Sudan, One Year After. Interview with Roland Marchal

Sudanese protesters. Copyright: Shutterstock

In December 2018, the Sudanese population began a protest whose initial ambition of better living conditions gave way, as the uprising escalated, to the dismissal of President Omar al-Bashir. In April 2019, thirty years after the 1989 coup, al-Bashir was dismissed by the army. But who were the Sudanese demonstrators? What were they asking for and were they representative of a population that had remained under the rule of a military regime for 30 years? What are the regional stakes of a Sudanese democratic transition? Interview with Roland Marchal.

For the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in 2015, while some had been trying to mobilise Sudanese people for 25 years, the people of Sudan had always sided with the government. Why then, did protests erupt in Sudan in 2019 and how can we understand the fall of the Sudanese president on 11 April 2019, ousted by a coup d’état?

Roland Marchal: The seed of a popular uprising against the authors of the 1989 coup was planted the day after the coup occurred, with a lot of ingenuity and in great confusion. So, the objective is not new, but the current forms of organisation are the consequences of protests against soaring prices of food that started in 2009 and that intensified after the independence of South Sudan in 2011 as well as the so-called Arab Spring. The semi-clandestine nature of the management of these protests, the social networking and use of social media networks involved in their realisation, the strong devolution of protests to many neighbourhoods, even in a city like Khartoum have, of course, been important achievements.

The motives have hardly changed: the cost of life, and the lack of any democratic space whatsoever in the developing urban world—which has become much more important since 1989 because of the rentier economy, the conflicts in “peripheral” regions, and the self-sustaining crisis in commercial agriculture. While Omar al-Bashir’s regime was built on the Islamisation of a discourse of power, widespread corruption and the rise of social inequalities have rendered this reference completely obsolete. The secession of South Sudan, in which few Sudanese leaders wanted to believe, and the bloody upheavals of the first decade of independence also underscored the erratic choices of a political leadership that had failed to win the war and ensure peace. Finally, hope for change came from abroad. Algeria of course, but also Ethiopia where the nomination of Abiy Ahmed as new prime minister in spring 2018 marked the end of a nearly totalitarian experience.

Who are the Sudanese who protested and what did they claim?

More or less everyone! Obviously, the social movement is very heterogeneous politically, which is a strength in the process of mobilisation but a weakness when negotiating with the military. Three social categories have played a major role: young people, who have been very hard hit by the economic crisis but who are also eager for change after being born and growing up in the shadow of the portraits of al-Bashir and the leaders in power; women, perhaps because they have been the main beneficiaries of recent mobilisations’ achievements and because they found in this movement a political and social recognition that has been denied to them for too long, and not only by the hierarchs of the regime; and finally the socially dominated categories from the peripheral regions of Sudan, such as Darfur, who have great reason to take revenge on a regime that has been very brutal toward their regions of origin.

The length of the protest unsurprisingly radicalised initial demands. In addition to the improbability of finding a short-term solution to the economic crisis, protests have been fuelled by Omar al-Bashir’s dismissal and imprisonment and the dismantling of a regime that over 30 years had been able to take root throughout the country, in the power apparatus, in the civil service, in the public and private media, and in the economic arena.

There are also different understandings of this dismantling. The social movement and its political representation have been divided on this major issue, a division the supporters of the former Islamist regime and the old Islamist guard have skilfully exploited in an attempt to mobilise the deep state for the defence of Islam—which no one attacks—and especially for the defence of the Islamists—whom everyone criticises.

Indeed, the Sudanese population was subject to 30 years of an Islamic regime. Apart from Without the influence of the demonstrators, who may be considered as the most radical and the most liberal among the population, do you think a social revolution is foreseeable in Sudan?

I personally doubt that such a revolution is possible today. There are different arguments in support of this prediction. One is the impact of structural changes orchestrated by the regime after 1989. Survival strategies, neo-liberalism, and the taste for oil money have affected all social classes, not only the top ranks of the civil service and the economic operators.

Moreover, the untold social prejudices of the past have not been challenged deeply enough, although the protest movement in 2019 did do a lot in this regard. I doubt that armed groups and South Sudanese people will enjoy great support or empathy in many quarters of the population once the emotions cool down.

The political elites have consistently failed to propose alternatives to the acceptance of those regional and social segregations. Social conservatism is still very strong, although many Sudanese people would very much argue against this view. Rebuilding a political arena able to be more responsive to social requests and changes is already a very challenging task, though I see once more that attention and energy are being directed to push for state or top down changes as if the society had already endorsed the most substantive reforms.

What sort of transition is possible for Sudan? Is a democratic transition foreseeable?

A democratic transition is possible and it is even necessary as shown by the unambiguous debates among Sudanese intellectuals and political parties. There are, however, very complex issues to be addressed. The country is facing a severe economic crisis, beyond the very difficult management of the consequences of the drastic fall in oil revenues.

First, there are armed struggles in peripheral regions that are sustained by movements that have never in their history proved capable of great historical realism or of listening to the population they claim to represent. During the protests, these groups sided with the social movement, in a tactical move. But what about tomorrow, in particular given that debate on the very reasons for these conflicts is very divisive in Khartoum? Moreover, these armed groups are no longer strong and popular enough to be seen as absolutely necessary for the consolidation of the new regime, though they clearly are for peace. Yet, their ambitions in terms of being allocated high positions in the state apparatus have not been diminished by their current weakness.

Then there is the issue of the power apparatus, the dismantling of which raises the question of the existence of a constellation of paramilitary groups and security bodies aimed at spying on each other and controlling the population. Behind this question, there are issues not only of power but also, importantly, of economics. Indeed, the 1989 coup was also an attempt to erase a large section of the economic elites and put in place a new stratum that consolidated its positions by having access to state contracts, controlling the import/export sector, and bullying any competitor in new services like the ICT.

Finally, it is worth questioning the type of rupture with al-Bashir’s regime that should be favoured. Should the infamous “September 1983” laws that became the Islamic penal code in 1991 and that have symbolised a regime that has prospered on a simplistic and brutal reading of Islam be questioned to their roots? Should we bet on democracy and focus on new rules for the political game that would incrementally marginalise the most radical sectors? It all will depend on Sudan’s capacity to exit the economic crisis by improving the life of the largest number of people: if 2019’s protesters fail, they will give a blank cheque to yesterday’s demagogues and large sections of the former security apparatus.

One year after the uprisings, has the deep state resisted the popular uprisings? What are the internal political recompositions at work in Sudan and can a democratic regime survive the increasing internal divides?

Unsurprisingly, all major stakeholders are divided, which is both good news and bad news. One sign of this current uncertainty is the fact that political parties are trying to get a greater share against the unitary oppositional organisation that confronted the military in 2019. The groups involved in the security wing are at pains to build an internal consensus because some have clearly decided that the future of Sudan should be without al-Bashir and others still want a return of the old regime. In addition, the mixed messages coming from abroad do not help to strengthen the reformist wave, which needs first to improve the daily livelihood of most people in urban and rural areas to keep popular support and leverage against more traditional political actors.

In the 1960s and 1980s, Sudan faced similar periods of intense popular mobilisations followed by hard times when responses could not meet expectations. Authoritarian regimes were the unsurprising outcome. Let us hope that history does not repeat itself. Time is a key parameter for success and all home-grown solutions require plenty of it. Sudan has changed over the duration of al-Bashir’s regime and building new political forces may need imagination and strong connections with rural areas, while being able to feed cities. This is not an easy equation to solve.

In February 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s sovereign council met in Uganda in order to “normalise” relations between the two countries. Is this event related to political conditionalities and international sanctions? Can you explain this move and also what it could trigger in terms of regional political recompositions?

Sanctions are easier to put in place than to lift and this new cabinet can lament this truth. The prime minister’s strategy assumes that the main donors, including the United States and the European Union, would support the new democratic experiment in Sudan and lift sanctions. While these latter were based on the allegation that Sudan supported terrorist organisations, today Washington is asking – among other things - for a normalisation with Israel to lift some of the sanctions. Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo disregard long-term benefits of a democratic regime in the Horn of Africa. They are more preoccupied with finding a way to help their friend, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a similar way, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would have preferred a military regime as in Egypt. Democracy is not on any Gulf country’s agenda. There are also more palpable issues such as the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia: most Arab countries share the view that Sudan should support Egypt against Ethiopia, while Khartoum is leaning toward Addis Ababa for its own economic reasons. Furthermore, one may regret that the European support is not as robust as initially expected.

There is no space here to propose scenarios regarding the Horn of Africa but people should remember how this region was optimistically considered in the early 1990s, while actually internal wars and massive coercion against their own populations have become the motto of the new regimes. Ethiopia is on the edge and may end up bullying its neighbours for the sake of containing its internal dissidents and keeping some control of its own peripheries. The change of regime in Sudan corresponded to a certain regional indecisiveness that does not exist anymore however.

What was—or still is?—Sudan’s role in the war in Yemen?

This is a good example of how regional and internal politics merge to build new powerful actors without any legitimacy in either dimension. Sudanese involvement in Yemen fit the interests of some individuals in Sudan who became much richer overnight, it satisfied the need for one military commander to achieve a long-term political status by offering his troops the opportunity to play the role of mercenaries in a war that no one can win but that destroys one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and offered a cheap way for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to carry out their dirty war.

The new regime announced that its troops would leave Yemen sooner rather than later but of course this will take more time than what it said because Riyadh needs these troops and could easily condition their departure to new economic leverage. And as we all know, it is easier to start a war than to end it.

Is there still a “great Arab Solidarity”?

I am among those who believe that such a solidarity has actually never existed and therefore does not exist today, as reflected by the loneliness of social protest movements against the corruption of their state in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, after Sudan. Not to mention the brutal coercion taking place in Libya, Egypt, and Syria among others…


Interview by Corinne Deloy and Miriam Périer, CERI.

Cover photo: Washington/USA – March 17, 2019: Protesters at the White House seeking the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and demanding a peaceful democratic transformation. Copyright: Shutterstock

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