by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Protestors’ bodies recovered from the River Nile, which the Sudanese military dumped there, represent a potential end to Sudan’s hard-fought-for revolution. Following weeks of tug-of-war, as Sudan’s protestors tried to seek greater civilian representation in a sovereign council and to prevent military domination, the army violently cracked down on protestors at the end of Ramadan on June 3.
The death toll has reached over 100 as of Thursday and will undoubtedly grow if there is no end to the crisis.
This escalation looked imminent in recent weeks, as both sides were getting increasingly frustrated at not gaining advantage over the other. With the latest violence, the military apparently thought that it could disperse the protestors and maintain its own power.
Lurking behind the shadows are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have attempted to shape Sudan’s Military Transitional Council into their ideal future Sudanese partner. A Sudanese military expert reported that Saudi Arabia and its regional allies gave the green light for the military to crack down on the protests. This came on top of the $3 billion that the Saudis gave the military council. Such outside support arguably gave the military newfound confidence to counteract rising civilian pressure, particularly with the sit-in demonstration in Khartoum gaining greater influence.
Although Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the Transitional Military Council leader, has presented himself as willing to negotiate peace—saying that “We open our hands to negotiations with all parties…for the interest of the nation”—his words are empty, as others within his entourage have led the violent crackdown on civilians.
Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo is the deputy leader of the Transitional Military Council and head of the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that reportedly carried out the recent violence. Strengthened by military equipment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s backing, Hemedti is clearly positioning himself to become a more dominant figure.
The protestors have shown much distrust for the military council. On Wednesday, they rejected its election proposals for later this year. The military seeks to delay elections to give it time to consolidate its own power. The military has already cancelled negotiations with the opposition Alliance for Freedom.
Madani Abbas Madani, a leader of the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces opposition alliance, has called for a civil disobedience campaign to force the council from power. Protestors have also rejected Saudi and Emirati donations.
Following the military’s crackdown, the opposition Democratic Alliance of Lawyers urged countries not to interfere in Sudan’s transition. “We ask that some Arab countries lift their hands from Sudan and to stop supporting the Military Council and consolidating the pillars of its rule with the aim of preserving it and protecting their own interests that are harmful to the Sudanese state and its citizens,” said the alliance, which is part of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association.
The violence has attracted much global attention, which should translate into efforts to preserve Sudan’s democratic transition. Even much of the Sudanese public is mobilized against the military, whilst rejecting outside interference. Yet without unified external support, the protestors could suffer further violence, and the military, with abundant support from wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, could further strengthen itself. Continued violence could also push parts of the opposition into taking a more violent stance, if they feel no other solution is available, as happened in other regional revolutions like Syria and Libya.
Though the UAE has claimed to show “great concern” over the violence, and called for new peace talks, its support for the military council, including Hemedti, indicates that it is not genuinely committed to such moves.
On Twitter, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for an end to Sudan’s violence, while condemning the military’s latest aggression. Yet Hunt has not addressed the role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, close allies of Britain, in facilitating the counter-revolution.
Ethiopia has urged the “weak” African Union to “wake up” over the latest violence. The political body could have some influence in encouraging greater dialogue and pressuring the military to end the violence. Yet more pressure within the AU from other member states is needed.
If the military does not surrender power to civilians, no democratic solution can succeed. Yet the UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking to shore up their own leaders. They might also back a former military figure who poses as a representative of the people. Pressure from world leaders could prevent Saudi Arabia and the UAE from backing a military solution that could push Sudan into a much deeper civil conflict.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a roaming journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, international relations, and humanitarian issues within the Middle East and North Africa. He has particularly focused on the Yemen conflict, Libya and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional foreign policy. He has also studied history and Middle East studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey