The battle for democracy in Sudan

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South Sudan flag

The brutal onslaught of Sudan’s military rulers against civilian protesters over the past two weeks is part of a blueprint designed by Arab monarchies to crush democracy movements in the region. This is the third time we are seeing the blueprint operationalised in Arab countries with prompting and support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular.

The pro-democracy protests of civilians fed up with authoritarian rule and repression had gained ground previously in Bahrain in 2011 and Egypt in 2013, just as they have in Sudan more recently. Civilians in all three countries adopted a strategy of peaceful rolling protests based on mass sit-ins. The response actively supported by the Gulf monarchies was for the security forces in those countries to violently crush the sit-ins by attacking and killing demonstrators, characterising the peaceful sit-ins as a threat to national security.

The strategy worked in Bahrain and Egypt, and managed to keep a tight lid on the democracy movement. When Bahrainis poured onto the streets and sustained mass sit-ins against the authoritarian rule of the monarchy in 2011, the security forces attacked the protesters in the protest camp in Pearl Square, killing. The ferocity of the state’s repression in the form of mass killings, detentions and torture eradicated any possibility of popular protest and ensured the survival of the monarchy. The success of Bahrain in crushing dissent was essential to the survival of the other authoritarian monarchies in the region. 

In Egypt the same blueprint was used. When mass sit-ins against military rule and General Fattah al-Sisi were staged in Rabaa Square in Cairo in 2013, Sisi got diplomatic support and billions of dollars from the Saudis and Emiratis to shore up his regime and crush the peaceful protests. The onslaught of the security forces led to the deaths of 1,000 civilians. By having a transitional military council in Egypt rule until elections ensured that the elections were a cover to legitimise the appointment a military strongman. The military council announced that Sisi had won with 97% of the vote.

The battle for democracy has now been underway in Sudan since the demise of military strongman Omar al-Bashir. Rolling peaceful protests by civilians from all sectors of the society were sustained in massive sit-in camps since the end of December, with the people calling for democratic elections. The Gulf monarchies could not afford for such protests to succeed in ushering in a genuine democratic process as it would embolden democratic impulses in their own countries. On April 21st the Saudis and Emeratis approved a US$3 billion aid package to shore up the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in Sudan, which is headed by the former Janjaweed Generals – the architects of the genocide in Darfur in 2003.

It was following the visit last month to Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia by the Head of Sudan’s Military Council Lt General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the visit by the Deputy Head of the Military Council Lt General Mohamed Hamdan to Prince Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ) in the UAE, that the military moved violently to crush the protests. 

On June 3rd the Rapid Support Forces (formerly the Janjaweed militias) attacked the peaceful sit-ins in Sudan killing over 118 civilians. A reign of terror has ensued over the past two weeks in which the military blocked the internet in an attempt to shield their crimes from the world. Reports emerged of gang rapes of doctors supporting the protesters, disfigured bodies of protesters having been thrown into the Nile river, and protesters been burned in their sit-in tents by government forces.

But the difference this time is that the pro-democracy movement is refusing to capitulate in the face of state brutality and began a campaign of national civil disobedience this week. The African Union has moved to suspend Sudan’s membership and has called for a civilian-led transitional government. Naked aggression against civilians is unlikely to work this time. Protesters have also learnt the lesson from what happened in Egypt that it can only be a civilian-led transitional government that can usher in genuine democracy. But the military and its foreign backers will pull out all the stops to prevent a truly democratic government from emerging.

We have to commend Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for taking bold steps as the head of IGAD to lead the mediation between the military and the democracy movement. Ahmed was in Khartoum last Friday on the recommendation of the AU’s Peace and Security Council. He has proposed a 15 member Transitional Council of eight civilians and seven military officers with a rotating President. This mediation will likely save countless lives on the ground. Ahmed has already got the military to agree to the release of all political prisoners. The Gulf blueprint for scuppering democracy appears to be failing in Sudan.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.