Washington, DC — For nearly six weeks, since Sudan’s military relented in the face massive civilian protests and removed longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir from power, the country has been locked in a game of chicken.
Military forces pressing for a managed transition that merely changes the face of the regime, not its fundamental nature, have been facing off against a determined opposition - a collection of political parties, professional trade unions and student groups, operating under the banner of the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC). The DFC also supports a managed transition, but one that ends with democratic rule.
Those fearing a democratic outcome argue that the DFC is fractured, undisciplined and inexperienced, but the coalition has not blinked in its stare-down with the military. They are sticking to the demand for at least 50-percent of the seats on a to-be-formed Supreme Council that will govern the country for a three-year transition period.
That the opposition has managed this almost entirely on their own - with little of the outside support, diplomatic encouragement or technical assistance, typically afforded to similar pro-democracy movements - is astonishing.
Sadly, the staring contest may have just ended. A coordinated assault on the sit-in site by security forces has already killed more than two dozen protestors and sent the rest scrambling for safety. Absent a central protest movement, the DFC is now calling for a nationwide strike and civil disobedience movement.
As they now move toward a more aggressive posture, here are some thoughts to help ensure that these democratic forces are not out maneuvered, undermined or eliminated altogether.
1. The military is playing for time
Under Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese government mastered tactical maneuvers and negotiating sleights of hand that kept their counterparts seeing strategic shifts where there were none. This tactic plays to the military’s natural strengths: organization and discipline; allowing them to stay the course over time and maintain a united front, while opposing groups are reduced to infighting and fracture.
For years, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party kept the upstart South Sudanese spinning and sniping internally over the minutiae of Sudan’s peace agreement that Khartoum never intended to implement anyway, tearing at the political unity of the South and nearly causing them to abandon the entire agreement on more than one occasion.
Were it not for the international coalition of nations from the African Union, European Union and the United States helping Juba keep its eye on the ultimate prize, it is unlikely Sudan’s peace agreement would ever have been fully implemented. Regrettably, and for seemingly inexplicable reasons, the DFC doesn’t enjoy this same diplomatic backstop in helping to maintain a unified front. This leads to a second piece of advice.
2. If the international community won’t come to you, go to them
One reason international support has not been forthcoming is that no one really knows who the DFC are or what they ultimately stand for. Rumors are rife that they are both infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and are, conversely, a collection of unruly leftists seeking the aggressive dismantlement of the previous regime.
To clear up misconceptions, the DFC needs a diplomatic road show to hear concerns, take input and provide reassurances that these concerns are being heard. Their counterparts in the Transitional Military Council did this to great effect this past week—sending its leaders to Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh where they reassured anxious foreign backers and committed to support for a long-term agenda that prioritizes a strong central government and regional stability over democratic empowerment.
As a first move, the DFC can make clear who its leadership team is and dispatch representatives to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. Western capitals have been slow to define their support using general terms like “the will of the Sudanese people.” and a “civilian lead government.”
The DFC should be able to provide assurances that they will continue the fight against extremism, while seeking to protect civil and human rights in the country; and that they will continue cooperation started under the Bashir government to crack down on human trafficking and dissuading further migration north toward Europe of African migrants.
European nations may also feel inclined to press the DFC for commitments to hold Bashir and his henchmen responsible for past crimes, including his transfer to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. But their interest lies in shoring up the norms and institutions of international justice which they have tried to build over the last two decades - and which Bashir flouted to the extreme.
The DFC have rightfully acknowledged that justice is critical for healing and national reconciliation, but they should remain wary of a rush to justice in the early days of the transition. This would likely put others on the defensive at a time when they cannot afford further division and when other national priorities, like economic recovery and the consolidation of democratic rule, must take priority.
The DFC should take a page from the Liberian playbook, where pursuit of justice for longtime strongman Charles Taylor was postponed until the political class were equipped to deal with it. Again, with the support of the international community and a collection of African states, justice delayed was not justice denied, and it needn’t be in Sudan.
Western capitals hold the key to economic stabilization that the DFC needs to assert its legitimacy. It is time to help them to understand that the antidote to Gulf money flooding the country and propping up the military is a package of Western development, financial assistance and business incentives that stabilizes Sudan’s economy, establishes a plan for eliminating the country’s crippling debt, and begins to deliver on the promise of a post-Bashir Sudan.
That Washington and others have already suggested that this basket of incentives would be denied a military government strengthens the DFC hand.
3. A foreign policy for the opposition
As much as the DFC’s focus today is launching a democratic transition, they need to recognize that - like it or not -regional states want a say in what comes next in Sudan, Here, the DFC is at a severe disadvantage to the military, who have years of professional and personal relationships across the African and Arab world and continue to reap the benefits of those ties.
Already, the military has leveraged those contacts – attracting $3 billion in new financial commitments from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates who want Sudan to remain part of the anti-Qatar, anti-Iran Arab bloc and need continued Sudanese troop presence in support of Riyadh’s war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
All of these asks will be a bitter pill for the DFC to swallow in the short term, but they may be necessary to gain the trust or - at a minimum, to neutralize fears in the short term. Here again, Washington and its allies have a role to play.
With a bevy of chits to deploy - from Egyptian President Sisi’s recent Oval Office visit to President Trump’s emergency declaration bypassing Congress to sell billions worth of advanced American military hardware and munitions to Gulf Arab states - the Trump Administration is positioned to press for a democratic transition to take hold in Sudan. But they have to be asked.
Despite lip-service to civilian-lead rule and democratic transitions, Western powers have insufficiently sided with protestors - even now as a seeming slaughter begins.
To their credit, the opposition haven’t been ‘tainted’ by Western influence, preserving the home-grown Sudanese flavor of the movement.
Now is the time to demonstrate that everyone’s national security interests can be preserved under something other than strongman rule. If Sudan’s would-be democrats don’t capture this rapidly closing moment, with Western help, they are likely to be relegated to the permanent opposition.
Cameron Hudson is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Africa Center in Washington, DC. Previously, he served as the Chief of Staff to the US Special Envoy to Sudan and as Director for African Affairs on the National Security Council at the White House.