Why Sudan is a pivot for democracy

The battle for democracy in both Africa and the Arab world is playing out in the protests in Khartoum against military rule.

Sudanese attend a pro-democracy demonstration in front of the defense ministry compound in Khartoum, May 4.

One of the more inspiring and yet least-noticed news items in recent weeks has been the thousands of pro-democracy protesters camped out – peacefully – in front of Sudan’s military headquarters. Extreme heat, threats of violence, and fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have not deterred them from their demand for civilian rule over the army now in charge of Africa’s third-largest nation.

Nor has the $3 billion promised to Sudan’s generals by the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make sure this mostly Arab country stays a dictatorship and does not inspire another Arab Spring.

One chant heard among the protesters is this: “We do not want Saudi aid even if we have to eat beans and falafel.”

Nearly a month after popular protests against longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir led to his ouster by the military, Sudan is at a crossroads between democracy and autocracy. Yet that cliché is putting it mildly. Because Sudan sits at the crossroads of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, the protests reflect a tectonic divide between the two regions. If civilian rule does prevail in Sudan, it will affirm the relative progress toward democracy in Africa.

This point was made clear on Monday when United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres met with Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the 55-nation African Union’s governing commission. The two leaders endorsed “a consensual and civilian-led transition” in Sudan.

It would be rare for the U.N. chief to do something like that in the Middle East. In Africa, by contrast, democracy is frequently nudged along despite many setbacks. Since 2012, for example, the African Union has defined one of its roles as punishing member states whose leaders cling to power after losing an election or by changing a constitution. That role is difficult to implement but it at least acknowledges widespread support for democracy.

A survey of 45,000 Africans in 34 countries, released in March by Afrobarometer, found 68% prefer democracy. Just over half see their country as a functioning democracy. And 42% strongly “demand democracy.”

That last group can be seen on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Their inspiring stamina could mean that, as Africa zigs and zags toward democracy, so might the Arab world.

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