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Things hardly looked promising for the protesters in Sudan demanding civilian rule. The country’s Transitional Military Council had publicly cut off negotiations with the opposition and shut down the internet. And security forces loyal to the ousted president, Omar al-Bashir, attacked and burned the main protest encampment, killing more than 120 people.
But the violence backfired – and sparked serious diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Washington played a lead role, and so did the African Union and Ethiopia. The result? An unexpected deal due to be signed this week that sets up a military-civilian council for a little more than three years – led first by a soldier, then by a civilian – that will oversee the creation of a civilian government.
Opposition leaders have hailed the agreement as a victory, but there are doubters. “We would like to see many more guarantees” from the military, said one pro-democracy demonstrator in the capital, Khartoum, according to Al Jazeera. “Because they’ve made many promises on handing over power, only to backtrack later on.”
Little more than a month ago, the Sudanese protesters who had brought down military dictator Omar al-Bashir in April had every reason to believe their popular bid to end military rule had failed.
General Bashir had been replaced by new military leaders no more sympathetic to democracy, and on the night of June 3, shadowy security forces loyal to the ousted president attacked and burned the main protest encampment, killing more than 120 people.
Activists were forced into hiding as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the rebranded janjaweed militia accused of conducting genocide in western Darfur – prowled the streets of the capital, Khartoum. Corpses of victims were pulled from the Nile River.
But that brutal crackdown now appears to have backfired. Last week, the military and the civilian opposition announced a surprise deal to democratize Sudan that was due to be signed this week.
Rather than crushing the monthslong campaign for civilian rule in one of Africa’s largest and most strategic nations, the violence on June 3 triggered a determined international effort to resolve the crisis.
African Union and Ethiopian mediators stepped in, the United States appointed a special envoy, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates muted their backing for the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which had taken over from General Bashir.
The agreement represents a rare sign during the Trump administration of how the U.S. can still exert diplomatic pressure to ease a regional crisis when it chooses to.
Under the deal, Sudan will return to full civilian rule in a little over three years. “Today our revolution has won and our victory shines,” the Sudanese Professionals Association, a key element of the opposition alliance, said in a statement.
But doubts persist whether the generals, who have ruled Sudan for three decades, will actually relinquish power.
“There are a few quite obvious concerns,” says Alan Boswell, a Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank. “One is that if it took all of this coordination to hit the right pressure point on the military council, that’s an extremely difficult thing to sustain for 21 months.”
That is the period during which a soldier will be president of a new 11-member sovereign council, made up equally of civilian and military members, with the final seat given to a civilian approved by the military. By early 2021, TMC head Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan announced on Sunday, the military will return to barracks and hand over to a civilian council leader.
“This basically provides a period of time for the military council to regroup, try to consolidate power, try to divide the opposition, and try to wriggle its way out of actually handing over power,” cautions Mr. Boswell, contacted in Nairobi, Kenya.
The new council is to oversee the formation of a transitional civilian administration that will govern for three years and prepare elections – a key demand of protesters.
Opposition leader Omar al-Digair said he hoped the deal would herald “a new era” because it “opens the way for the formation of the institutions of the transitional authority.” But while crowds celebrated news of the unexpected deal, many protesters expressed mistrust of the military.
The opposition plans another mass protest on July 13 and a campaign of civil disobedience thereafter.
“The real leadership is the street,” protester Kobays al-Kobany told Britain’s Channel 4 TV. If the new council does not meet popular expectations, he said, “then our tools of protest are still in place. We are ready to activate, escalate, and start over. At the end of the day, our government will be a civilian one, no matter what.”
“The outline of the deal as it was presented on Friday made me very skeptical,” says one Sudan analyst in Europe who asked not to be named.
“It keeps [General] Burhan as de facto head of state for a long time,” he says. “The broader public has no more patience with the TMC. So there is a risk that the [opposition leadership] will lose credibility and that the revolution will radicalize.”
“The question is: Will international actors find a way to keep the pressure up and make sure the military council abides by what it promises?” asks Mr. Boswell, the ICG analyst. “And will the Sudanese opposition stay united enough to hold their feet to the fire?”
A sharp turnaround
The deal was a sharp turnaround for the TMC, which had publicly cut off negotiations with the opposition and, after June 3, had shut down the internet. Behind those moves, many observers believed, were Saudi Arabia and the UAE, undemocratic hereditary monarchies that promised $3 billion to bankroll continued military rule.
Sudan and the RSF have deployed forces to Yemen for years, fighting as part of a Saudi and Emirati-led coalition against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
But after the protest camp was violently dispersed on June 3, the African Union suspended Sudan, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed flew to Khartoum to mediate. And the U.S. – which appointed veteran diplomat Donald Booth as special envoy – stepped up efforts to pressure its allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
“The main point was, everyone’s interests might not totally align, but there didn’t seem to be a clear constituency for Sudan falling apart,” says Mr. Boswell. Washington “needed to really lead in pressuring Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to change their direction,” he adds. “They’ve started at least saying the right things.”
“We received a direct message from the White House: Facilitate a deal between the military and the protesters,” one Egyptian negotiator told The Associated Press. The same message had been delivered to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, he said, paving the way for compromise.
A Sudanese military official told the AP that the junta got the same message.
“The Americans demanded a deal as soon as possible,” he said. “Their message was clear: power-sharing in return for guarantees that nobody from the [TMC] will be tried.”
Then came a secret meeting in Khartoum on June 29, at which U.S., British, Saudi, and UAE diplomats convinced Sudanese military and opposition leaders, all in the same room, to accept the African Union and Ethiopian proposals.
“It was really a tag-team effort from everyone. ... This was America-Europe among many other powers, rather than the old days of just America in the lead,” says Mr. Boswell. “There were a lot of moving parts.”
Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the TMC and commander of the RSF, announced that the deal would be “inclusive” and satisfy the “ambitions of the Sudanese people and its pure revolution.”
But not all celebrating on Sudan’s streets were convinced. Among them was Mohamed Ismail, an engineer quoted by Al Jazeera.
“We would like to see many more guarantees from the TMC,” he explained. “Because they’ve made many promises on handing over power, only to backtrack later on.”