In Sudan, blast of Arab ‘winter’ freezes spirit of Arab Spring

Why We Wrote This

A country may push toward significant political change only to find that its more powerful neighbors have other ideas – and the clout to impose them.

Reuters
Sudanese protesters chant slogans demanding that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians in Khartoum, Sudan, June 3. Former President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in April after months of demonstrations against him.

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Are the prospects for a transition to civilian democracy shrinking in Sudan? The political events unfolding there could become a defining moment in a new Arab “winter.”

This week’s signs of U.S. reengagement could yet conceivably tilt things in favor of reform. But two months after popular protest ended the 30-year military rule of President Omar al-Bashir, an array of counterforces – a murderous crackdown by Sudanese troops, a shutdown of the internet, and the support of key Arab states for continued military rule – has changed the landscape.

Those states have sought to thwart peaceful civilian pressure on the Transitional Military Council that replaced Mr. Bashir. They have backed a veteran of the violent janjaweed militia whose troops have been behind arrests, beatings, rapes, and killings of demonstrators in Khartoum.

The African Union weighed in with the extraordinary action of suspending Sudan, but to little effect. The European Union, meanwhile, voiced support for “civilian authority,” but has kept a low profile in the interest of not repeating the influx of refugees from Africa in 2015.

The protest leaders’ options are increasingly circumscribed. The main roadblock remains: the reluctance of the military, with key Arab support, to hand over power.

There are two kinds of weather these days in Khartoum, the Nile-side capital of Sudan. For the meteorologists, it’s the start of summer, with temperatures already pushing above 100. But the political events unfolding there – nearly a decade after the Arab Spring protests that briefly promised a shift away from Middle East dictatorship – could become a defining moment in a new Arab Winter.

The political future of Sudan, on the northeastern flank of Africa across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, still hangs in the balance. And after months of a fairly hands-off approach, this week’s signs of a reengagement by Washington could yet conceivably tilt things in favor of reform. 

But two months after a crescendo of popular protest forced an end to the 30-year military rule of President Omar al-Bashir, an array of counterforces – a murderous crackdown earlier this month by Sudanese troops, hundreds of arrests, a shutdown of the internet, and above all the support of key Arab states for continued military rule – has been shrinking the prospects of a transition to civilian democracy. 

From the outset, the protesters were determined to learn the lessons of the Arab Spring. Aware that the ouster of a single leader was no guarantee of lasting change, they’ve sought to deploy peaceful, patient pressure on the Transitional Military Council, which took over from Mr. Bashir to secure an agreed path to civilian rule.

But a powerful alliance of Arab rulers – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; the United Arab Emirates’ Prince Mohammed bin Zayed; and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with Saudi and UAE support since leading a military coup in 2013 – has drawn a quite different lesson from the Arab Spring.

While willing to see Mr. Bashir go, they’ve put political support, money, and military assistance behind the leader of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. A veteran of the Janjaweed militia who has been implicated in a catalog of atrocities in western Sudan’s Darfur region, he has been a military ally of the Saudis and UAE in the current war in Yemen. It is his troops who have been behind the recent arrests, beatings, rapes, and killings of demonstrators on the streets of Khartoum.

The sheer brutality of that crackdown did prompt the African Union to suspend Sudan until a “civilian-led transitional authority” was in place. But a sign of how little that dented the influence of the Saudi-UAE-Egypt axis came when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to Sudan in an effort to mediate a peaceful way forward. Two of the opposition leaders whom he met were arrested.

Nor have Sudan’s military rulers had to reckon with what, in years past, would almost surely have been a strong international voice in favor of the protesters: the European Union. The EU did respond to the bloodshed by calling for the Transitional Military Council “to respect people’s right to express their concerns” and reiterating support for the “rapid transfer of power to a civilian authority.” But otherwise, it has kept a low profile. Its overriding concern has been to retain the working relationship it established with the Sudanese government and military under Mr. Bashir – aimed at avoiding any repeat of the huge, politically unsettling influx of refugees from Africa into Europe in 2015.

The protest leaders’ options since the crackdown have been limited. They’ve been unable to risk further major demonstrations, with RSF troops patrolling the streets. Their main protest site, near military headquarters, has been razed. And one of the Arab Spring’s most potent organizational tools – the internet – has been effectively shut down.

Their initial response was to call a general strike, declaring that “peaceful resistance by civil disobedience” was “the fastest and most effective way to topple the military council.” But with new arrests raising questions of how long, and how widely, it could be sustained, they responded to a further African mediation effort by suspending the strike, with the military council agreeing to reopen negotiations on a transition to civilian power. 

The problem is that so far at least, the main roadblock remains: the reluctance of the military, with key Arab support, to hand over power.

That’s why the new U.S. engagement is potentially significant. Having condemned the violence against the protesters, the State Department this week named former Obama administration Sudan envoy Donald Booth as its point man on the crisis, and sent him to Khartoum along with Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy. That could provide fresh momentum for resumed negotiations.

Still, the answer to whether that will mean movement toward a handover of power will come from elsewhere, in contacts with the Sudanese military’s outside backers – above all Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

No Arab leaders have closer ties, political and personal, with the Trump administration than Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed. Both are partners in the administration’s overarching Mideast goal of reining in Iran. Both are major purchasers of U.S. weaponry. And both have been opposed to any hint of a new “Arab Spring” in Khartoum.

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