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Sudan uprising: Popular struggles, elite compromises, and revolution betrayed - June 2020

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By John Young

Executive summary

The National Islamic Front (NIF) came to power in Sudan in 1989 as a result of a coup (it was renamed the National Congress Party, or NCP, in 1998), and held power under Omar al-Bashir for the next 30 years, despite widespread opposition, wars in the country’s peripheries, and the 2011 secession of southern Sudan to form the new state of South Sudan. In 1999, when NIF foreign policies threatened the continued existence of the regime, al-Bashir dismissed Hassan al-Turabi, the author of the party’s Islamist programme; however, a growing economic crisis led to the implementation of austerity measures after 2011 that intensified internal opposition, while al-Bashir was unable to overcome the country’s regional and international isolation. Concluding that al-Bashir had become a major threat to the survival of the regime, the head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Salah Gosh, began to plan for his removal with the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.

A grouping of professional associations, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), was formed in June 2018 to press for economic reforms. After youth-led demonstrations in December 2018 in response to rising bread prices and fuel rationing, in January 2019 the SPA brought together many of Sudan’s political parties and some armed groups to form the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC). The FFC committed to removing al-Bashir, establishing a civil administration, and eliminating the roots of the ruling party in the state and society. In the wake of continuing demonstrations that included increasing numbers of people from all corners of the country, on 11 April 2019 the generals jailed al-Bashir and attempted to rule on their own. But in a turbulent context of continuing resistance, on 3 June the dominant element in the security services, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Daglo (known as ‘Hemeti’), attacked the sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum. The brutality of the attack lost the junta domestic and international support, and the subsequent FFC-led country-wide strike made clear that the generals could not rule alone. The FFC was in turn overawed by the potential violence that the junta could unleash, and on 17 July 2019 the antagonists reached a power-sharing agreement that was planned to last for 39 months. The FFC was successful in displacing al-Bashir, but did not achieve its objective of establishing a genuine civil administration, and thus the primary issue that produced the uprising has not been resolved and instability will likely continue.

Key findings

  • Similar to uprisings in 1964 and 1985, a major cause of the 2018–19 uprising was an extended period of economic decline and uneven development that fostered insurgencies in Sudan’s peripheries. The economic crisis was exacerbated by the cost of combating these insurgencies, a vastly inflated security sector, endemic corruption, and US sanctions. The economic crisis and the regime’s attempt to foster Islamist values served to bring large numbers of youth, notably including women, onto the streets, in contrast to the uprisings of 1964 and 1985, when trade unions played a leading role.

  • Divisions developed within the NCP as a result of al-Bashir’s centralization of power and marginalization of his competitors, which led NISS chief Salah Gosh and other leaders to conclude that the regime could only be preserved by removing the president.

  • With the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, the military expected that, after it had deposed al-Bashir, it could form a transitional government on its own, but the brutality of the RSF’s suppression of the sit-in in Khartoum on 3 June 2019 lost the junta domestic and international legitimacy, and it was compelled to sign a power-sharing agreement with the FFC on 17 July 2019. Fearing further attacks on civilians, weakened by internal divisions, and under international pressure, the FFC accepted an agreement that involved abandoning its central demand for a civil administration.

  • Youth made up the core of the uprising, and their challenge to the junta was mainly manifested in the sit-ins that they organized. But when the brutal RSF attack on the Khartoum sit-in on 3 June 2019 effectively ended the sit-ins, the youth lost much of their influence over the FFC, had no say on the political agreements reached between it and the generals, have no representation in the transitional government, and cannot be expected to exert much influence during the 39-month transitional period.

  • This report concludes that because the opposition was unable to impose its objective of a genuine civil administration and, given the preponderance of the military in the transitional government, it is very unlikely that this government will be able to eliminate the deep and corrupting influences of the NCP and the military in the state and society, much less overcome systemic inequities that have afflicted Sudan since its independence. Unless the civil and armed opposition can overcome the power of the military, the 2019 uprising will suffer the same fate as those of 1964 and 1985, when hopes for a radical transformation of Sudanese society were quashed.

Read the full report here