Can Sudan’s Fledging Democracy Survive?

Thousands of protestors flocked to the Sudanese Capital, Khartoum, last Monday, demanding a dissolution of the citizen government and a return to military rule. Staging a sit-in outside of the gates of the presidential palace, demonstrators complained that the government was unable to respond to crises and overlooking the concerns of citizens outside of Khartoum.

“We want a government that knows about things going on in the east” of Sudan, explained Abdelnaby Abdelelah, a demonstrator from the Eastern state of Kassala. Other protestors chanted “the military will bring us bread” and “one people, one army.” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok described the demonstration as the “worst and most dangerous” Sudan has faced in years.

In recent months Hamdok has slashed fuel subsidies and instituted a managed float of the Sudanese pound in an attempt to revitalize Sudan’s struggling economy. In response, anti-government groups blocked a major Sudanese port two weeks ago. Hamdok recently warned that Sudan is running low on wheat, fuel, and medicine.

This economic instability coupled with anti-democratic protests is concerning for a country that has had a long, tortuous path to its current fragile democracy. From 1989 to 2019, the government was controlled by autocrat Omar al-Bashir. During the first half of Bashir’s rule, from 1983 to 2005, Sudan was plagued with a brutal civil war that ultimately resulted in the independence of South Sudan. In 2019, al-Bashir was ousted in a coup d’état after civilians staged sit-in protests in Khartoum. The military first attempted to rule on their own. In June of that year, the government cracked down on protests in the Capitol killing 127 people. Continuing to face intense opposition, the military officer who deposed al-Bashir entered into talks with opposition group, Forces of Freedom and Change. These discussions resulted in the creation of 3-year transitional government, that splits power between civilians and the military. Sudan is aiming to hold elections in 2023.

For most of its history, Sudan has had a troubled relationship with most of its neighbors and the international community at large. In the early 1990s, the United States added Sudan to its state sponsors of terrorism list, and supported nearby Uganda and Kenya in an effort to check Sudanese influence. In 1998, the U.S. tensions with Sudan increased further after they were accused of harboring terrorists who later committed a string of embassy bombings. In 2006, President Bush imposed further sanctions on the country, after they were accused of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing during the Sudanese Civil War.

For the most part, this pressure has been successful in moderating Sudan’s positions. President Obama lifted some sanctions on Sudan in early 2017, citing the country’s improved counterterrorism efforts. In 2020, as a part of a U.S. brokered deal, Sudan began to normalize ties with Israel. A few months later, the U.S. removed Sudan from their state sponsors of terrorism list. Relief from international sanctions have improved Sudan’s economy somewhat and encouraged foreign investment but the country remains deeply impoverished. Prime Minister Hamdok is a trained economist and has instituted a number of IMF backed reforms but, as Monday’s sit-in suggests, citizens are losing patience with the economy’s slow growth.

At the same time, Sudan’s political instability has held it back. In 2019, when the military junta murdered more than 100 civilians in attempt to quell pro-democracy protests, Sudan was temporarily suspended from the African Union. Recently, Eastern Sudanese tribes seized control of the country’s main seaport and threatened Sudan’s supply of basic goods including food and medicine. Until Sudan is able to cultivate support from both the international community and from their discontented Eastern states, the country will be unable to thrive.

As Sudan stumbles towards their first democratic elections in 2023, pro-democratic forces should maintain pressure in order counteract pro-military movements. Protests and sit-ins have led to Sudanese institutional reform multiple times in the past. For the country to fully transition to democracy, these grassroots movements must maintain their organization and activism. There are already encouraging signs of pro-democratic rallying after Monday’s sit-in. On Thursday, thousands took to the streets to express support for a fully civilian government. At the same time, these factional splits and passionate protests threaten to break the country apart. Hopefully, economic conditions will improve, lessening pro-military sentiment.

Meanwhile, the international community must maintain pressure on Sudan in order to encourage this democratic transition. In the past, the United States was willing to lift sanctions on autocrat al-Bashir if he worked with them on counterterrorism efforts. The international community must make it clear that this will not happen again. The African Union made the right decision to suspend Sudan after they butchered protestors. Other countries must clearly articulate that if the military seeks to maintain control, they will face intense sanctions and opposition.

Monday’s protests are concerning. Sudan is struggling to maintain stability in the face a deeply divided and impoverished populace. But the country has faced intense crises before, and Sudan’s Prime Minister has worked with the African development bank, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, and the International Labor Organization. He has spent his life training to respond to economic disasters and has built connections with international and U.N. actors. As Sudan prepares to weather the coming years, there is hope that their economy and international standing will emerge stronger than ever.


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