Sudan has experienced more change in the past week than in the previous three decades under President Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed in a coup d’état on April 11 following four months of mass protests. Many Sudanese, however, have had little time to savor the euphoria of Bashir’s departure. Their most immediate task is to preserve and protect their revolution from the military leaders they fear will subvert it.
Protesters have had some initial success, rejecting the self-appointed head of the new transitional military council, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, who was considered unacceptably close to the old regime. He stepped down after only one day, replaced by a more palatable military figure, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan.
But even bigger challenges lie ahead. The revolutionaries in the streets must somehow try to engineer a smooth transition from military to civilian rule that will put Sudan on a path toward peace, prosperity and democracy. That challenge is compounded by the reality that their movement’s leaders—the people who first organized the mass protests months ago—are political novices who find themselves trying to wrest the country away from the grasp of canny, determined military men and former regime insiders who have little interest in breaking the existing structures of power.
Political transitions are messy, uncertain and even dangerous processes. Sudan can look to neighboring Egypt, among other states in the region swept up in the popular uprisings of 2011, for cautionary tales. How can Sudan’s revolution ultimately succeed in supplanting a cruel, despotic regime with one that is more representative and respectful of the Sudanese people?
First, the transition must be inclusive, reflecting the national complexion of the movement and the leading roles played by women, young people, the professional classes—ably represented by the Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the protests—and the urban and rural poor in leading to Bashir’s ouster. Those who led the demonstrations must stay front and center in the next phase, as the masses in the streets will remain an important source of leverage over the military council. They have put their lives on the line while members of the traditional opposition largely stood on the sidelines or urged caution. Sudan has been blighted since its independence in 1956 by centralized rule and a narrow conception of national identity that failed to capture the regional, ethnic and religious diversity of its people. There is finally an opportunity to correct these systemic inequities.
A truly inclusive transition will require making room for some elements from Bashir’s National Congress Party, a distasteful prospect for the many Sudanese who suffered years of abuse under its rule. However, the old regime still had a genuine base of support, albeit one that rapidly dwindled in recent years. It would be unwise to repeat past mistakes by banishing from the new political system an entire constituency of people who could potentially become spoilers.
Next, the transition must be civilian-led. This has been a consistent demand of the protesters, who fear the replacement of one military regime by another. This does not mean that the security services will not play a part. The revolution’s leaders know they cannot afford to completely alienate the security apparatus, whose intervention was pivotal in ending Bahir’s presidency. They must also be aware that the biggest threat to stability in the coming days is that splits between rival factions spill over into violence.
A clique of Sudan’s military and security leaders may still succeed in thwarting protesters’ ambitions.
Fourth, there must be a comprehensive peace agreement to end the conflicts once and for all in Darfur and the “Two Areas,” as they are known, of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. The Bashir regime never approached peace talks in good faith, but Sudan’s new leadership has the potential to change the dynamic if it shows genuine commitment to ending the marginalization of people in these long-neglected regions.
Fifth, justice must be served. The most pressing question will be what to do with Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Citizens will demand he is held to account, but will they be content with the Sudanese courts dealing with him, as the transitional military council has suggested? Other regime officials associated with the worst abuses must also face justice, rather than retirement. They include Salah Gosh, head of the feared National Intelligence and Security Service. National reconciliation is important, but healing cannot occur if the worst offenses go unpunished. The failure to consolidate peace in neighboring South Sudan provides an object lesson in the dangers of allowing blanket impunity for war crimes and other serious human rights violations.
Sixth, Bashir’s apparatus of state terror must be dismantled. Organizations such as the National Intelligence and Security Service and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces must be reined in as part of a comprehensive reform of the security sector. This undertaking will require care and deliberation, because of the risks posed by many of the individuals associated with these violent organizations. The international community can and should assist. Indeed, some partners such as the European Union and the United States have the chance to redeem themselves after previously working with some of these institutions to advance their own security interests, such as cooperation on counterterrorism and preventing migration.
Finally, the international community, which to date has been largely passive in the face of Sudan’s tumult, must be ready to provide robust political and diplomatic assistance to Sudan’s emerging civilian leadership, with the promise of significant economic assistance after a successful transition. The almost-complete collapse of Sudan’s economy was the spark that ignited this revolution. Sudan’s international partners can help revive it. The promise of bilateral and multilateral debt relief and the resumption of aid relationships with leading donors will be important incentives for Sudan’s new leaders.
The United States, for so long a peripheral player in Sudan, has been largely quiet in response to recent events, apart from warning the Bashir regime to exercise restraint in the face of protests. But the Trump administration has done much of the preparatory work for a political transition. It ended some of its trade and economic sanctions against Sudan in 2017 and set out a blueprint to resume full relations last November. Washington should be ready to move ahead with the plan as soon as Sudan makes the necessary progress.
For now, the revolution is far from secure, and a clique of Sudan’s military and security leaders may ultimately succeed in thwarting the protesters’ ambitions. But Sudan’s citizens—through their persistence, bravery and disciplined commitment to peaceful protests—have demonstrated their power to shape events and created an opportunity to chart a better future for their country.
*Richard Downie is senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.