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The uncertain fight for Sudan’s democracy

Sudan’s prime minister resigned this week, and protesters are in the streets, again.

Protesters on a street in the Sudanese city of Khartoum appear to be enveloped in smoke.
Security forces intervene as protesters march toward the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan, on January 6.
Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In Sudan, civil disobedience is a near constant.

Thursday, the country witnessed another round of pro-democracy protests, the latest upheaval in the days after the country’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok stepped down. Protests had also preceded Hamdok’s resignation, which came a little more than a month after he was reinstated to the job from which he’d been ousted during an October military coup. That coup was also met with mass protests.

“Protesting started to be a lifestyle,” said Nazik Kabalo, a women’s rights activist and Sudanese researcher based in Canada. At pro-democracy demonstrations, you meet your friends, your neighbors, your girlfriends, or your boyfriends. “This is where people actually share their dreams of a better country together,” she added.

The fight for a better country started in earnest in 2019, after Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted through a grassroots revolution. In the aftermath, civilian and protest leaders and the military reached a power-sharing arrangement with the goal of transitioning to full civilian rule, including with a new constitution and democratic elections.

This transitional government was always a tenuous, flawed arrangement. But the October 25 coup showed how fragile the country’s democratic transition really was. The military, led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power, detaining Hamdok and other civilian leaders. Hamdok was reinstated after a November 21 agreement with the military, which was largely seen as an attempt to quell unrest in the streets and respond to international pressure.

Many pro-democracy and civil society groups saw that deal as a betrayal. Hamdok was now shaking hands with the very military men who deposed him, the same military men who still had control. “They just thought it’s legitimization for the military coup,” said Maha Tambal, a Sudanese civil society activist and Fulbright-Humphrey fellow at American University.

Hamdok’s resignation is a recognition of the failure of that deal, and shows, again, the deep challenge to Sudan’s democratic transition. It also, as one US congressional source described it to Vox, is taking “the fig leaf off” for both the international community and the civilian coalitions within Sudan. “It’s a forcing mechanism for them to deal with reality.”

The reality is that the coup largely did succeed. This is something those fighting for democracy understand, which is why many Sudanese are taking to the streets again and again, and demanding a transitional government free from the military’s leadership. But the military has proved it does not want to cede power, putting Sudan’s future, and any democratic transition, in doubt. Turning back the clock to the status quo before the coup isn’t sustainable, but finding a peaceful alternative that will satisfy either the civilians or the military is just as fraught.

“It’s a country that’s in a very fragile state,” said Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher. Those in the streets are saying they will not give up. “And that means that the military is going to respond with force,” he said. “It’s going to produce more bloodshed.”

What is happening in Sudan, briefly explained

The cracks in Sudan’s transitional government existed even before the October 25 coup. The government was an “uneasy marriage” between the Transitional Military Council, led by al-Burhan, and the Forces of Freedom and Change, the coalition of civilian opposition groups, once led by Hamdok. On paper, there was a power-sharing plan. In reality, the power remained in the hands of the military. Also on paper was a commitment to civilian rule, but that transition relied on the military going along with it.

And the military did not have a lot of incentives to do so, as it would jeopardize their political and financial interests. Any transition to civilian rule would have likely meant accountability for military officials who allegedly engaged in corruption and other abuses, even war crimes. “There are a lot of generals with a lot of power and a lot of money. Al-Burhan found himself in a place where he could not continue to enjoy their support without a military coup that deposed Hamdok,” Reeves said of the October coup.

Al-Burhan justified the coup by saying the divisions within the transitional government were too deep, and it needed to start fresh to avoid in-fighting; he said the military was still committed to democracy and elections. (You know, just put aside the fact that the prime minister was under house arrest, and his cabinet dissolved.)

Obviously nobody bought this. Protests erupted after Hamdok’s ouster, demanding his reinstatement and that of other civilian leaders, accountability for military leaders, and their removal from the transition process. Security forces met some of those demonstrations with violence. The international community, including the US and its partners, condemned the coup and the use of force against protesters. The power grab also put at risk international funding and debt relief, a vital lifeline in Sudan’s profound economic crisis.

These conditions were not exactly sustainable for the military, either, and so, with some outside brokers, negotiations began for a solution to restore the transitional government. At the same time, the military continued its crackdown against protesters, arresting opposition leaders and cutting off internet access. The military moved to consolidate government control, placing “civilians” into government posts who also happened to be ex-officials from the Bashir era.

At the end of November, a deal was reached that restored Hamdok to his role as prime minister, where he would lead a new “technocratic cabinet” until elections could be held. It came with some concessions from the military, like the release of political prisoners.

But pro-democracy activists and civilian leaders rejected the deal outright. People had protested on the streets in support of Hamdok, but more so for the restoration of the pre-coup government. This deal was not that.

“It was kind of a shock for them,” Tambal said of Sudanese activists. “We are protesting, we are dying for you — not for you as a person, but for the position, the setup we had. And you just kick our ass and say, ‘I’m just going to have an agreement with the military component by myself.’”

A more generous reading of Hamdok’s motivation is that, in an impossible situation, he took what he saw as the least worst option. Hamdok, in agreeing to the deal, said he wanted to end the “bloodshed” in the wake of the coup. Experts said Hamdok likely thought he might be able to be the mediator, a link between the pro-democracy groups and the military, but was ultimately disconnected from the street protests and local groups, making it a doomed endeavor.

Which is why the protests, and bloodshed, continued. Hamdok acknowledged this in his resignation on January 2. “I have tried my best to stop the country from sliding toward disaster,” he said, warning that the country was reaching a dangerous turning point that “threatened its survival.”

Where does Sudan go from here?

As of January 3, at least 57 people had been killed by Sudanese security forces since the October 25 coup, according to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD). At least three more protesters were killed as of January 6, according to the CCSD, bringing the total up to 60 as protests broke out across the country. More than a dozen cities saw demonstrations Thursday, from the capital, Khartoum, to the Port of Sudan in the east, to cities in Darfur, a region that’s seen a wave of renewed violence since the coup, with some militia groups able to act with impunity or even the implicit support of the security forces.

This is the dangerous impasse Sudan finds itself in. On one side, protesters and activists, determined to secure Sudan’s democratic transition; on the other, a military determined to entrench itself. Hamdok’s departure didn’t really change the stakes for either side, but it exposed very real and dangerous fractures.

Protests are expected to continue, and a big question will be how heavy-handed the military’s response may become. Al-Burhan has suggested he will appoint a new prime minister, but it’s unlikely that any legitimate candidates will take the job, since it comes with the baggage of being another rubber stamp on the coup.

The United States and some of its allies have recently rejected this path too, saying that any prime minister has to be appointed through a “consultative, civilian-led” process, according to the terms of Sudan’s 2019 constitutional declaration.

But wanting consultation is one thing. Getting there is another. The first challenge is whether the pro-democracy movement can become a more cohesive and unified front. The Forces for Freedom and Change — the coalition that helped broker the transitional government in 2019 — also needs consensus from the protesters on the street and local grassroots civil society groups, known as resistance committees.

The pro-democracy groups have demanded the release of political prisoners and a return to the pre-coup transition — but one that puts civilians, not the military, in control. That, in some ways, is a different type of transition entirely. “Many people are just really thinking that they are really correcting the first revolution through this process,” Kabalo, the women’s rights activist, said. “The demand now is actually to make this fall — and that will mean, first of all, at least the removal of the heads of the military right now.”

As for the military, outside pressure is likely going to be key, specifically from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sudan’s main benefactors. Hamdok’s resignation does make it hard for them and the rest of the world to ignore the crisis on the ground. The potential for instability and continued violence is something no one wants, especially in an already volatile region. The military needs money, so putting pressure on the Gulf states, or cutting Sudan off again from the international economy or debt relief, loom as leverage points. Targeted sanctions against military leaders, especially if violence against civilians increases, also is an option.

But even if the military is forced to the table to negotiate, experts and analysts I spoke to said this can’t be a repeat of the power-sharing arrangement, or Sudan may end up in the same place. To avoid a future of ongoing violence, it’s going to require some uncomfortable choices, ones that may not sit well with protesters demanding accountability on the streets. It may mean some sort of amnesty and or immunity deals for some of Sudan’s top generals, basically giving them a pathway to retire richly in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Not exactly a win for civilian forces advocating for the rule of law.

All of that doesn’t really alleviate the immediate crisis, which some say could get worse if protests escalate, or the crackdown against them does. “People get desperate. They get desperate for a lot of reasons. Many are present right now, in Sudan. There’s no money. There’s no food, there’s no opportunity. There’s lots of violence, there’s no place of safety. At what point do people say, ‘No, I’m not gonna take it anymore’? I don’t know where that that point is. But I think there is such a point,” Reeves said.

Even those who are hopeful that Sudan can recover and restart this democratic transition recognize what may still come. “No matter how many people are killed, that’s the cost we all agreed to pay,” Tambal said.