A Gulf Between Sudan’s Military and Civilians Dims Hopes of Stability
- Successful negotiations on a transitional process between the military council and the civilian opposition in Sudan are increasingly unlikely, as security forces stick to their plans and repress civilian opponents.
- While the military council will face significant diplomatic backlash over its chosen strategy, its support from the Gulf states, Russia and China will likely allow it to weather the storm.
- With little potential for compromise between the military and protesters demanding radical democratic reform, lasting instability in the form of demonstrations, repression and economic woes will likely shape the future of Sudan.
Editor’s Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor’s upcoming 2019 Third-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
Not so long ago, Sudan’s stakeholders looked set to agree on a common path to the future. In the wake of the ouster of longtime President Omar al Bashir at the beginning of April, the Transitional Military Council and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces, an alliance of civilian opposition parties, agreed to form a legislative body, a Cabinet and a sovereign council to wield executive power until elections. But after the pair fell out over the composition of the latter body, security forces conducted a bloody raid on the main protest site in Khartoum on June 3, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 demonstrators.
The Big Picture
After the Sudanese armed forces removed President Omar al Bashir from power in April following months of protests in Khartoum and elsewhere, different stakeholders in the country sat down to try and chart a path to a transition. But following a military crackdown on civilians, the potential for a breakthrough has fallen significantly.
In response to the crackdown, protesters initiated a short-lived civil disobedience campaign, while regional and international actors exhorted the military to compromise. These efforts are unlikely to bridge the large divide between the demands of the military council and the civilian opposition, even though negotiations may actually continue to take place in some form. Ultimately, given that the security forces have largely sacrificed previous progress to return to their pre-coup strategy of repression, Sudan’s prospects for a stable, democratic transition are growing dimmer by the day.
The security forces, which retain control over Sudanese institutions and, naturally, its security apparatus, have their own views on the country’s future that largely clash with those of the reformist civilian protesters. While the protests ratcheted up the pressure on the al Bashir regime over a long period (citizens had rallied sporadically against the government since 2011 as part of Arab Spring before intensifying their demonstrations in December 2018), they failed to unseat the strongman on their own. Instead, the coup de grace came from the military, which capitalized on the momentum generated by the protest movement to unseat al Bashir. Still, just because the security forces answered the call of civilian demonstrators does not mean they had the same interests in mind — something that is becoming more and more apparent.
While the security forces are not a unitary entity, as they include the regular army and the Rapid Support Forces (which fall under the National Intelligence and Security Service), along with several factions within them, they share a common interest in safeguarding the position they have held in Sudan since al Bashir assumed power. Given such pride of place, they are unlikely to tolerate the actual implementation of radical democratic reform, even if they are amenable to economic liberalization and greater political freedom. Competition among security factions increases the potential for additional interruptions to the negotiations, as demonstrated by the June 12 arrest of 68 officers accused of plotting a countercoup.
What the security forces lack in domestic support, they make up for, in part, with foreign backing.
Of course, Sudan’s civilian movement is not monolithic either; not all members of the opposition espouse the same progressive democratic views — although that is the dominant attitude among participants in the protest movement and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces. Apart from the military and the civilian movement, there are also the Islamists, represented by the National Congress Party (NCP), but they have been largely excluded from the transitional efforts due to their previous coziness with al Bashir’s government. Accordingly, the NCP would offer a more pragmatic and pliable partner for the military, but given its negligible influence over the protest movement, it is hardly in a position to take steps that would satiate the civilian opposition and foster more stability.
The Military’s Foreign Friends
But what the security forces lack in domestic support, they make up for, in part, with foreign backing. The security forces have conspicuously toured the region, including Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, in an effort to garner more support. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt all have an interest in keeping Sudan on their side to serve the war effort in Yemen, balance against Iran, and assist in the regional competition against Turkey and Qatar. What’s more, maintaining ties to the likes of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo sidelines the NCP, a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned movement that is closer to Ankara and Doha. And given that the Transitional Military Council has shown no intention of shifting Sudan’s alignment, these regional Arab powers would prefer that it remain in power, rather than witness a democratic civilian government profoundly alter the country’s course.
Outside the immediate region, Sudan’s security forces have also been able to count on the support of Russia and China, at least in the U.N. Security Council. Toward the end of al Bashir’s rule, Russia developed a closer relationship with Sudan, and Moscow has signaled its desire to continue along the same track with the military council. Like Sudan’s Arab backers, Russia may fear that democratic reform could usher in a more Western-leaning government in Khartoum, meaning it is likely to acquiesce to repressive action to safeguard the status quo. For the Sudanese security services, such support in high places at least mitigates the possibility of any U.N. Security Council sanctions against the Transitional Military Council.
If anything, the intensity of the security forces’ recent crackdown has hardened the position of both sides, complicating the prospects of any mediation.
The Limits of Outside Pressure
But due to the harsh nature of the military’s crackdown, Sudan has experienced a diplomatic backlash. The United States, several European countries and the African Union have all called for a transition to civilian leadership, but they have few diplomatic means to force the hands of the Transitional Military Council.
Mediation efforts by regional and international players, such as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and U.S. envoys, could help pacify the situation, but it is unlikely to ultimately foster a meaningful compromise. If anything, the intensity of the security forces’ recent crackdown has hardened the position of both sides, complicating the prospects of any mediation.
At this stage, it is difficult to imagine a stable and accepted government in Sudan in the near future, as any deal would have to bypass the critical points of contention, such as the makeup of the sovereign council, thereby providing only a shaky foundation for a transition. In such an environment, elections that the military has currently planned for March 2020 are unlikely to heal wounds unless they offer the civilian movement something more than a token position in government. And without stability, Sudan also has little prospect of finding a remedy for its economic woes, even if a financial infusion from the Gulf will help ameliorate the acuteness of the problem. For Sudan on the whole, accordingly, instability and repression beckon as the military plows through on a transition on its own terms.
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