Date: Tuesday, 16 April 2019
CAIRO — The protest outside Sudan’s military headquarters felt more like a counterculture summer festival than a revolution. A famous Sudanese musician, using a car as his stage, stroked his violin. Sufi Muslims wafted about in colorful robes, mixing with people singing Christian hymns.
Some people brought their children to experience the moment and savor the euphoria of a remarkable achievement: Last week the protesters succeeded where numerous armed revolts failed and ousted the despised autocrat, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, after 30 years of his grinding rule.
But inside the gates of the military headquarters, Mr. al-Bashir’s stalwarts are still in charge. Hard-bitten men synonymous with war and corruption, the generals are engaging in delicate talks with the hitherto unknown leaders of this youthful and inchoate uprising.
But neither side seems sure who is ally or enemy, and distrust abounds — especially among protesters who fear the generals will ultimately cheat them of their victory by thwarting a promised return to civilian rule.
“They cut off the head,” said Salma Ali, a teacher who joined the protests, referring to the al-Bashir regime. “But the body is still there.”
On Monday, the soldiers insisted the protesters clear the area so that the soldiers could, purportedly, sweep the street. The alarmed protesters saw it as a ruse to disperse them. Chanting “revolution,” the protesters joined hands. The soldiers relented moments later and turned back.
Yet again, a confrontation between military and civilians — the forces battling to forge Sudan’s future — had ended in an uneasy stalemate.
The specter of revolutions past hangs over Sudan’s uprising. Some worry that the country, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, could be condemned to the fate of Libya, where the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi after 40 years of rule plunged the country into a chaotic spiral from which it has yet to recover.
Others see the more encouraging parallel of South Africa, where the end of apartheid in the 1990s occurred through a peaceful negotiation between a white supremacist regime and the opposition led by Nelson Mandela that sought to tear it down.
In Sudan, it has often looked like events have been going the way of the protesters since Mr. al-Bashir’s dramatic downfall. The military junta that toppled him has often looked hesitant and worried, backtracking on its own decisions (it fired its first interim leader after one day), and making a string of concessions to appease the protesters camped outside their headquarters.
Over the weekend, the Transitional Military Council, which is nominally in control of the country, said it was canceling a curfew announced days earlier and releasing all political prisoners. It added that the feared intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, whom the protesters deemed unacceptable, was stepping down.
At times it has felt like a coup by Tinder, with protesters swiping left or right on candidates put forward by the military, while a carnivalesque atmosphere took hold at the main protest site.
At night musicians turn up to perform, including a soldier wrapped in a Sudanese flag playing the saxophone. Over the weekend, large screens were erected so protesters could watch European soccer. Young women delivered stirring speeches to loud applause; older women ululated, which drew tears from soldiers who had sided with the protesters.
One evening a bride came by in her gold and finery and was hoisted above a crowd of men chanting, “It’s going to fall, and we’re going to get married” — a reference to how many Sudanese men couldn’t afford a wedding because of the country’s dire economic crisis.
Over the weekend, the military council announced as its vice president Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemeti, a paramilitary commander who gained notoriety as the head of a militia that carried out a string of atrocities against civilians in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
Saudi Arabia, seen as a powerful Gulf ally of General Hamdan, issued a statement voicing its approval of the choice. A day later, the Sudanese general was photographed exchanging a hearty handshake with the United States’ chargé d’affaires in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis.
The leader of the interim government, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, also has close ties to Saudi Arabia, which provides Sudan with vital supplies of subsidized oil. General al-Burhan was, until recently, leading the contingent of Sudanese troops fighting in Yemen under the Saudi-led coalition.
If the members of the junta are well known in Sudan, the leaders of the demonstration outside their walls are not. Over three decades of harsh rule, Mr. al-Bashir outlawed, marginalized or co-opted many trade unions and civil society organizations. Critics were imprisoned or fled into exile; some died in torture cells.
But the protest movement that ultimately forced Mr. al-Bashir to fall was led by a new group, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which was born of Sudan’s frustrated middle classes.
Led by doctors and engineers, the group of professionals harnessed the wave of fury that erupted during a protest over the soaring price of bread in December, and shaped it into a sustained mass movement.
The Sudanese Professionals Association helped forge a broad coalition that included activists from war-torn corners like Darfur, a committee of pharmacists and the “Forum of Sudanese Tweeters.” Yet its own leaders have, with few exceptions, remained secret to avoid arrest.
“They led us to freedom, but we don’t know anything about them,” said Musab Abdul-Nasser, 19, a commercial photographer and protester.
That veil of secrecy has gradually lifted in recent days, as the military and protesters have negotiated the shape of an interim government to steer the country until elections can take place.
The two sides disagree on the length of that transition period, but the military has agreed that civilians should run all ministries except the defense and the interior ministries.
The civilians want a longer transition period to give sufficient time for the country’s political culture, underdeveloped after years of autocracy, to mature so that the elections are a success. Egypt and Libya, arguably, were examples of countries where elections were held too quickly after a revolution, and ended up undermining democracy rather than strengthening it.
But the main sticking point is who would really be in charge — whether the military council would enjoy veto power, and therefore effective control, over a civilian prime minister.
The talks will also test the unity of the protesters. The military has excluded Islamist parties and Mr. al-Bashir’s political vehicle, the National Congress Party, from the talks. Rebel groups from Darfur and other outlying regions are also not represented.
The protesters need to come up with a unified position before the military outmaneuvers them, said Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudan expert at the Rift Valley Institute, a research center.
“There is now an explosion of political activity in Khartoum,” said Mr. el-Gizouli. “But the window may not be open for long. The protesters need to figure out what they want to gain from it, before it closes on them.”
The Sudanese people are well aware of how past mass protest movements have been derailed, such as in Egypt in 2011, said Abdel Mitaal Girshab of the Regional Center for Training and Development of Civil Society in Sudan.
This time, the protesters are determined to achieve a different outcome.
“We saw what happened,” he said, “and we think we will be able to avoid repeating it again.”