A transition to democracy in Sudan will be difficult and needs robust support from the United States and African leaders.
Widespread peaceful protests have forced Sudan’s long-serving military ruler, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, out of office. But a transition to democracy is going to be far more difficult and will need prompt international support.
During his 30 years in power, Mr. Bashir built a hydra-headed military and security apparatus. On Thursday, a cabal of his henchmen in the military replaced him and took over. Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan’s minister of defense, appeared on state television and announced the end of Mr. Bashir’s era and the beginning of a two-year transition period during which the army will rule. Though he promised “representation of the people,” many Sudanese will see this as betraying their demand for democracy.
For four months there have been widespread protests across Sudan’s major cities, which began in response to high food prices and soon became a unanimous demand that Mr. Bashir, who has ruled since 1989, step down. The protests gained momentum without losing their peaceful, carnival-like nature, culminating in five days of relentless demonstrations surrounding the army headquarters, which is also the location of Mr. Bashir’s personal residence.
The coalition of generals, security chiefs and Islamist politicians within the ruling National Congress Party could not decide how to respond. The hard-liners pressed for a brutal crackdown, but army commanders argued for restraint. Those internal divisions spilled into public view on Tuesday and Wednesday when militia forces and units of the feared National Intelligence and Security Services fired heavy tear gas and bullets at the protesters, but army units intervened to protect the crowds.
On Thursday, General Abu Auf explained the coup by saying that Mr. Bashir had ordered the army to disperse the protests by force but the army had refused. There is some truth to this. A massacre would have been not only an atrocity but also a dead end, giving Mr. Bashir and his lieutenants no way out except fighting to the bitter end. Ten years ago, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir for crimes committed in Darfur, and since then he has believed that he was safe only in the presidential palace.
The demonstrators’ slogan “Leave, period” doesn’t mention the I.C.C., leaving just enough space for Mr. Bashir to depart peacefully. Thursday’s army statement said that Mr. Bashir would be taken to “a safe place.”
General Ibn Auf was Mr. Bashir’s heir apparent. Trained in Egypt, he remains close to his classmates at the Cairo military academy, among them President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Whatever his words, many Sudanese will hear his master’s voice.
Another member of the cabal is the ruthless and ambitious chief of the intelligence services, Salah Abdallah Gosh, who controls powerful forces in the capital. General Gosh has close links to intelligence services, including the C.I.A., and has recently been particularly associated with the United Arab Emirates.
The biggest of the dozen or so paramilitaries are the Rapid Support Forces, which grew out of the infamous Janjaweed militia responsible for massacres in Darfur 15 years ago. Their leader is Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, also known as Hemeti, who also has a stake in today’s bargain. More than 7,000 of his troops are deployed in Yemen, on the Saudi Arabian payroll.
The combination of Mr. Abu Auf, Mr. Gosh and Mr. Daglo can prevent a civil war on the streets of Khartoum. And they have moved against the ruling National Congress Party, which grew out of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood. Dozens of veteran N.C.P. leaders were reported arrested Thursday morning, the party has been disbanded, and the N.C.P. militia neutralized. This will be a blow to Qatar and Turkey, for which Sudan was the last bastion of Islamist government in the Arab world.
It will be tempting for the United States, the United Nations and the African Union to congratulate General Ibn Auf on the overdue removal of Mr. Bashir and the promise of stability, and leave democratic change to news bulletins. That would be a mistake: The work of solving Sudan’s problems is only just beginning.
The first challenge of preventing civil war among the branches of the security apparatus has been averted, at least for now.
But the economy remains in free fall. The main reasons are mismanagement, corruption, unchecked spending on the security sector and the loss of oil revenues after the secession of South Sudan in 2011. The economic malaise was so deep it could not be fixed by the United States’ easing of sanctions on Sudan. Nor could it be fixed by an injection of Arab cash, which might ease the crisis for a few weeks but cannot fix the fundamentals.
Without serious progress toward democracy and a resolution of the continuing wars in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, Sudan will remain at the precipice of bloodshed and turmoil. The Sudanese must deliver this for themselves, but today they need active international engagement to move in the right direction.
The best chance lies with the same formula that brought an end to the 20-year-old war between north and south in 2005: a combination of African and American mediation.
Sudan’s biggest African neighbors are Egypt and Ethiopia, both of which have deep interest in its stability and prosperity. The African Union envoy for Sudan, former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, is a veteran of the negotiated transition to democracy in his own country.
Sudan has long been a bipartisan issue in Washington. Under the Bush administration, Republicans and Democrats came together to condemn the atrocities in Darfur and South Sudan and to support the peace deal with South Sudan. One of the rare continuities between the Obama and Trump administrations was sticking with the policy of lifting sanctions on Sudan with the aim of preserving stability.
There is still a dangerous vacuum in Sudan. An American-African coalition must fill it.
Alex de Waal is the executive director the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.
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