On 3 June, the last day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and eve of Eid al-Fitr, Sudanese security forces violently attacked participants in the two-month-long peaceful sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum. According to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, more than a hundred protesters were killed and hundreds more were wounded. In the wake of the bloodshed, both parties to the negotiations, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), declared all previous agreements with their counterpart void, temporarily suspending the talks on formation of a transitional council. On that day, a steadfast aspiration for a democratic Sudan was blown away by violent repression, while hopes for a peaceful revolution were dashed in despair by a rising military counter-revolution.
Although the specter of the regime’s crackdown on the revolutionary movement was looming in Sudan since its very inception, the brutality and timing of the operation took most by surprise. The responsibility for the impasse in negotiations and for the recent violence may be differentiated across the various stakeholders, yet each one of them has contributed to different extents to increased political polarization and instability. The root causes of the crisis relate to the absence of a monopoly on the use of force, the weak popular legitimacy of the FFC and Sudan’s strong political dependence on regional powers.
Absence of a monopoly on the use of force
One of the reasons explaining the violent outcome of the Sudanese crisis is the absence of a state monopoly on the use of force, implying a higher risk of violent escalation. At best, what we can witness in Sudan is a highly unstable tripolarity of power: the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). This tripolarity is devoid of any formal power-sharing structure, and all forces have a tendency to exercise power beyond their constitutional mandate. Relations between and within them are highly fluid, while each one aims at maximizing its political power and influence.
The RSF, created in 2013 from the remnants of the Janjaweed Arab militias and led by Sudan’s current strongman, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemedti’), appear to be on the rise and may gain the upper hand in the power struggle. Its troops, once serving as former President Omar al-Bashir’s ‘praetorian guards’ and currently patrolling the capital far and wide, are well equipped with light weapons and fully acquainted with guerilla warfare after years of effective repression of rebel armed groups in Darfur. At the same time, the SAF has shown signs of rifts between the counterrevolutionary generals and the revolutionary lower ranks of the military. Moreover, they are now viewed with mistrust by the FFC, having betrayed their promise to protect the peaceful revolution and allowing the RSF and NISS’s brutal carnage at the sit-in. The NISS, heavily accused by the opposition for the repression of civilian demonstrations under Bashir, has recently shown signs of revival amid rising confusion and violence. Their frustration with the heavy retrenchment of power and shrinking sphere of influence after the ousting of Bashir, as well as the escape from house arrest of former NISS chief Salah Gosh, may add flammable liquid to the security forces’ revenge on protesters.
Weak popular legitimacy of the FFC
A second reason behind the crisis lies in the weak popular legitimacy enjoyed by the revolutionary front. The FFC, the broad alliance of over sixty opposition parties, professional associations and organizations from civil society, officially recognized as a party to the negotiations by the TMC, has failed to come to terms with its heterogeneous constituency and demands. Rather than boosted by inclusiveness, cohesiveness and national unity, the revolutionary movement has been mostly inspired by a shared struggle against a common enemy: Omar al-Bashir, the military junta and the RSF, in order of time. The stubbornness of the Sudanese Professional Association and the Sudanese Communist Party in urging massive civil disobedience and demanding a full-fledged civilian transitional authority has not paid off, paving the way for the counterrevolution. The ‘revolutionary dictatorship’ alienated from the alliance opportunistic yet experienced opposition parties, such as the National Umma Party led by former PM Sadiq al-Mahdi, and marginalized minor parties, such as the Sudan Call and the Gathering of Unionists, prone to compromise with the TMC to strike a reasonable agreement for a joint civil-military transitional council. Besides the internal rifts between collaborators and hard liners, the FFC has refused to reach out to a significant part of Sudanese civil society, on the grounds of its affiliation with Bashir’s one-party regime. Most importantly, the FFC have not trusted representatives of civil society affiliated to various extents with the National Congress Party even though most of them, including the young people, were better acquainted with the flaws of the regime, knowledgeable about its public administration and committed to its reform.
In the zero-sum game that characterizes Sudanese politics, such a fragmented and limited popular legitimacy enjoyed by the FFC has left a political vacuum, which was promptly filled by counter-revolutionary forces who won the sympathies of FFC outcasts.
Meddling interests of regional powers
Thirdly, the hectic round of official visits near the Red Sea by TMC leaders Lt. Gen. Al- Burhan and Lt. Gen. Hemeti, have shown that a parcel of Sudanese sovereignty is also scattered beyond Sudan’s borders in the Gulf region, notably on the Cairo-Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis. Financial and military assistance, particularly from the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar), is more than ever essential to the regime to ensure its political survival and keep the shattered Sudanese economy afloat. In addition to debt and financial assets, in recent years the Gulf States have acquired huge areas of fertile Sudanese land, thereby securing a significant amount of their food requirements and contributing to Sudan’s general food insecurity. Having their sovereign hands cuffed, in their high-level meetings with Al-Sisi, Mohamed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the generals were not searching for international mediators or peaceful conveners to sort out the Sudanese political crisis. Instead, they were committed to a quest for legitimacy in their neighborhood in order to be able to cling to power and unleash the forces of counter-revolution in their backyard.
Unable to promote Sudan’s national interests for socio-political reconciliation and economic recovery, they begged their allies for sovereignty and legitimacy, through a blunt transactional deal: offering ‘stability’ within Sudan and along its borders, as well as pledging an enduring commitment of their armed forces in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, in exchange for unconditional political and financial support for the TMC.
Sudan is craving for a new national order. The only recipe to reinstate a functional institutional framework under the rule of law enabling a peaceful and inclusive transition is to collect and assemble the fragments of Sudan’s broken sovereignty, dispersed in Sudan and around the Gulf. A wise balance of power-sharing and popular legitimacy could be the right emulsifier.