Will Sudan’s army abide by civilian rule?

After mass protests, protracted negotiations, interventions from Egypt, Ethiopia, and the UAE, alongside alleged attempted coups, Sudan’s army appears to have finally reached a deal with representatives of civil society to surrender power to a transitional government.

The agreement which is to last three years grants 67% of the parliament to the opposition groups that negotiated with the army, with 33% going to other groups excluding ousted leader Bashir’s party. This two-thirds majority essentially permits opposition groups to change constitutional clauses at will and enact sweeping changes to Sudan’s institutions.

The army are set to retain the interior and defence ministries, both security positions. This raises an important question; will the army abide by the agreement? And given that it holds the two security positions, is it merely biding its time, laying low, and hoping to implement a subsequent coup in a Sisi-style fashion?

The army accepted the deal and surrender of the parliament after much pressure. The decision by protestors to protest outside the army barracks in Khartoum proved decisive and amidst fears of a mutiny, the army instigated a series of leadership changes designed to protect its influence while appeasing some of the demands of the protestors. All was going to plan until the UAE and Saudi Arabia charged in.

Playing on internal divisions and taking advantage of a hesitant Islamist leadership in the army, the UAE and Saudi Arabia offered cooperation with the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo or ‘Hemedti’, one of a number of militias created during Bashir’s time to compensate for a stretched army that was fighting on three fronts (Darfur, the South, and the East). Hemedti accepted the approach. Allying with Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the two seized power, arrested their superiors under the pretext of fulfilling protestor demands and began to negotiate with the Professionals Union that styled itself as the representatives of the ‘revolution’. Both then visited Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo in a show of support that appeared to backfire when protestors amplified their chants against the three capitals, warning them not to get involved. To protestors, these series of events seemed to lend credence to Saudi ambassador to Sudan’s statement shortly after the fall of Al-Bashir and his deputy Auf that “[Saudi Arabia] brought about the revolutionary changes in Sudan”.

Nevertheless, opposition parties negotiating with the army were undeterred by protestor angst at the involvement of the UAE in negotiations. Yasser Arman declared that although regional powers were involved, he welcomed anyone willing to support in the eradication of Islamist elements.

Hemedti seems to have been buoyed by the support, becoming the public face of the army even though he was not exactly part of it. As negotiations became protracted and stalled, he soon became the villain as the army refused to budge on giving a majority quota to civilian rule. He deployed his forces against the protestors in order to frighten them into submission but only seemed to cement his image as an anti-revolution actor.

Each time negotiations broke down, the UAE would warn both sides that if they failed to agree, then they would offer an opportunity for the Islamists to return. This proved to be an important motivating factor in restarting talks. However, the decisive factor in forcing Hemedti to sign the power-sharing agreement seems to have been the deteriorating relationship between him and initially supportive factions in the army. The army leadership have predominantly been Islamist factions. Yet, within the capital Khartoum, Hemedti’s forces were dominant by virtue that the army regiments are scattered in various areas in Sudan as security remains an issue.

With reports of an attempted coup by the Islamist leadership including the Chief of Staff, which was allegedly prevented with the involvement of the UAE, and a badly divided army under heavy international pressure, Hemedti appears to have decided to cut his losses and sign the agreement, settling for the interior and defence ministries. Interestingly, this agreement comes after a visit to Sisi, leading to suggestions that Sisi advised him as to the importance of these ministries and the need to retain them at all costs.

However, this suggests that only the army and Hemedti were under pressure. The length of the transition agreement sheds light on the perspective of the opposition.

Although Sudan looks ostensibly to be a revolution, a fairer analysis points to a coup, a divided army that was taken advantage of by the UAE and Saudi, and an attempted plan to salvage power by Bashir that went awry. Moreover, the Professionals Union and self-styled ‘revolutionary forces’ noted that calls for protests on Fridays seemed to reduce the numbers on the streets, implying that more conservative elements of society rejected the idea of overthrowing Bashir. The day was subsequently changed to Thursdays in order to reduce the fear that the presence of large conservative groups would prevent the rest of the Sudanese taking to the streets in large numbers. If large numbers took to the streets on Thursdays, conservative elements would stay at home out of fear.

The opposition groups negotiating with the army are aware that although there has been a semi-revolution, they do not necessarily represent the desires of the people. Moreover, there is a genuine fear within the ranks of the leadership that they are a minority riding a wave of anti-government sentiment. In other words, they are aware that if they go to elections soon, the majority conservative Sudanese population are likely to vote for Islamist parties and reject the secular/liberal nature of the Professionals Union and ‘revolutionary’ forces.

These fears are the reason why the opposition groups insisted on a three-year term instead of a one year term like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and why Hemedti agreed to it. Three years, with a 67% parliament majority allows the opposition groups to alter the constitution as they wish and enact sweeping changes to the institutions without democratic accountability. In other words, three years is almost the equivalent of a term in power. Moreover, this term in power would have been achieved without having to go to the ballot box and asking the people to choose who should represent them. In other words, it is a soft coup.

The fear here is clear; if after three years these forces feel the Sudanese population are not ‘aware’ or ‘educated’ enough in their opinion to vote for them, and insist on voting for the Islamists (as is the trend in the majority Muslim countries), will these groups with their resounding 67% majority permit elections or delay? Will they embed themselves in the state to protect their undemocratic gains, or permit free and fair elections and accept defeat? Here it is not the army that poses the greatest threat to Sudan’s transition to democracy. It is the groups that have isolated the majority Islamist sentiments of society.

For Hemedti, delaying elections gives him and the UAE time to eradicate Islamist elements within the army. If elections took place earlier and Islamists won by the polls as they did in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, then the Islamist elements within the army would likely snap out of their panic, rally and retake control. Delaying elections allows the UAE time to cement and embed themselves within the security institutions under the control of the Interior and Defence ministries. Moreover, if the transitional government does a bad job, there is always the possibility that he could make the situation difficult for them as the army did to Sadiq al-Mahdi’s elected government of 1986 and find popular support for a new coup.

The protestors appear to be aware that all is not what it seems. Reactions to the announcement of the agreement were tame at best. Some do not trust the army. Others do not trust the opposition. However, a large section of society who remain silent are even more fearful. There are fears of an eradication of the Islamists, and a coup by a minority trend that has just negotiated for itself an unprecedented majority that it would never have been able to achieve via free and fair elections.