Sudan’s slow, awkward march toward democracy

It’s moving fast now. For three months, the protesters in Khartoum got nowhere with their demand that “the people want the fall of the regime,” but last week, they moved their protest to the real centre of power in Sudan, army headquarters.

The army responded by arresting Omar al-Bashir, the brutal dictator who had ruled the country for the past 30 years.

The generals were only trying to save their own skins, of course. Defence Minister Ahmed Awad ibn Auf, who was being groomed to step into the 75-year-old dictator’s shoes, arrested Bashir and declared that he would lead an interim military council that would hold elections in … oh, let’s say two years.

It was so stupid it was almost funny. Auf didn’t even bother to talk to the protesters outside his headquarters before making his announcement, so they just ignored him and went on protesting.

The other generals clearly felt that Auf hadn’t quite grasped the seriousness of the situation. The crowds were not going away, and some of the army’s own soldiers had fired on the regime’s hired thugs when they tried to harass the protesters. Time to change horses again.

So last Friday night, they persuaded Auf to resign, and made another general, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of the interim military council instead. Burhan had two advantages: he had gone out and talked to the protesters, and he didn’t actually face International Criminal Court charges or international sanctions for genocide (as Bashir and Auf do).

To sweeten the pot, the military also forced Salah Gosh, head of the murderous and universally hated National Intelligence and Security Service, to resign.

Surely, the protesters would now see sense. All the generals really wanted was two years to destroy the evidence and top up their pension pots with stolen government funds before they went into exile.

No deal. When the crowds chanted “we want the fall of the regime,” they really meant all of the regime.

And then the African Union chimed in with a threat to suspend Sudan from the pan-African organization if the military did not hand power over to the civilians within 15 days.

The African Union is a different outfit from its corrupt and useless predecessor, the Organization of African Unity. Despite a few stumbles, the African Union has managed to establish a genuine moral authority in African politics.

So it is reasonable to believe that we may see an all-civilian transitional government in Khartoum. No two-year transition, either. Three months to prepare a free election, six months tops. But then the real problems start.

It’s axiomatic that non-violent democratic revolutions like this one inherit huge economic problems. If there weren’t such problems, most people would not be out in the streets protesting.

Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil income when South Sudan broke away and took most of the oil fields with it eight years ago, and there’s really not much else to sustain Sudan’s 43 million people.

Agriculture could help if there were not massive corruption, but this is a country with millions of hectares of unexploited potential farmland where the price of bread tripled in the past three months.

The soaring cost of food is what finally set off the revolution in Sudan, just as it set off most of those other attempted revolutions in the Arab Spring eight years ago. Only one of the six Arab countries that started down that road in 2011 is both democratic and at peace today, and it certainly feels as if the odds are also stacked against Sudan.

The generals will probably make a deal now that the African Union has come out against them. If they are wise, they will throw a few more of their senior colleagues to the wolves (including Burhan, who has worked closely with another of the regime’s murderous paramilitary groups, the Rapid Support Forces). Then they will withdraw and wait.

The Sudanese Professionals Association that leads the protests is clever and disciplined, but once in power, it will have to make deeply unpopular decisions to rescue the economy from its current paralysis.

And a year or two from now, when everybody is throughly disillusioned by continuing economic hardship and political chaos, the military will try to take back control, just as they did in Egypt.

Their success is not guaranteed, but they will have the full backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is, alas, a likely outcome.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

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