As General Awad Ibn Ouf declared the removal of President Omar al-Bashir from office on 11 April, the streets of Khartoum burst into celebration. It was hard to imagine that the Sudanese Army and security forces would give way to unarmed civilians calling for an end to al-Bashir’s rule. These forces had been the main pillar on which he built his powerbase. Yet they did.
Since then, Awad himself and intelligence chief Salah Gosh have resigned in the face of persistent public opposition, as the protesters wanted more than just al-Bashir’s removal, but rather a wholesale systematic change.
Awad’s successor, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has tried to assuage demands by announcing changes to the military’s roadmap, but has still stuck to a two-year timeline to hand over power to civilian rule. His ascension puts a more palatable face on the Transitional Military Council, but the insistence on a prolonged transition increases the likelihood of protracted conflict between the military and civilians.
At least four striking features of the evolving situation are worth considering. First, the context in which the masses had the courage to gather on the streets of Khartoum and other cities is indicative of strong resolve for change. This is especially true as al-Bashir’s regime quelled previous protests with brutal force.
In a religiously conservative society such as Sudan, the central role of women in the push for change also defied all expectations and brought to the fore the extent of national discontent.
Before the final April gathering outside the military headquarters, months of demonstrations had hit a stalemate, but the protests remobilised around the anniversary of the overthrow of military leader Gaafar an-Nimeiry on 6 April. The recent resignation of Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after popular pressure may also have served as inspiration.
Despite the odds, the protesters ensured a change in Sudan’s leadership twice in a matter of days. This has rewarded the hard work and sacrifices of an emboldened movement, one that sees the potential for success, and will probably not be sated until further demands are met by the military.
Second, the 6 April protests turned around fissures in the security response as some members of the Sudanese army offered protesters protection against national security forces trying to disperse them. This raises questions regarding the unity of the Sudanese security forces going forward.
At the same time the formation of the Transitional Military Council has generated perceptions of a military hijack of a civilian cause, thereby requiring the continued presence of protesters on the streets, even after al-Bashir’s ousting.
While Awad resigned largely due to pressure from the masses, his successor al-Burhan has reiterated a two-year timeline. The military evidently wants to play a pivotal role in the transition to civilian rule. However protesters are distrustful because of the role the army played in propping up al-Bashir, and the potential for allowing his continued influence, or at least his system, to persist through their hold on power.
Discussions between al-Burhan and some key opposition leaders have begun, indicating a greater level of confidence and potentially the formation of a military-civilian transitional arrangement. But compromises on both sides are needed for Sudan’s sake, given that the change has resulted in new pivotal roles for not just the opposition, but the current military leadership itself.
Third, until his fall, al-Bashir was heavily involved in various regional initiatives, some of which may suffer as a result of his departure. In South Sudan, for instance, the removal of al-Bashir has created uncertainty about the appropriate successor to his role as guarantor of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan.
In the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, al-Bashir played off both sides to his benefit. He contributed troops to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabian war effort in Yemen while allowing Turkey and Qatar to undertake a massive renovation project in the old port of Suakin. Nonetheless, al-Bashir’s Gulf allies didn’t come to his rescue in the days before his removal, and some even expressed support for the new leadership.
Yet with such divergent interests and the negative impact the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis has had in other Horn of Africa countries, whether the new military leadership will be able to balance regional geopolitics as skilfully as al-Bashir did is uncertain.
Fourth, despite al-Bashir’s political prowess and the protester demands for civilian rule, his fall was primarily the result of an inability to resolve structural issues associated with Sudan’s economic problems.
The real challenge ahead, therefore, is for any emerging military or civilian leadership to reorient the economic foundations of the country away from its dependency on oil revenue and quickly satisfy the masses’ demands. If it doesn’t, any new leadership will face the same economic challenges that led to al-Bashir’s ousting.
There is no indication that the current crop of military leaders has what it takes to resolve the underlying drivers of Sudan’s economic challenges. The deep-rooted nature of the needed economic reforms also necessitates a lengthy process regardless of who is in control. Combined with distrust for military rule, however, achieving true economic reform under such a system seems even trickier.
This implies that despite the commendable fight the masses have put up to see al-Bashir out, the solution to the issues bedevilling the country is far off. Even the outcome of negotiations between the military leadership and protest leaders will only set the stage for how future issues are resolved, rather than providing actual solutions.
The real work to create a Sudan in which all citizens live in peace, prosperity and democratic freedom has only just begun. And it will certainly be a lengthy and bumpy road.
But the prospect for a new Sudan has now emerged in a way that wasn’t apparent a week ago. This could dramatically transform the country and serve as an inspiration for the region and beyond.