military and members of the former regime who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the conservative camp will not agree on the man to assume the premiership, and it seems this is the reason this position was cancelled during the era of military coups, where the president assumed the position of the prime minister as well.
The civil parties are at present between a rock and a hard place. They are fragile because the Popular Committee in the Neighbourhood is more conservative and has a louder voice.
“Convincing the street to accept Hamdok once more is going to be difficult,” said Al-Bushra, who was close to his party during the agreement between Hamdok and the army commander. “Some people from political parties were swept up in the revolutionary moment of 25 October and complicated the situation even further by raising the ceiling of demands,” he added.
EYE ON THE THRONE: A large number of military supporters reiterated their desire to rule Sudan, according to leaks by veteran Sudanese journalist Othman Al-Mirghani, former chief editor of the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
Ibrahim told some of his supporters, “we want to rule Sudan,” while Minnawi said compromising his group’s privileges means “an all-out war”, according to Al-Mirghani.
Hamidti, meanwhile, refuses to integrate his RSF fully into the army.
It is also notable that the strongest group is the RSF, which represents the pastoral Arab tribes of Kordofan and Darfur, led in the field by the Native Administration, a system initiated under British colonialism that grants tribal elders the power to manage the affairs of their followers. One of their strongest points is their control of the huge livestock wealth that belongs to the tribe. Moreover, the collapse of the agricultural sector under Muslim Brotherhood rule limited Sudan’s exports to livestock and Arabic gum, which is controlled by the tribes of the centre west.
Al-Bashir’s government supported these tribes financially and militarily during its war against the demands of non-Arab ethnicities, such as the Fur and Zaghawa.
This kind of support improved the combat skills of the RSF, which gained even more military experience during the war in Yemen, where the RSF had been part of the Arab Coalition forces for several years.
Furthermore, the Sudanese of the west control the leadership of the Umma Party and the Ansar group. “In the end, Hamidti is from Ansar, we can support him” if the circumstances are suitable, said Al-Bushri.
However, the RSF threatens the Democracy in Sudan bill submitted to the US Congress, which provides for imposing sanctions on leaders of the military and the RSF and their companies, interests and funds seen as being used to impede the transitional period and democratic transition, which could lead to unprecedented international intervention in Sudan should the bill be activated.
Civil War, violence or even involvement in the conflicts of neighbouring countries will allow either international intervention or international negligence. Both are dangerous. Moreover, using armed force by one or more groups will end stability and open the doors of hell on Khartoum.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly