Sudan is in transition. But to what?


Nonviolent movement. Sudanese protesters chant slogans and wave national flags as they demonstrate during a rally in Khartoum, May 31. (AFP)

Whatever happens, Sudan’s transition will be a lengthy process.

What is the state of Sudan now that activists have called off a general strike and civil disobedience campaign after a 2-month standoff with the military?

It’s not clear if a transition to civilian-led democratic rule has become more likely. There is no certainty the Sudanese military, which removed President Omar al-Bashir from power in April during the popular uprising against his 30-year rule, will be minded to complete the process of wholesale change. All that can be said is that Sudan is in transition. But to what?

Gilbert Achcar, Lebanon-born professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said the best hope is a long-term revolutionary process, albeit with uncertain results. Achcar has written more than a dozen books on the Middle East and North Africa region, focusing particularly on the “Arab spring” and what he calls the “morbid symptoms” of Arab uprisings from 2011.

He said the Sudanese protest is “the most progressive of all the uprisings we’ve seen in the region,” the most advanced in terms of organisation as well as politics. This, because the Sudanese movement includes disparate progressive forces, not least professional and workers associations, leftists, feminists and liberal Muslim groups.

Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Sudan’s Islamic fundamentalists couldn’t hijack the uprising because they had been in collaboration with al-Bashir. The rank and file of the Sudanese Army remains in broad sympathy with the politics of the revolt.

Going by the above, Sudan should technically be a template for the successful exercise of people power in the Arab world but it isn’t, not yet.

Achcar, one of the few scholars to disdain “lazy” evaluations of Arab street protests as a spring analogous to Prague 1968, said the region is “in the midst of a long-term revolutionary process born out of the region’s very deep structural crisis.” This is a “social and economic blockage brought about by the combination of [International Monetary Fund] IMF-sponsored neoliberalism and the rotten authoritarian political systems that impose it throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” he said.

Accordingly, it would be quite wrong to view regional uprisings as a spring, Achcar said, “that would, just like the season, last a few months and end with mere constitutional changes or end in failure.”

By that doleful measure, the region seems doomed to struggle on — quiet if not really peaceful — and with ordinary people occasionally forcing the battle against a uniquely resilient state. Does Sudan 2019 really mean little or nothing, then?

Despite Achcar’s gloomy predictions, three things distinguish Sudan from other regional protests.

First, the protesters’ refusal to empty the public squares after celebrating the ruler’s downfall. Mindful of the lessons from Egypt, the Sudanese have stayed with the script, which seeks the return of political power to civil society through democratic means, including elections. They’re still at it, albeit in a more nuanced way, one that gives the army a chance to collaborate.

Second, the need to maintain the nonviolent character of the movement. In the first wave of protests, starting in 2011, protesters chanted “Silmiyya, silmiyya” (Peaceful, peaceful”) to signify they were peaceful but the Sudanese have been especially careful not to provoke the military powers into justifying a massive crackdown. That it still happened — on June 3 — and the internet was switched off is nothing compared to what might have been.

Third, the Sudanese street is wary of foreign intervention of any kind. This is wise considering the only state to collapse after 2011 was Libya, where foreign intervention by the United States and its allies tried to co-opt the insurgents’ struggle. It led to a many-sided, well-armed conflict that continues, supported at various ends of the spectrum by disparate foreign powers.

That said, it’s not clear how long Sudan will remain a relatively organic struggle, with only the Saudis and Emiratis serving as “foreign” interested parties. On June 12, the US State Department dispatched Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for African affairs to Khartoum. He was accompanied by the newly appointed US special envoy for Sudan, retired veteran diplomat Donald Booth.

American analysts such as Jason Blazakis, former director of the Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations at the State Department, argue for greater US involvement but the best hope for Sudan and the region is Ethiopian mediation.

Whatever happens, Sudan’s transition will be a lengthy process.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly