Does the pro-democracy movement have the winning hand?
Civil resistance movements have been taking place all over the world for the past year. Venezuela, Spain, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Thailand have been in the headlines.
Now, Sudan is featuring in the forefront of this evolving paradigm. World attention has been drawn to the pro-democracy civil resistance demonstrators being subjected to military force in Sudan. Reports have emerged that this latest action (from live bullets fired by law enforcement authorities on June 3) in Khartoum has led to the death of nearly 60 demonstrators and serious injuries to more than 100 persons.
It may be recalled that protests erupted in Khartoum, Sudan on December 19, 2018 after fuel and bread price rises were announced. Continuous demonstrations till February 22 this year led the former president al-Bashir to dissolve the government. However, protests continued with security forces randomly responding by firing live bullets.
On April 6, activists began their sit-in at military headquarters, vowing not to move until al-Bashir stepped down. On April 6, the Association of Sudanese Professionals led a march of hundreds of thousands onto the army headquarters in Khartoum and began a sit-in, demanding the resignation of al-Bashir and the return of democratic civilian governance.
Despite scores of protesters being killed over the previous months, the movement was clearly growing. Less than a week later, on April 11, the military removed al-Bashir from office and subsequently placed him under arrest.
General Awad Ibn Auf, who had served as al-Bashir’s defense minister became head of the Transitional Military Council in Sudan. He declared himself interim president, announced the release of some political prisoners, declared a state of emergency (including a dusk to dawn curfew), and promised elections in two years.
The protesters however rejected continued military rule and the long delay in democratic elections. They defied the curfew and demanded an immediate transition to civilian rule and early elections. Less than 30 hours later, Ibn Auf resigned and was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who -- unlike Ibn Auf -- was neither implicated in war crimes nor was as closely associated with al-Bashir’s repressive rule.
The curfew was lifted, additional political prisoners were freed, and some of the more notorious military, police, and intelligence leaders, as well as leading prosecutors, were dismissed. A half-hearted attempt by the army on April 15 to disperse the ongoing sit-in failed.
Talks between pro-democracy leaders and the interim government continued with a number of important concessions regarding banning members of al-Bashir’s party and the inclusion of pro-democracy leaders in the interim government. On May 14, military authorities and civilians announced another deal for a three-year transition period. There was some relief, but the process came to a halt when talks were postponed once again as the military demanded the removal of some barricades from in front of their headquarters.
On June 3, activists after the latest round of violence, have announced the suspension of talks with the military, accusing them of using force to disperse their sit-in. Sudan, presently governed by a Transitional Military Council (TMC) has however denied using force to break up the main protest site.
The TMC spokesman Lt Gen Shams al-Din Kabbashi has told UAE-based Sky News Arabia TV channel that “Sudanese forces did not disperse the sit-in outside the army headquarters by force, but rather targeted a nearby area which has become a threat to the safety of citizens.”
Nevertheless, BBC has reported that the TMC head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has stated that they had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on.” An election will now take place in nine months time under “regional and international supervision,” he added. This changing scenario has reiterated that the powerful pro-democracy civil insurrection in Sudan which has ousted a longstanding dictator and his successor is still in progress, but Sudanese are hopeful for a full democratic transition.
Civil resistance in Sudan has not been a recent phenomenon.
This is not the first time that the people of Sudan have risen up in a largely non-violent pro-democracy insurrection against a dictatorial regime. In 1964, when the country was ruled by military dictator Ibrahim Abboud, large protests coalesced into a crippling general strike that forced him from power.
A series of unstable civilian coalitions governed the country until a military coup in 1969 led by Jafaar Nimeiry, but his repressive rule was ended during the spring of 1985, when two weeks of largely nonviolent demonstrations and a general strike led to his ouster by the military.
Protests continued until the military agreed to hand power over to an interim civilian government and allow democratic elections.
Divisions within Sudan’s broad-based coalition government made it vulnerable to pressures from the military leaders and right-wing Islamists who, led by al-Bashir, seized power in 1989.
In subsequent years, the regime decimated Sudanese civil society, including the country’s once-vibrant trade union movement, and imposed an ultra-conservative Islamist system backed by a brutal police state.
Despite the severity of the repression, a series of aborted uprisings and mass protests swept the country, most significantly in 1998, 2011, 2012, and 2016. A pro-democracy coalition known as Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) persisted despite many of their leaders being arrested or killed.
Analysts have provided some interesting takeaways on Sudan’s current civilian protests. They are pointing out the following: (a) Non-violent tactics normally do not work when undertaken against highly repressive regimes.
Sudan, in this context has generally been ranked among the most bloody, violent, totalitarian regimes in the world, (b) Civil resistance has difficulty in succeeding in impoverished countries with high illiteracy, little Internet access, and poor infrastructure and (c) Successful nonviolent struggle is difficult to achieve in countries with serious ethnic divisions or ongoing violent conflicts.
Western political commentators are concerned about this continued process of civil demonstration in Khartoum.
The UN Secretary General António Guterres has urged the Sudanese authorities to facilitate an independent investigation and to hold those responsible accountable. In other reactions, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the African Union have described the action as “an outrageous step that will only lead to more polarization and violence” and called for a transparent investigation.
In response, Sudan’s public prosecutor has set up a committee to investigate the violence.
With thousands of Sudanese still on the streets, the pro-democracy movement believes that they have the winning hand. One can only hope that their belief and expectations, consistent with human rights and good governance will not perish in the dust.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]