Does the deal in Sudan represent an actual democratic transition?

The power sharing agreement between Sudan's military rulers and the opposition aside, at present there are two main possibilities for Sudan.

Image credit Duncan C via Flickr (CC).

On July 5, Sudan’s military leaders and opposition coalition reached a long awaited compromise to share power until national elections can be held. Both sides agreed to establish an autonomous council with a rotating military and civilian presidency for a period of three years. The two sides also agreed to launch an independent inquiry into the violence that ensued in the weeks leading up to the deal. Yet this deal far from guarantees Sudan’s democratic transition.

While the natural requirement for revolution (mass dissatisfaction with the government in charge) is commonplace, successful democratic transition is rare. Not every outburst of collective discontent or joint act of defiance leads to a successful revolution. Underlying factors such as youth unemployment and widening inequality, while common to most of the Middle East and North Africa, do not always translate into popular uprisings. The disparity between cause and consequence is grounded in the strength of the state, more specifically the state’s ability to maintain a monopoly on the means of coercion. If the state’s oppressive structure is sufficiently well organized and effective, it can resist popular disaffection and crush democratic reform initiatives from below.

Such was the case in Egypt in 2011, which saw President Hosni Mubarak step down to widespread celebrations but then was co-opted by the military. The protest movement which ousted President Omar al-Bashir has some parallels to this revolution. In both instances, various groups used their grievances regarding a number of domestic conditions to call on their respective governments to bring about democratic reform. In addition, as in Egypt, the military played a significant role. Military generals in Sudan assumed power after removing a dictator from government in order to place themselves in the driving seat of a transitionary government. These similarities are concerning given the outcome in Egypt. After the removal of Mubarak, a poorly constructed transition to democracy fragmented revolutionary groups and led to a coup in 2013 when the military re-assumed power.

One factor which proved vital to securing a transitionary deal in Sudan was the importance of a unified revolutionary force. One reason for Egypt’s failure to democratize was the various disagreements between the secular and Islamist branches of the revolution regarding the terms of transition. Both of these groups mistakenly subordinated the common goal of establishing democracy in favor of advancing their own political ideas and interests. The revolutionary coalition in Sudan will have to maintain their focus and organization in the coming months in order to secure their common goal of bringing a democratic, accountable and civilian-led government into power. While the revolution is still young, at first glance it appears as if the diverse protest groups in Sudan have learnt important lessons from Egypt’s failed democratic project.

Where revolutions have succeeded in the region and other parts of the world, protest movements have transcended ethnicity, religion and socio-economic class by rallying around a common set of goals. It is worthwhile analyzing Sudan’s history of popular protest in order to appreciate the challenges facing the current movement. From the October Revolution in 1964 to protests during the 1980s, the main challenge that determined the outcome of past movements was that of nationality. In other words, one of the chief obstacles has been reconciling and organizing a country consisting of various different cultures and ethnicities. The inability to form an inclusive national identity has been a source of troubled relations between Sudan’s urban and rural revolutionary forces. Therefore, the extent to which protest organizers are able to address this ongoing challenge by fostering associations between urban and rural constituencies is key to the success of the current movement. For example, former President Bashir attempted to blame students form Darfur for the protests, by alleging that they had set fire to an office of the ruling party. However, the usual strategy of divide and conquer failed miserably as protestors refused to give in to the regime’s attempt to sow division and fear on the basis of difference. Rather, the Sudanese people became more united by transforming Bashir’s racist ruse into a rallying cry against him, with protestors chanting, “We are all Darfur!”

Still, protestors on the ground will be the first to admit that democratic revolution in Sudan has not yet emerged. While the uprising has been successful in deposing the Bashir regime from office, it has yet to overturn the predominant value systems and behaviors which entrenched authoritarianism in the first place—something that will take years. The revolution may better be described as a minimal revolution as it has achieved the first demand of the Sudanese people namely, the removal of the old regime. The completion of the revolution would entail the transformation of political structures and norms so as to enable society to assume its rightful place as the driver of human development.

To secure democracy in Sudan, regional stakeholders and revolutionaries must prioritize the construction of effective bureaucracies, impartial state institutions and an inclusive national identity which can transcend ethnic rivalries and unite people around a common set of goals. In the absence of the above mentioned conditions, eliminating the state’s oppressive structure will create a political vacuum, which will be more susceptible to the revival of authoritarianism rather than the success of democracy. Hence, there is a need to distinguish between the process of eliminating authoritarianism and establishing democracy.

It is also crucial that transitional groups resist the intrusions of regional states, such as the UAE, who have a vested interest in preventing the establishment of viable democracies in the region. For instance, Sudanese protestors have previously taken to the streets to oppose Emirati aid packages thereby denouncing unwarranted foreign intervention in the transition process.

At present, there are two main possibilities for Sudan. The first is a successful transition from authoritarianism to a sustainable democracy. However, as outlined above, democratization requires a process of consolidation whereby various actors must be made to conform to newly established democratic rules and norms. The second possibility is that the transition towards democracy will be hijacked by an authoritarian regime which assumes power once the post-revolution honeymoon period finishes. From this perspective, the events in Sudan are seen as a brief interval before the inevitable return of authoritarianism. While the transitionary agreement in Sudan represents a step in the right direction on the journey towards democracy, only time will tell whether the power of the people is truly greater than the people in power.

That being said, the events which are unfolding in Sudan are complex. It is therefore crucial that, African students in particular invest the necessary time and effort to understand these developments. The desire to understand the struggles of the continent must be channelled into a force which helps, wherever and whenever possible, to change Africa for the better. Students ought to take courage from the initiative shown by the youth in Sudan, who through their perseverance have advanced the cause of democracy. Contemporary events in North Africa have confirmed the idea that courageous African students remain the most progressive force for positive change. In Sudan, it was students who showed initiative by being the first to take to the streets, thereby transforming a mainly student-led rebellion into a national uprising. From Cape Town to Khartoum, students must see themselves as part of an African youth who are determined to reshape the continent’s reality.

Further Reading