The power of Sudan’s protest movement has sustained the prime minister in office – but its trust in Abdalla Hamdouk has ebbed of late. This week’s peace agreement gives him the chance to win it back.
Sudan’s transitional government signed a peace agreement with key rebel groups in late August. This was a significant step towards resolving deep-rooted conflicts from the time of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. But the real potential of the peace agreement lies not, in fact, in bringing an end to Sudan’s long-running civil wars – but in the chance to put Sudan’s transition back on stable footing.
In 2017, dramatic economic decline fuelled the demonstrations that pushed Bashir and his National Congress Party from power after 25 years in control of Sudan. At that moment, a fleeting alignment of protesters and military combined to unseat Bashir, and the transitional government that took over institutionalised this unusual union. What emerged was a civilian-led government on one side, under the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdouk; on the other, the military. The international community breathed a sigh of relief over the accord and the further bloodshed it prevented. But they and many Sudanese pinned their hopes on the civilians gaining the upper hand, seeing in them the promise of completing the peaceful transition to a new, liberal, Sudan that the protests had started to usher in.
But that vision is now under threat from an unexpected quarter – and not from a revanchist military. Instead, the threat comes from strains within the civilian camp itself, especially between the protestors and Hamdouk. To understand this, the civilian camp needs unpacking. Roughly it can be divided into “Base”, “Party”, and “Prime Minister”.
The “Base” is the protest movement, which is the truly unique element to emerge from the Revolution, in the sense that Sudanese political parties have long functioned under the fiction of having mass representational power. The protesters are organised into grassroots Local Revolutionary Committees and constitute the missing ingredient of popular democratic power that the Revolution unlocked. But the protesters have also intentionally rejected creating any formal structure for themselves, and rejected affiliating to political parties. They believe such a structure would make them vulnerable to hijacking from within; and they distrust the extant political parties, believing that the Revolution’s demands transcend party politics. The closest thing the Base has to an affiliation is with the prime minister.
The “Party” element is an amalgamation of parties, with a sprinkling of civil society actors, grouped under the umbrella of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC). The FFC emerged along with the Revolution, but the core was not new: traditional leftist and Arab nationalist political parties, veterans of Sudanese politics. When Bashir fell, the FFC took on the role of representing the Revolution including in negotiating the transition with the military.
This bestowed it with power in the transitional government’s formative period. It nominated the civilian ministers of the government including the prime minister. Thereafter its governing mandate technically ended – but the FFC took on some government functions as it saw fit, inserting itself into areas of particular interest such as the peace negotiations. As the transition stumbled, in part due to the perceived self-dealing of the FFC’s traditional political parties, the protest movement’s support for the FFC declined apace.
The result is that the FFC political parties cannot claim the mass representational power of the protest movement. This in turn calls into question the governance powers they have arrogated unto themselves. Still, international policymakers tend to make the mistake of conflating the Base and the FFC’s traditional parties, treating the latter like a traditional governing party that represents the Base.
The prime minister is a separate actor, because of the way the protest movement view him. From the outset the protesters harboured reservations about the FFC, the military, and even the entire transitional constitutional arrangement.
As the transition period has sputtered, their antipathy towards all of these has grown. But Hamdouk is in a category apart. Firstly, because as the linchpin of the civilian component of the government, were the protest movement to make him the target of their demonstrations, the military would have grounds to oust him, claiming the loss of his popular mandate.
Secondly, he is in a category apart because of his character: he has managed to convince the protest movement of his ‘genuineness’, particularly in contrast to the traditional political parties within the FFC. Since the overwhelmingly dominant political force in the country is the protest movement, the connection between prime minister and the protesters is life-sustaining for the former. It makes him untouchable by the military (or even the FFC) for fear of the popular backlash that would be released.
But amid growing tensions around the plummeting economy this link recently strained to near breaking. A misstep by the prime minister did more to threaten that bond then any governing shortcomings to date, imperilling the ‘genuineness’ that endears him to the street. On 17 August 2020, Sudanese protesters marched to deliver demands for reform to Hamdouk.
Though not the first protest march since the Revolution, it was novel in that the prime minister declined to meet them for the politically symbolic reception of their pleas, which is his usual gesture of respect and equality. A second precedent followed, adding insult to injury, when the security forces turned aggressive, tear-gassing the demonstrators and dispersing them with force. Gone was the restrained tolerance that has characterised the post-Revolution response to protests.
Sensing an opportunity, the military made a bid for the allegiance of the protest movement in a speech by General Burhan, the head of the military component of the transitional government. Sudanese read these statements with alarm as paving the way for a dramatic move from the military. The gambit duly backfired, as the protesters, despite their anger towards the prime minister, reflexively doubled down in their support for him to rule out any ambiguity about their attitude towards a military coup.
The economy itself was always shaky but has now begun a steeper slide, as seen with the fall of the Sudanese pound’s US dollar exchange rate, continuing fuel scarcity, and the resultant dramatic increase in the cost of living. In parallel, the security situation is fraying around the edges with old rivalries breaking out with new virulence. Unchecked by the distracted central state’s military organs, hundreds of dead are strewn across Sudan’s peripheries. In short, on an objective scale, conditions now are worse than those that birthed the protests undoing Bashir.
The difference between then and now is the constancy of the protesters’ support for the prime minister. This faith bought the government time and space to right the listing ship of state in the trying period following the Revolution. While this faith endured its most recent test, it may not survive further trials.
But this week’s peace agreement could help guide the ship to port. The agreement incorporates Sudan’s armed movements into the transitional government, which is a much-needed success for the prime minister. More importantly, the next steps it envisages create an opportunity to reorganise Sudanese politics along lines that better reflect the true political forces in the country.
A national constitutional conference is envisaged as the next stage in the peace process. Approached correctly, it could serve as a new way of incorporating the protest movement into some form of renewed national compact. Moreover, it might address the paradox at the heart of the protest movement: that it is both the most representational political force but also unwilling to engage in party politics. Were it a political party, it would eclipse the extant parties and dominate elections. Instead, the protest movement creates momentum that other, established forces then surf upon. Addressing this paradox is the real key to securing the civilian character of Sudan’s transformation.
The prime minister should therefore make leadership of this process a personal priority with an eye to using it to bind the protest movement closer. If left to others to lead, it will devolve into yet another political football between government factions.
Interested international partners do not need to lead this mediation. Indeed, the protest movement’s caution extends towards foreign intervention. But the transitional government, and the prime minister, are live to what key international partners say and do. At the outset, the minimum required is a clear, unified position supporting Sudanese-led efforts and allowing Sudanese to prioritise the national constitutional conference as a prerequisite to strengthening the national political foundation upon which all subsequent reforms will need to rest.
[The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.]