There were jubilations on the streets of Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan two months ago when the nation’s military pulled the plug on Omar Hassan al-Bashir. After his 30 years of misrule, there was the bright prospect of a negotiated transition to democracy.
That prospect suffered serious wounds last week when the so-called Rapid Support Forces of Mohamed Hamdan, better known as Hemedti, suddenly unleashed a bout of violence against peaceful protesters. Dozens were killed, and some of the corpses ended up in the Nile. There have been reports of rape and torture.
The civilian opposition’s response to the massacre, and to military intransigence, has been an open-ended general strike, which appeared to enjoy widespread support when it was launched last Sunday.
Where these events will lead is unclear. Internally and externally, there are powerful forces at play. Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change is a broad alliance encompassing many segments of society. It seeks a meaningful transformation in Sudan, whereas the Transitional Military Council, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, appears bent upon reinforcing the Islamist-military status quo with the vociferous support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Although the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership following last week’s massacre, the UN failed to pass a resolution condemning the killings, ostensibly because of opposition from China and Russia, both of which had good relations with the Bashir dictatorship. The European Union issued its usual pro forma protest, while the US contacted the Saudis at a relatively low level to decry the violence, thereby acknowledging Riyadh’s influence over the junta in Khartoum.
Thwarting democracy in the Arab world and its outskirts has lately become something of an obsession with the ruling families in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, not least because they are petrified by the prospect of copycat popular uprisings in their own lands. They sent troops to Bahrain to crush the Shia-majority state’s unrest during the so-called Arab Spring, and generously backed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s successful effort to snatch back power from the Muslim Brotherhood. They are also deeply enmeshed in the mess in Libya, among other countries.
In the case of Sudan, they are particularly concerned about the possible loss of influence of Hemedti, who rose to prominence as a commander of the Janjaweed militia that played a key role in the Darfur genocide, and now supplies human fodder for the Saudi-UAE aggression in Yemen.
That’s just a part of the mix. The main thrust of the two Gulf kingdoms’ regional influence is directed against the idea of rule by popular consent, and America’s long-standing hypocrisy is writ large in its broad concurrence with such aims while paying lip-service to democracy and decrying Iran’s more limited influence in the Middle East.
Qatar, incidentally, was also in cahoots with the Bashir regime, which combined military rule with political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood variety, but appears to have lost out lately, with Al Jazeera, to its credit, being banished from Sudan in the thick of the popular protests.
The latest bout of resistance to Bashir was instigated last December by a three-fold increase in the price of bread amid rampaging inflation, but it soon became obvious that the protesters were deeply invested in a much wider range of issues, not least the injunctions against social behaviour at variance with strict interpretations of the Sharia. The Islamic scholar Hassan al-Turabi was instrumental in the success of Bashir’s 1989 coup; the latter’s coalition subsequently thrived on shifting alliances, but the Islamists retained a stake — and, lest we forget, Sudan happily hosted Osama bin Laden for several years in the 1990s.
At the same time, ever since its independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in the 1950s, Sudan has also a proud tradition of resistance, which led to brief bouts of democratic rule in the mid-1960s and again in the mid-1980s. In both instances, what proved crucial was the reluctance or refusal of younger military officers to go on the rampage against fellow citizens.
It has long become common for such officers to be deployed to the countryside, away from Khartoum in particular. There have been indications of dissent within the military this time around, too, and it remains to be seen how that aspect of the equation will play out in the days and months to come.
The Sudanese Professionals Association has been spearheading the protests, with white-coated doctors sometimes leading the charge — and bearing the brunt of reprisals. Crucially, the association has begun to encompass the working class as well. How the general strike proceeds may well determine the response of the military junta, which has thus far resisted the opposition’s demand for civilian leadership of the transitional council.
If it all ends in tears, that may well entail more trails of blood in the Nile.