ANALYSIS - Could economic woes and hijacking derail Sudan’s revolutionary progress?
Should disenfranchisement to Sudan’s economic plight continue or worsen, this may give reactionary forces more of an opportunity to crackdown on this power struggle and seize power
Over a year after Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir was ousted, protests have recently resurfaced in the capital Khartoum, once again chanting the slogan “freedom, peace and justice.” Meanwhile police have used force and tear gas to contain the demonstrations, killing one protestor and injuring several others. This shows that while much progress has been made, the battle for Sudan’s revolution is far from over.
In December 2018, impassioned protests erupted against government corruption and dire living conditions, eventually forcing 30-year-long ruler Bashir from power in April 2019. After the Transitional Military Council (TMC) sought to consolidate power via a counter-revolution, US pressure enabled a power-sharing transitional government with opposition civilian factions in August that year. The deal gave three years and three months to prepare for elections in 2022, and it established a joint military and civilian Sovereign Council acting as a collective head of state, along with a civilian prime minister and Cabinet of technocrats, and a Legislative Council.
Not only is this a fragile agreement, Sudan’s revolution still faces various economic problems and risks being hijacked by reactionary forces. External obstacles are present, such as the lack of financial support for its institutions and potential interference from certain Gulf states. Currently, Sudan is still on a US list of “states sponsors of terrorism” which prevents foreign investment in the country, despite the listing occurring in 1993 under Bashir.
Recently, the Sovereign Council made further reforms, having decriminalized apostasy and scrapped the ban on alcohol for non-Muslims on July 12. It also banned Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) earlier in July. On the one hand, these highlight continued changes within the revolution while moving away from the era of Bashir. Meanwhile, they also come as Sudan seeks to be fully accepted within the international community. And since, for the most part, they will have little impact on Sudanese society itself, it suggests it seeks to gain Western favor.
In February, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, also met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, indicating Khartoum seeks normalization with Israel. As Israel is a close ally of the United States, this would help Sudan gain Washington’s favor, and Burhan suggested this would help remove Sudan from the US blacklist. In 1979, Egypt obtained military aid from Washington after signing a peace treaty with Israel, showing how this can be a swaying factor in US foreign policy.
Though Sudan and the US exchanged ambassadors for the first time in 23 years in December 2019, showing promising signs, these crippling restrictions still isolate Sudan economically.
This exacerbates Sudan’s other economic challenges. After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March, Sudan braced for a COVID-19 outbreak with little external support, as many global powers became preoccupied with containing the virus within their own borders. Cases began doubling from late May, and authorities were underestimating the extend of the pandemic in the country.
Like other countries, Sudan in April took forceful measures to control the virus’ spread, including banning public gatherings and protests. Though sensible measures on paper, they left open the risk of exploitation, and civilians still defied them by engaging in protests in April.
Along with the inevitable financial damage from the lockdown, while many civilians have been unable to be helped or simply turned away from hospitals, several additional economic problems that largely stem from corruption during the Bashir era persist. According to a report in June from the International Crisis Group, “the state budget is deep in the red, amid crippling shortages of basic commodities, extended power outages and soaring inflation.”
Meanwhile, the power struggle within the transitional agreement is still ongoing, and military figures from the old era remain in the government. Such reactionary forces could jostle with opposition factions and create further problems for the revolution’s success.
A key figure in the Sovereign Council is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti”, head of the Rapid Special Forces (RSF), who oversaw a brutal massacre which killed dozens of protestors on June 3 last year. He also led operations in Darfur in 2014 and 2015, and his forces were considered responsible for crimes against humanity, having killed and raped civilians, looted and burnt villages, and displaced people en masse.
The renewed protests from June 30, demanding justice for those killed in last year’s crackdown and to speed up reforms, shows civilians still perceive obstacles for achieving a greater democratic transition. Though Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok announced a cabinet reshuffle on July 10 in response to these demonstrations, including dismissing six ministers, the protests signify ongoing tensions.
Should disenfranchisement to Sudan’s economic plight continue or worsen, this may give reactionary forces more of an opportunity to crackdown on this power struggle and seize power.
External actors seeking to sabotage Sudan’s democratic transition could also seek to play a role here, especially as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) previously tried to support post-revolution military rule. Both countries offered $3 billion to shore up the TMC in April last year and reportedly encouraged the June 2019 crackdown.
This aimed to create a similar scenario to Egypt, after both countries supported the 2013 military counter-revolution in that country. Achieving similar results in Sudan also entailed Cairo’s help. While Saudi Arabia is currently less proactive in Sudan, the UAE still seeks to influence the transitional government. As the UAE’s foreign interventions rely on mercenaries, including in Libya and Yemen, Sudanese fighters have been a crucial pillar for Abu Dhabi’s adventurism. In April, an Emirati delegation visited Khartoum to secure Sudan’s consent for using Sudanese fighters.
Moreover, Hamdok met with Hamad Mohammed Humaid Al-Junaibi, UAE Ambassador to Sudan, on June 17, reportedly discussing greater bilateral ties. The following week, Abu Dhabi pledged $50 million to aid Sudan’s economic growth initiatives. A small gesture, yet indicative of Abu Dhabi’s goals to secure ties with the government. Should Sudan’s situation deteriorate, the UAE may step in to offer “support”. However, this would be on Abu Dhabi’s terms, rather than that of the Sudanese people.
While Sudan faces economic isolation, and the coronavirus pandemic furthers threatens its economic stability, this risks undoing the civilians’ hard-fought revolutionary progress. International donors would be key, and the United States and the European Union would need to support the opposition who have fought hard for better reforms. This would also help curtail counter-revolutionary efforts. Removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism would also be a necessary move to reinvigorate its economy.
[ The writer is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region ]
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