With so many intractable conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer nations seem to want to play an active part in solving the region’s issues. At least that’s the current assumption. Yet like a white swan appearing on a dark sea, an unexpected coalition of nations formed in recent months to break this pessimism. This unlikely grouping helped set Sudan, a mainly Arabic-speaking country, on a path toward democratic rule.
Last week, Sudan swore in a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, for the first time in three decades. Not long after, the British-trained economist made a point of thanking a long list of “partners” who helped defuse a five-month political crisis in Sudan: Ethiopia, the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chad, the Gulf states, the European Union, and the African Union. While each of them has different interests in Sudan’s future, they came together with goodwill and defied the region’s malaise about progress.
If they shared a common interest, it was to prevent yet another Arab country from descending into chaos, like Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Yet they also helped achieve something better. Under an agreement signed Aug. 17 between civilian leaders and the military, Sudan will start a three-year transition to democracy, with the military holding on to most of its powers for about the first half.
The agreement is a partial victory for the masses of Sudanese people from all parts of society who protested in the streets beginning in December. In April, they forced the military to oust longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. Then in June, after one military faction massacred more than 100 protesters, the coalition of nations got to work and forced the two sides to compromise. A complex deal was struck to ease the country toward elected, civilian rule.
Sudan still needs the coalition’s help to make sure the military returns to its barracks and a stagnant economy is relieved of its immense foreign debt. The Arab world does not have many successful models of democracy. Its preferred type of governance remains stuck between Islamist forces and secular autocracies, either military or monarchy. In 2011, the Arab Spring tried to break this mold but failed. Now it has taken a crisis in Sudan to show the region is worthy of international attention and that pessimism need not rule about the Middle East’s future.