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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Sudan Stumbles


James Watt

Thu, 06 Jun 2019 14:43 GMT

The news from Khartoum has been depressing. The bloody attack early on 3 June on the camp of civilian protestors launched by a section of the Army, the feared Rapid Support Forces, is reported to have resulted in at least 100 deaths. Many take this as a turning point. The peaceful protests that had built up since December, across the country, secured a bloodless victory on 11 April when President Omar El Bashir was forced to resign after 30 years of rule. It was his own senior Generals who made the move, and some at least of them showed genuine concern to meet the demands of the protestors, and move away from the brutal autocracy and human rights abuse that have afflicted Sudan for so long.   

Some commentators have noted the near-coincidence with the 30th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, in which Chinese troops used violent force to disperse the peaceful sit-in of pro-democracy protestors. That too was a turning-point, and reasserted the total control of the Communist Party. The ability of citizens to voice their demands for justice, and share in governing the country through democratic means, was considered too threatening. Party control is even stronger today under President Xi Jinping The ability of citizens to voice their demands for justice, and share in governing the country through democratic means, was considered too threatening. Communist ideology had all the answers.  

No ideological party is behind the same move this week in Sudan. The regime's public claims may be the familiar ones: protecting against external enemies and internal saboteurs, combating terrorism and alien Western liberal ideas, safeguarding the stability of the country. But the reality is of vested interests that the old guard feel they have to preserve at any cost. Not simply financial revenue and assets such as privileged chunks of real estate. But protection against reprisals, retribution and prosecution. After all President Bashir was indicted for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court, though he evaded being brought before the Court. Those were not the only crimes of the past thirty years, shared largely by the feared janjaweed militia, the precursor of the Rapid Support Forces, and to which this week's massacre has now been added.  

The shock at the massacre on 3 June is understandable. So are the predictions that all hope is now lost for a better, fairer future for Sudan, in which human dignity and rights are once more respected. It may not turn out to be Tienanmen, if those in the military who have been ready to consider some form of civilian participation in power, and to engage with the powerful civil society movement that sprang from the protests, are still open to negotiation. As in Egypt in 2011, many senior military figures may favour the stability that a healthier form of politics would bring to Sudan. The broadly liberal demands of civil society are the best antidote to the terrible impoverishment of social,and personal life that would come from the triumph of extremist Islamists, from which Sudan has long suffered too. The military elite will have differing red lines and priorities. The Rapid Support Forces, under their hardline commander, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, clearly saw no reason to wait longer. Taking advantage of a breakdown in the negotiations between the regime and the protestors in the closing days of May, they sought to make the rift permanent by their savage assault on the protest camp in central Khartoum.  

The leader of the Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seemed to back the violent move by announcing the next day that all the agreements provisionally reached with the civil society leaders were cancelled. But as international protests mounted, and presumably moderate voices too were given a chance to be heard within the Council, he reversed that decision on 5 June announcing the offer to resume talks with the civilian leaders without pre-conditions. The situation will for certain change further, but these developments are evidence that there are different supporters for different outcomes within the regime. Crude violence and repression will not find favour with Sudan's external backers, let alone international opinion.

For regional states the priority is not the stability of the existing elites but of the country itself. African Union and Arab League members are wise enough to know that simply crushing protests, with nothing to offer for the future, is a formula for conflict and impoverishment, opening the door to the extremists already too active across the middle of Africa. Gulf allies have already moved to prop up Sudan's currency reserves by rapid transfers of funds and pledges of more. There will be no shortage of help if the Sudanese regime shows itself to be committed to a better deal for its long-suffering people. That in turn requires real change and real power-sharing. The negotiators must return to the table, and on both sides recreate the trust that is needed, and devise the way forward. The massacre was a cynical attempt to ruin everything, and in that must not be allowed to succeed. 

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