How Sudan arrived at its Tiananmen moment

What happened on June 3 has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss.

Demonstrations in Sudan - - KHARTOUM, SUDAN - JUNE 03 : Sudanese protesters burn tyres and set up barricades on roads to army headquarters after the intervention of Sudanese army, during a demonstrati
Sudanese protesters burn tyres and set up barricades after their sit-in in Khartoum was dispersed on June 3, 2019 [Anadolu/Mahmoud Hjaj]

Even before the massacre of June 3 (the 29th day of the holy month of Ramadan), dark clouds were hanging over Sudan‘s revolution. The popular uprising that toppled President Omar al-Bashir on April 11 appeared to be stalling, as the negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) running the country and representatives of the civilian protesters came to a deadlock.

The points of disagreement appeared minor at first. The main interlocutors of the TMC, the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), a grouping of opposition coalitions, had insisted on being accepted as the sole representative of the protesters, and thus of the Sudanese people.

The TMC grudgingly accepted this claim, mainly under pressure from the protesters camped in front of the military headquarters in downtown Khartoum, and even considered giving it full control over a civilian government. However, it resisted other demands, in particular, the handover of power exclusively to the DFCF.

What brought about the deadlock was the presidential council, which would have to ratify legislation. The military wanted a majority, including its presidency, and so did the DFCF.

A group of respected Sudanese dignitaries came up with a compromise: parity between the two sides in the presidential council, with a third national security council to be controlled exclusively by the military. The two sides were inching towards some form of mutual accommodation when developments took a radically different direction.

On May 24, the TMC’s deputy chairman, Lt General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (nicknamed “Hemeti”) travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he received the treatment of a head of state and where, it seems, he changed his mind about political negotiations.

Hemeti heads the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a tribal militia better known over a decade ago as the core of the “Janjaweed”, the regime-backed Arab tribal militias deemed responsible for most of the genocidal violence in Darfur between 2003 and 2006. His ascendancy was fuelled by the progressive decay of al-Bashir’s regime and a number of crises it suffered in the early 2010s.

In 2011, South Sudan gained independence, taking 70 percent of oil revenue with it. In 2012, al-Bashir discovered a coup plot by middle-ranking military officers from within the Islamist core of the regime. The following year, mass protests of an unprecedented magnitude hit the capital, Khartoum, and were only put down by the deployment of brutal violence, killing 200 protesters in less than a week. In 2014, the key Janjaweed patron, and Hemeti’s former mentor and elder cousin, tribal chief Musa Hilal, rebelled against the regime and barricaded himself in his tribal homeland in Darfur.

Shaken by these developments, al-Bashir invited all Sudanese political forces to a “national dialogue” conference in 2014, but also worked to enhance Hemeti’s status, making him a high-ranking officer and increasing his financial support. With the loyalty of the military put into question, a contingent of the RSF was deployed to Khartoum in May 2014. In late 2017, Hemeti showed his loyalty by bringing his cousin, Hilal to Khartoum where he still remains in detention.

In 2015, al-Bashir decided to send troops to help the Saudi war in Yemen. The bulk of the fighters came from Hemeti’s RSF, while the officer in charge of the operation was a general named Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Both men developed a close association with the Saudi and Emirati leaders in the process.

A few days after al-Bashir’s removal on April 11, al-Burhan became chairman of the TMC and Hemeti was appointed his deputy. Many believe that the latter holds the real power in the council since his forces besiege all major military camps in Khartoum and are the only effective armed presence in the streets of the capital.

That is what the Saudis obviously believed when they invited Hemeti, rather than al-Burhan, to visit in late May. While the former was still enjoying royal hospitality in Saudi Arabia, his nominal boss travelled to Egypt, and from there to the UAE. Many observers were puzzled about the foreign travels of the two key TMC leaders at a time when the country was facing a dire crisis requiring their attention.

However, the mystery was soon solved when the language of the two leaders (and specifically that of Hemeti, who did most of the talking) changed dramatically after their visits. Talk of accommodation and reconciliation ceased, while the protesters were demonised, and their sit-ins described as a “threat to national security”. The DFCF was no longer recognised as representative of the revolutionary movement and partner in change and presented as a power-grabbing, non-representative group of troublemakers. Threats were made to call snap elections, and previous agreements were disavowed.

The culmination of all this was the assault on sit-in camps in Khartoum and a number of other major Sudanese cities, in which more than 60 people were killed and hundreds were injured. The RSF led the attack, supported by intelligence and police units. The brutalities included severe indiscriminate beatings, rape and drowning of the wounded in the Nile River.

The whole country went into a state of shock and anger, and the legitimacy of the TMC was irreparably damaged. What little popular goodwill there was towards the military has now almost completely disappeared. The internet has been shut down, all major roads in the capital have been blocked, and almost everyone is on strike. Life is at a standstill, and the country is on the verge of an all-out conflict.

Amid near-unanimous international condemnations, Saudi Arabia was the first country to back the TMC’s crackdown, saying in a statement that the “stability and security of Sudan is our ultimate objective”. It is unlikely that overt Saudi and Emirati support, and tacit backing from other countries, would do much to prop up the now mortally wounded TMC.

Even before this major setback, the country was practically ungovernable, while the economy was going into a tailspin. This will pose a serious challenge to any future government, whether civilian or military.

There is also a serious threat of the disintegration of the army, since many in its ranks are dismayed at the way the RSF has tarnished its image. It is also displeased with the disproportionate role played by the paramilitary, not to mention resenting the differential rewards it is getting. An intra-military conflict would certainly drag the country into a civil war.

The Sudanese state is currently in a perilous state of fragility, facing the danger of total collapse. The intransigence of both the military and the DFCF has not improved the prospects for positive change. The June 3 atrocity and its aftermath made these prospects dimmer.

It is highly symbolic that the bloody crackdown roughly coincided not only with the 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, but also with another Sudanese tragedy. On the 28th day of Ramadan (then April 24) in 1990, about 30 young army officers were arrested and accused of taking part in an attempted coup against al-Bashir’s regime; they were summarily executed and their bodies never handed to their families. Just as this and many other past atrocities of the regime sowed divisions and hostility, the June 3 massacre will further undermine any chances for peace and reconciliation in Sudan.

One way to avoid the inevitable chaos is for the international community to exert pressure and counter external incitement and interference. The African Union, in particular, is under obligation to forcefully intervene and propose a road map for a peaceful and consensual democratic transition before it is too late. What happens in Sudan over the next few days will be decisive.

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