What is next for Sudan?

An open dialogue between the protesters and the Sudanese army could pull Sudan from the brink of failed statehood.

Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they attend a protest rally demanding Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to step down, outside Defence Ministry in Khartoum
Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans at a protest rally demanding Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to step down, outside the defence ministry in Khartoum on April 9, 2019 [Reuters]

In the early hours of Monday, April 8, a failed regime took a giant step towards turning its country into a failed state. Just as people were preparing for the dawn prayers, security forces attacked protesters encamped in front of the headquarters of the Sudanese army in the capital Khartoum.

They fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition in an attempt to disperse the sit-in. Snipers from a building across the street were also targeting the protesters.

Mass casualties were only avoided due to the intervention from the military, who ushered protesters into the army’s headquarters compound. They also engaged in a firefight with the attacking security contingent and allied militias. By Tuesday, the total number of casualties had reached 14, five of them soldiers.

That was a turning point in the four-months-old protests that erupted on December 19 last year, presenting the most serious threat yet to the regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The bloody confrontation represented a point of no return for both the regime and its challengers.

The protesters had made their first breakthrough, managing to amass the largest protest yet, and succeeding in encircling the army HQ. The move was purposefully planned to coincide with the 34th anniversary of the overthrow of the military regime of former President Gaafar Nimeiri on April 6, 1985.

The protesters’ success in occupying and holding territory in the capital was significant on its own, as earlier attempts to organise sit-ins had been brutally and swiftly crushed by the security forces.

The combined symbolism of the event and the site, together with the brutal (if abortive) crackdown, tested the regime and revealed cracks in its edifice. The military, especially the young officers manning the barricades, have shown open sympathy with the protesters, and readiness to fight and die protecting them.

This was ominous, since such an unpopular regime could not last a day without army support. It is true that the top army leadership was quick to dismiss reports of a rift, and pledged allegiance to the regime. A high-level security meeting on the eve of the attempted crackdown resulted in a stern warning that the army would not permit the country to “slip into chaos“.

This was a clear warning of the very crackdown that followed, and a declaration that the army would back it. The regime thus made it clear that it would stop at nothing in its quest to hang on to power. Those holding the balance within the army appeared to be backing it. But it is not yet known for how long.

If this course of action is maintained, the outcome is easily predictable. Massacres would be perpetrated, followed by fragmentation of the military, then the country. We have seen this in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Chad, Liberia, etc.

Sudan, which already has about five ongoing civil conflicts, is a more likely candidate for state failure than many.

When the Fragile State Index (previously Failed State Index) was launched by the Fund for Peace in 2006, Sudan occupied the first spot on the list for two consecutive years, never going below third place through 2013. This year, it is number 8. However, that classification reflects negatively on the validity of the Index.

The years from 2005 to 2010 were, in fact, a period of surprising stability, regardless of the disastrous war in Darfur. Following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, and the achievement of high levels of oil production at good world prices, the country witnessed an unprecedented level of prosperity and political stability.

International support and enthusiasm were never more palpable, in spite of continuing conflict in Darfur. In fact, the crisis in Darfur became a new avenue for international engagement, bringing the world’s largest UN peace operation to the country. Unlike neighbouring countries like the DRC, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Libya, the regime remained highly cohesive, and in full control, including a monopoly on atrocities.

Things began to change to the worse after the disputed 2010 elections, which contributed to the secession of South Sudan the following year, and with it the loss of 70 percent of the country’s oil revenue.

The regime kept losing opportunities to engage constructively with opponents, turning progressively into a “black-hole state”, with power centred almost exclusively in the hands of an increasingly authoritarian and isolated president.

The December protests were a belated wake-up call, but the regime’s response has made it into yet another disaster. Instead of engaging in constructive dialogue with the opposition to reach the sort of deals worked out in Ethiopia or Morocco, the regime dug in, and the president kept concentrating more power in his own hands, even at the expense of close loyalists and the so-called “ruling party”. His isolation now appears complete.

In the past few days, many more loyalists and allies have defected. However, the clashes with the military are the most disturbing sign. It is unlikely that the military would continue standing on the sidelines for long.

As the economy, which was the trigger of the protests in the first place, continues its nose-dive, exacerbated by the disruptive impact of the protests and the paralysis of the government, the status quo will become unsustainable. If no peaceful resolution is forthcoming, then we must fear eventual disintegration.

Nevertheless, the escalation has apparently generated two hopeful signs. For the first time, the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), which has led the protests since December, announced its intention to start a dialogue with the military about the transition. Previously, the SPA and all components of the protest movement were adamant that there would be no dialogue with the regime – or “must go, full stop” (tasgut bas), as the popular protest slogan puts it.

This intransigence remained one of the greatest obstacles to progress towards a peaceful transition. It was exacerbated by threats of dire consequences for the regime’s stalwarts and their wider popular base after this fall. Fears of the consequences must have been behind the disastrous and failed recent attempt to crack down. The fact that the protesters have now shown openness to dialogue with the military is likely to hasten a breakthrough.

The second positive sign came from the so-called “Troika”, the three countries that have become the de facto sponsors of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement – the UK, US and Norway. In a statement issued in on April 9, they called on the government to “release all political detainees, stop the use of violence against peaceful protesters, remove all restrictions to freedoms, lift the state of emergency and allow for a credible political dialogue in a conducive environment with all key Sudanese actors that has as its basis the goal of a political and economic transition to a new type of Sudan”.

If the government were to take these steps, then the Troika “will support such a political process and in time could work to help resolve some of the long term economic challenges that Sudan faces”. This sounds like a very promising carrot, under the circumstances.

These two constructive gestures promise a credible way out of the current impasse, if pursued sincerely by both the opposition and the regime, and if the international community could show a commitment that has been conspicuously absent in the recent past.

As in Darfur and other major disasters around the world, the “international community” usually starts to mobilise only too late, after the worst has already befallen the hapless victim, and it usually offers too little.

This opportunity should be seized, and the regime should use it, to take the lead in ending restrictions and entering into a serious dialogue with the protesters. If need be, the army should take a firm stand against those obstructing such a process. Otherwise, a supposedly “failed state” will genuinely become the epitome of failure and disrepair, at a huge cost for its population, neighbours and the international community.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.