Sudan is at a crossroads. In April, popular protests in Khartoum lead to the ouster of the country’s longtime ruler, Omar al Bashir. He was toppled in a coup by military leaders. But the peaceful protests did not stop. Rather, the protesters held their ground and rallied outside the headquarters of the military junta demanding that civilians — not the military — lead the transition to democracy.
The standoff between the military council and civilian protesters held firm until early June, when a paramilitary group known as the Rapid support forces, or RSF, attacked the protesters, killing over 100. The protests were dispersed and a general strike ensued.
On the line with me to discuss the situation in Sudan is Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, a professor of political science at Vassar College. We last spoke in early January, just as the protest movement was beginning to pick up steam. That is where we pick up the story today. We kick off discussing the circumstances that lead to the ouster of Sudan’s longtime ruler Omar al Bashir and then have a longer conversation about the political and geo-political dynamics that are shaping events in one of Africa’s largest and most strategically significant countries.
If you have 20 minutes and want to learn about the ongoing crisis in Sudan, the protests in Khartoum, and how this situation may evolve, have a listen.
The protests began in December, initially triggered by a tremendous spark in the cost of bread. The protests accumulated strength and their demands shifted from a reduction in bread prices to the fall of the regime itself. In April, after four months of protests and a massive number in the capital of Khartoum, the military forced Bashir to give up the presidency and he was placed under house arrest. Since then, there has been a transitional military council largely comprised of generals and commanders who were close to the Bashir regime. There is a stalemate between the leaders of the transitional military council and the protest movement, who instead of retreating, only increased their presence in front of military headquarters.
Protestors have been able to greatly increase pressure.
The Sudanese protestors have learned a lot from the history of Sudan and from failed transitions in places like Egypt. So, what you see are very resilient and inspirational protestors who will not settle for less than a fully civilian-led transition to democracy. That is why the stakes are so high.
At the time of recording, roughly 200 people have been killed. What led to this crackdown?
The key figure here is a man named Hemeti, the second in command in the military council. He has a long history in Sudan. He was the commander who was put in charge by Bashir to establish the paramilitary force known as the Janjaweed, which in the mid 2000’s was accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Hemeti’s hands have been dirty for two decades now. His status in the military demonstrates that the military is not a legitimate partner for a democratic transition.
In terms of this specific crackdown, once the War in Darfur was largely pacified, the Janjaweed moved to Khartoum and took on a different name of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). They operate independently of the national military. Hemeti essentially controls a private militia force and is the prime mover behind the latest crackdown. It is his forces, the RSF, orchestrating the terror in the streets of Khartoum.
The RSF are accused of human rights abuses in the southern part of Sudan as well.
They have basically been the force that does the military’s dirty work around the country. RSF is kind of a proxy force that can be deployed to do all of these ugly things without tainting the Sudanese military, which is really a false distinction, but one that the military insists upon.
The military hoped the departure of Bashir in April would satisfy the protestors. The negotiations continued for two months, but in the end, protestors were demanding that civilians be allowed to oversee the transition to democracy. That was a non-starter and the talks came to a halt. Sudan has since been in a state of limbo. When the talks broke down, the violence escalated. The RSF was given free rein to go break up camps where protestors had been converging.
The protest movement has moved underground and has been organizing a general strike.
The previous protest camp had become a tremendous site of creativity where people converged and were hosting concerts, educational activities, and more to spread the word. There were innovative things occurring –like the Occupy Wall Street movement, but at a larger scale. It is devastating to see the site now.
We should not assume that this is the end of the protest movement. There is a general strike and Khartoum is at a standstill. Businesses are not open and services are not being provided.
How do you assess the role of the influence of outside powers?
Saudi Arabia’s role has been abominable. The Saudi regime has given the Sudanese military the green light to engage in the crackdown like they orchestrated last year. The military in Sudan does not have a lot of popular support. Whatever credibility it had evaporated as a result of the violence it has orchestrated. Saudi Arabia has an ongoing relationship with the RSF and has funded them for quite some time now.
No major western power has done much to push back against the Saudis. Further, the Russians and Chinese have prevented discussion over this crisis in the UN Security Council.
What could the US do?
The US has tremendous leverage over the Saudis. However, it is hard to see under the current Trump administration, that the US would condemn the behavior of the Saudis. The African Union (AU) has tried to lend support to the protestors, but the AU right now is headed by the Egyptians so that support is questionable. However, to their credit, they have condemned the regime for the massacres of last week.
Can you talk about how you see the protest movement strategy changing in this new era?
There are a couple of trajectories. Amongst the organizers there is a strong desire to retain the non-violent character of the movement so far. The risk is that people may feel there is no other option than to turn towards violence. There are a number of opposition groups who have stayed out of the protest so far but could be mobilized to use violence.
These sorts of movements are about building counter-power to the existing regime. On that level, the Sudanese protestors are going far beyond what the Egyptian or Syrian protestors could accomplish.
Lastly, are there any key inflection points that you see down the road that would suggest what the next iteration of this crisis will be?
The big question is the economic situation. The regime has been able to persist with external support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but the economy has come to a standstill and there is very little production going on. That means the regime will face an economic crisis in the near future. It is important to remember that the initial trigger for the protest was the decline in performance of the Sudanese economy. The economy was already fragile, so now to be dealing with a large scale protest movement, it is unclear how much longer the regime can go forward, unless outside actors massively increased the support they are offering. Saudi Arabia would have to keep its financial pipeline open.
There are a number of factors for why Saudi Arabia is interested in Sudan. One is, Saudi Arabia has massive investments in Sudan’s agricultural sector and has been trying to use Sudan as a breadbasket for the country. It is not simply about autocrats trying to prop each other up, but there are financial considerations as well.