Sudan's political crisis:  would the army go against history lessons and make democracy work?

Sudan's political crisis: would the army go against history lessons and make democracy work?

In the post-independence period, armies in the third world - especially in Africa - continued to conspire and undermine democracies under various justifications, thinking that keeping the army’s grip on power is the shortest path to modernity, development and national unity. Lieutenant-General, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the Sudan's army chief made, however, a different promise; when he expressed his commitment to strengthen the democratic path through corrective measures, and to hand over power to an elected government, following the procedures he took on October 25, 2021.


This commitment was met with strong doubts; and it was interpreted as a coup to reproduce the Egyptian model in Sudan. Al-Burhan; however, insists that he wants to reproduce the model of Field Marshal, Siwar al-Dhahab, who handed over power to an elected government headed by the late leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi in April 1986, after a year-long transitional period. That came after the popular uprising which overthrew the rule of President, Jaafar Nimeiri, in which al-Mahdi formed a transitional government of technocrats for a period of time, when he assumed the presidency of the Sovereign Council.


This comparison in the Sudanese collective mind between the two models of Sisi and Siwar al-Dhahab, made the political mainstream mired in polarisation, and divided among itself between those opposing and those resenting the measures announced by Al-Burhan. Such measures were described as a coup on the path of democratic transition


on the one hand, and supporters and backers in the other. The latter considered the measures as corrective and against a small group that “kidnapped” the transitional period, and biased it to serve its narrow partisan objectives.


Whatever the position of the political circles towards these decisions is, objectivity says, that such actions created a new reality and facts on the ground that are difficult to bypass. Al-Burhan sought to explain the justifications and motives for this great political change and refuted his opponents' description that what had happened was a coup. He stressed that the measures are corrective; especially when he realized how dangerous the unrest was; and that the country would slide into chaos and at the brink of civil war. At the same time, insiders realize that Al-Burhan moved after he was tightly cornered by civil society parties. According to research fellow, Joseph Tucker from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), that came after the intense incitement by some politicians against the army leadership, and the need to present an alternative to Al-Burhan, because of the erosion of trust between the partners of the transitional period.


Meanwhile, there is information about the movements of adventurous junior officers aspiring to take over power in light of the continuous quarrels with the civilian component. Feldman revealed the leadership of the army basically concentrated on Al-Burhan to take these measures to prevent any junior officers from being involved in adventures to seize power; because it will drag the country into violent confrontations, chaos and civil war.


Although after the failure of the efforts of the American envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who led shuttle mediation efforts between the parties to the Sudanese crisis; the army rushed to announce the decision to break up the partnership with the civilian component and imposed extraordinary measures. Feltman also revealed to Foreign Affaires that Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as "Hemedti," informed him in a closed meeting of their intention to take power; but he warned them against any measures that would undermine the democratic process; because it will jeopardize cooperation and relations with the United States, and will freeze all economic and bilateral cooperation programs.


Nevertheless, one hour after Feltman left Sudan, Al-Burhan announced the dissolution of the Sovereignty Council and the Council of Ministers, and the freezing of all articles of partnership with the civilian component contained in the constitutional document.


However, what angered the international community was the arrest of Prime Minister, Abdullah Hamdok and a number of ministers along with civilian members of the Sovereign Council. Moreover, violent street confrontations expanded between the armed forces and the anti-decisions popular crowds, which left civilian casualties. Despite the hit and run situation witnessed in the past period, confrontations, significantly declined in the following days paving the way for the return to normal life.


After discovering Prime Minister Hamdok's whereabouts, and after taking him back to his residence; criticism of the international community against the coup increased; as it was viewed as a threat to the path of democratic transition. Calls for re-en stating civilian governance grew. Special laws to freeze support and economic aid provided by these countries and international financial institutions to Sudan were enacted by countries United States, France, Norway, Germany, the European Union, and by the World Bank.


According to continuous monitoring, the international community’s condemnations of what Sudan witnessed have expanded; and that was accompanied by tough rhetoric in parallel with the suspension of cooperation programs and threats to take tougher measures Add to that the failure of the United States, Britain and France to issue a statement from the UN Security Council due to Russia’s objection, and its refusal to describe what happened in Sudan as a coup. As a result, Washington resorted to inciting some African countries to freeze Sudan's membership in the African Union.


Despite all this, these condemnations and the actions of the international community did not succeed in dissuading the army and its general commander Al-Burhan to reverse their steps; because the base of influence and impact of the major powers in the decision-making process within the Sudanese military institution is still weak; and because it mainly invested in the ruling civilian political elites throughout the period. Such stands had no significant influence within the army; simply because Washington has been pressing for the military establishment to be subjugated to civilians, and to carry out security reforms, without involving the military leadership in the matter.


After Washington and Western capitals felt the weakness of their influence to compel Al-Burhan and the leaders of the Sudanese army to yield on their decisions, they resorted to using regional countries who have influence on the Sudan, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and worked to incite them to stop financial support and escalate political pressures against the military component. Egypt, however announced its support for Alburhan, because the Egyptian army sees its Sudanese counterpart as a natural extension of its strategic alliances to protect Egyptian national security, especially after the disputes with Ethiopia that emerged after the crisis of building the Renaissance Dam. Anyway, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot respond to American pressure, for fear that their efforts to capitalize on the political and civil elites in Sudan after the fall of Al-Bashir will be completely eliminated.


This debate regarding the escalating tone of international condemnation, and the threat to stop aid programs and economic cooperation with Sudan, is no longer an effective weapon to force the army to reverse its decisions due to the weak western base of influence on decision-making process within the security system, which indicates that the decisive factor in restoring balance to the political process is the political dynamics inside Sudan itself, especially with the continuing repercussions of internal reactions, and the degree of the ability to mass mobilization to oppose these decisions.


It became clear that there were high expectations about the widespread and violent public opposition to the army’s actions, but the miserable performance of the Hamdok-led transitional government, the organized response by the regular armed forces, and the expansion of the detention of politicians and activists weakened the expected popular reaction, despite calls for civil disobedience.


Despite the escalation of popular resistance in separate rallies on October 30, with the hope that popular confrontation with the regular forces would be revived, Sudan’s recent history proves that all calls for civil disobedience did not succeed, and therefore the last repeated calls did not achieve success during the past weeks. On the other hand, the decisions and steps of the army leadership found understanding and support from the Freedom and Change factions that organized the famous sit-in in front of the presidential Palace. There was no influence either to the participation of a wide spectrum of representatives of tribes, the civil society and Sufi trends, along with representatives of parties and armed movements; that represent the popular backing to Alburhan’s decisions, but less representative of the urban youth group that led the revolutionary movement in December 2019. On the other hand, it has a wide social representation, especially in the Sudanese countryside, the marginal forces, which provides popular and political cover for the steps of the army leadership.


There are other popular spectra; however, that welcomed these decisions, namely, the poor who were afflicted by the high prices, the economic deterioration, the unrestrained market, the scarcity of necessary commodities, and the high cost of education; after the transitional government applied the World Bank recommendation, that calls for removing subsidies on necessary commodities, deregulation, and currency floating, which turned the lives of citizens into hell.


The division created by Al-Burhan’s decisions to break up the partnership with the “Forces of Freedom and Change” and the dissolution of the Sovereignty Councils and the government does neither mean that it is based on a serious conflict among the struggling parties, nor a violent struggle amid divergent ideological forces between advocates for the secular project versus the project that preserves the Sudanese identity, or between advocates for civil liberties versus those with dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies. What happened, in fact, was a confrontation in the context of the struggle for power between a civil group that gained some privileges and took advantage of the tools of the state to suppress opponents, spread corruption, counter-empowerment, and dictate the transitional period in favor of the narrow partisan interests of a minority that hijacked the revolution from the youth.


In contrast, this conflict between other political and social forces; though deprived of the privileges of power and removed from the center of decision-making, was not considered as part of the dynamics of engineering the political project that will control the future of Sudan. All that led to the emergence of the term "civil dictatorship" all over.


Al-Burhan’s decisions will not solve the political crisis with these exceptional measures, even if they are imposed by force of the army. Such measures might have rather added another layer of political complexity to an already deepening crisis; simply because any institutions, established according to these decisions, may lose popular legitimacy if they do not find sufficient acceptance. Therefore, the success of these decisions in creating a new political reality will be linked to the fulfillment of a number of requirements, on top of which is the restoration of the executive authority to a civilian leadership, and the urgent nomination of a prime minister, who will enjoy national acceptance and unanimity, in parallel to the popular and international legitimacy Hamdok had previously gained. This also requires an acceleration of establishing all the institutions of the transitional period, including the Legislative Council, building and maintaining the institutions of justice and the judiciary, and protecting them from interference and political hegemony.


The decisive criterion for the success of the transitional period according to the facts that emerged from the decisions of Al-Burhan; however, are the ability of the security system to extend and protect freedoms, secure freedom of political and civil work, restore union work and civil society organizations, release detainees of all kinds, and provide all those awaiting fair trials, or release them, if there is insufficient legal evidence to prosecute them.


At such a juncture, a question presents itself: can the military tolerate the heat of freedom, popular uprisings, and democratic exercise? To answer this question, it must be confessed that most of the military institutions in the third world have failed to support and facilitate the democratic transition process; but rather aborted and conspired against it, as happened in Myanmar recently. Accordingly, Al-Burhan’s pledges to restore and correct the democratic path is in great doubts, because armies cannot be a merciful mother towards the birth of democracies. This means that what can be considered a "premature baby" breathing with difficulty in the cradle now in Sudan will either come out sound and healthy after the necessary medical care that requires national consensus and consensus on an agreed transitional path until the elections, or it will come out as a distorted, controlled, formal democracy. Such a newly born thing might accept a democratic margin, with dictatorial tendencies clouded by touches of liberality, if the scene does not slip to reproduce the Egyptian model in Sudan.


For all that, serious challenges stand before the Alburhan. He has either to comply with the evidence of history and the practices of armies in the third world or succeed in creating a democratic transformation that achieves the popular aspirations in Sudan. His third choice isn’t to implement the recipe known in Africa and the countries of the region, that armies make their dictatorial regimes under the banners of liberal democracy, but to succumb to the authority of the security system in controlling the steering wheel of the state.


In conclusion, Alburhan may be destined to redefine the role of the army in politics if he succeeds in getting the country out of its current predicament, as Marshal Sewar al-Dahab did before, and present a unique Sudanese model; especially when the Sudanese political arena has large sectors that have renounced “civil dictatorship" that assumed power in the country during the last period.