On April 11th, the Sudanese people were ecstatic. Five days earlier, a massive protest organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) culminated in a sit-in before the Sudanese military’s headquarters in Khartoum. Now Sudanese television and radio played military music and announced that the military would release an important statement “shortly.” This signalled to the Sudanese people, in a manner they knew all too well from history, that the military had deposed the government.
As news was released that members of the previous regime, including former president Omar al-Bashir, were being jailed or put under house arrest, the Sudanese people anticipated the victory of the popular revolution that began on December 19th.
This optimism faded, however, when General Awad Ibn Auf – the Vice President and a well-known regime loyalist – appeared on television to give the statement. He declared that a council composed of the National Armed Forces, the National Security and Intelligence Services, and the National Police Force, would act as a caretaker government, managing affairs in the country for up to two years before handing power to an elected government. The triad is now referred to as the Transitional Military Council (TMC). Ibn Auf also announced a three-month state of emergency and a one-month curfew, asking protesters to return home.
By this point, the SPA had assumed the role of principal protest organizer and the representative body for protesters. It rejected the statement and demanded a continuation of the sit-in at the military HQ. Just 24 hours later, Ibn Auf announced his own resignation, appointing General Abdelfattah al-Burhaan as the new chairman of the TMC.
Under pressure from relentless protests, al-Burhaan announced the lifting of the curfew and state of emergency. He also promised that the military would not attempt to break up the sit-in with force, and called all political forces in the country to dialogue. This included the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of opposition movements and civil society groups that includes the SPA. The FFC had previously issued the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which called for a four-year civilian transitional government that would pursue economic and legal reform before handing over power to an elected government. Hoping to make this proposition a reality, the FFC agreed to dialogue.
A Crisis of Trust
Negotiations faced trouble after just eight days when the FFC suspended itself, citing – among other reasons – the military’s refusal to acknowledge it as the representative of the protesters’ demands. Debates over how representative the FFC was of the protesters – and of the Sudanese people – raged on even after negotiations later resumed. One of the main reasons for this was due to questions surrounding their political alignment. State media had previously accused the SPA and its supporters of being communists – claims which were largely discredited at the time, as they were used for decades by the previous regime to vilify dissidents. They were reignited, however, when the FFC’s list of “representatives of the streets’ demands” included both the leader of the Sudanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Baath Party. Tensions reached a head when the FFC’s proposed constitutional document, which outlined their vision for the transitional government, lacked any mention of religion.
This led many Sudanese people, particularly Islamists, to see the coalition as one of dangerous leftists, who were attempting to bypass elections in order to force a secular political agenda on the Sudanese people. Prominent Muslim preachers such as Abdelhay Yousef called for and organized anti-FFC, pro-Shari’a Law protests, titled“The Movement for Supporting Shari’a.”
— Yasir| (@YGabura) May 18, 2019
The anger of Sudanese Islamists was only amplified when the TMC and the FFC eventually agreed on the creation of a transitional parliament, in which the FFC would have 67% of the seats and non-FFC parties would only be able to join upon the FFC and TMC’s approval. This lead the Coalition of 2020 Forces, a coalition of 25 mainly Islamist parties, to reject the deal wholesale and to call the FFC exclusionary, selfish, and “more tyrannical than the previous regime.” The coalition announced a plan to resist this through peaceful means.
It was not only Islamists who were dissatisfied with the FFC. Many among the protesters remained skeptical of the negotiations due to an intense distrust of the TMC’s former regime loyalist members. As the negotiations process continued and the FFC gave more concessions, this sector of the Sudanese opposition only grew angrier. The refrain that “al-Bashir and Ibn Auf fell because we chose not to negotiate with them” was widespread, with some referring to the TMC as “the coup council,” rejecting its legitimacy and calling on the FFC to cut off negotiations and escalate revolutionary activities.
These protesters’ disdain for the TMC grew after reports of government violence on May 5th, and then the death of six people on May 13th in what has been named “The Ramadan Eighth Massacre.” After another incident on May 15th, the FFC responded by asking protesters to refrain from escalating protest activities and to avoid provoking law enforcement.
Negotiations as a Dead-End
One of the most notable figures in the TMC is its vice chair, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, more commonly known as Hemeti. He is head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – armed paramilitary forces formerly known as the Janjaweed, who were known for carrying out war crimes in Darfur.
Hemeti noted the divide within the Sudanese opposition and took a hostile tone towards the FFC, even accusing them of having foreign backing. He concluded that it was unrepresentative of the people, and that power should not be handed to them, but to an elected government after early elections.
This escalating rhetoric happened during a stall in negotiations as the FFC and TMC failed to reach an agreement on the composition of the Transitional Sovereign Council – slated to act as Sudan’s head of state and supervise the other branches of the transitional government. The TMC insisted on both a military majority and a military chair for the council, in contrast to the FFC’s proposal of a civilian majority and a rotating military-civilian chair – unpopular with protesters, who called for a civilian chair. Whilst the TMC’s official spokesperson maintained that a deal was close, the stances of Hemeti and others suggested that the TMC was planning on announcing the oft-hinted early elections, which the FFC has condemned as a step back on the progress made in negotiations.
Hemeti and al-Burhaan’s links to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt caused significant concern among protestors. These three countries have spearheaded the movement against democracy across the region, and the former two had both made donations to the previous regime and had sent a $3 billion aid package to the TMC. Al-Burhaan had been the supervisor of Sudanese ground forces in Yemen prior to becoming the chairman of the TMC, suggesting a close relationship with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE – a relationship widely characterised as vassalage.
Fears of counter revolutionary foreign intervention were exacerbated by multiple foreign trips taken by both al-Burhaan and Hemeti to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in late May. Seeing the revocation of Aljazeera journalists’ press licenses on May 30th, as well as the recall of the Sudanese ambassador to Qatar, protesters feared that the two countries would not only encourage the TMC to remain in power, but would also greenlight violence against protestors.
Back to Square One: Revolution
In an attempt to put pressure on the TMC and unfreeze negotiations, the SPA planned a massive strike for the 28th and 29th of May. On both days, strikers and protesters were met with violence, and after the vandalism of an RSF truck in response to the violence, the TMC made a statement calling the military HQ sit-in a “danger to both the country and the revolution.” These comments led protesters to fear an attempt to clear out the sit-in with force, with many drawing parallels to the 2013 Rabaa Square Massacre in Egypt – in which a mass protest against Sisi’s coup was cleared violently by the army, resulting in at least 800 deaths. After the TMC forcefully cleared out an area colloquially referred to as “Colombia” (for the alleged drug use taking place there), protesters became more nervous, with the SPA accusing the TMC of planning to clear the sit-in.
On June 3rd, their predictions came true. RSF officers attacked the military HQ sit-in, in an operation that has reportedly led to 30 deaths and dozens of wounded so far. In response, the SPA called for a total escalation of revolutionary activities, calling on protesters to burn tires, erect roadblocks, and march in the streets, just as they had in December. The National Umma Party, Sudan’s largest opposition party which had been taking a softer stance towards the TMC, released statements calling its actions “treachery, treason, and a reckless crime,”, asking its supporters to join the protests. Eventually, the FFC officially declared a stop to negotiations, with Madani Abbas Madani, one of its leaders who was shot during the attack on the sit-in, calling any further negotiations “a mockery of the martyrs’ blood.”
The TMC has denied attempting to clear out the sit-in with force, claiming that it had chased armed men from “Colombia” to the sit-in, resulting in a shooting. They denied activists’ reports of government forces attacking hospitals and refusing to allow protesters to enter, and expressed hope for a return to negotiations. The damage, however, was done; the SPA, FFC and protesters, as well as the Embassies of the United States and Britain, consider the TMC fully responsible for the violence. The first three are now committed to taking them down just as they did the previous regime.
This appears to be the end of the controversial negotiations process and the beginning of a new phase, as all trust in the TMC has totally collapsed.
Hatim Eujayl is a Sudanese-American citizen journalist who has been chronicling the Sudanese uprising.