After 30 years in power, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is finally out. On Thursday, Sudan Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf announced that Bashir had been removed from office and arrested. Ibn Ouf also declared the dissolution of the presidency and cabinet, the suspension of the constitution, and the establishment of a two-year transitional military council. Sudan is now under a three-month state of emergency and a one-month curfew. Airspace is closed for the next 24 hours and all ports of entry are closed until further notice.
The coming days, weeks, and months will be pivotal for Sudan’s future. While Bashir’s removal is a momentous occasion and victory for the Sudanese people, there is much uncertainty about what comes next. The protestors who had called for Bashir’s ouster worry about a military takeover, and with good reason: the last time Sudan deposed a dictator, a largely ineffective government lasted for three years before Bashir grabbed power. Armed groups remain formally at war with the government in three regions. And the question of whether Bashir will be turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which first issued an arrest warrant for him a decade ago, looms over today’s events.
Ibn Ouf had signaled on April 8 that support for Bashir was wearing thin. Speaking to his senior commanders, he reportedly said the Armed Forces understand the causes of the protests, would not allow the country to slide into chaos, and would not hesitate to protect the country’s security, unity, and leadership.
Although Bashir had survived many challenges to his rule, a determined protest movement and bleak economic situation within Sudan ultimately proved too much for him to overcome. Protests began Dec. 19, after the government removed a key subsidy, tripling the price of bread. The demonstrations spread quickly and became a much broader challenge to the corruption and economic mismanagement that has defined Bashir’s three decades in office. In January and February, the protests grew in size and organization, as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) began to lead the effort to remove Bashir from power. The association is an umbrella group of professional committees and labor organizations, including teachers, lawyers, doctors, and journalists that traces its roots to 2016, but became the force that it is today just last year.
After initial gains, the protest movement seemed to reach an impasse in late February, as Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency on Feb. 22 while also dissolving federal and state governments. But the demonstrations continued, as did harsh and violent repression, often by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and special police units. According to Human Rights Watch, Sudanese authorities have killed at least 51 protesters, while detaining hundreds, if not thousands, more. Earlier this month, Physicians for Human Rights published a report finding the government responsible for the deaths of 60 protesters and concluding that authorities entered and attacked at least seven medical facilities treating wounded protesters.
Opposition leaders rejected Bashir’s state of emergency as illegitimate and unlawful, but the government used hastily established “emergency courts” to try and sentence individuals for violating the order. Frequently, those arrested, tried, and sentenced had no access to an attorney.
This stalemate began to give way on April 6, as tens of thousands of people assembled in front of the headquarters of the Armed Forces at a military complex in the capital Khartoum. The complex also houses the Ministry of Defense and the Presidential Residence.
These demonstrations were the largest turnout since the protests began in December. Although NISS agents attempted to disperse the protesters, they failed to do so. As the crowd persisted in the coming days, the military began protecting them. Sensing the change, protesters remained at the complex for five days and vowed to stay until Bashir stepped down, setting up the critical stage for today’s events.
Protestors Insist on Civilian Government
Now that Bashir has indeed been ousted, there is nevertheless deep disappointment and even anger from many protesters and human rights organizations who were eager for their country to form a civilian government.
The Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change issued a statement saying the group “categorically rejected” Ibn Ouf’s statement and called the act an “internal, military coup d’état [that] reproduced the same faces and institutions that our courageous people have revolted against.” The coalition urged demonstrators in front of the military headquarters to hold their positions and said other protesters should continue to take to the streets until a civilian government is established. The Forces of the Declaration group is a broad collection of organizations, including the SPA, opposition political parties, youth groups, and other marginalized communities. Sara Abdelgalil, a spokesperson for the SPA, offered similar statements, according to the New York Times, calling the military’s action a coup that “is not acceptable.”
For its part, the military has provided little information regarding the transition other than the brief announcement by Ibn Ouf (his name sometimes is translated as Ibn Auf). The state-sponsored Sudan News Agency published a three-sentence statement that does little more than emphasize the necessity of a transitional military council and calls for citizens to adhere to the security restrictions. It is clear the majority of protesters are not satisfied with the possibility of two years of military rule, and that demonstrations will continue.
Sudan’s Political Transition: Tunisia or Egypt or Something Else?
How the military and security forces allow Sudan’s transition from Bashir to move forward will influence the outcome of this process as much as any single factor. Comparing political transitions across states is much more of an art than a science, and local politics, culture, and tradition render such comparisons guideposts as opposed to blueprints.
Here, the two obvious comparisons are Tunisia, which after many moments of uncertainty remains the only peaceful—though still ongoing—transition of the 2011 Arab Spring, and Egypt, which after a period of great hope, fell back into repression and authoritarian rule.
Tunisia succeeded where Egypt failed for a variety of reasons, but perhaps none more so than the establishment of a technocratic caretaker government that allowed for a genuine and homegrown democratic government to take hold. In addition, the Islamist Ennahda party remarkably ceded political power, even after winning free and fair elections, when it reached a political impasse with the opposition. In other words, Ennahda did the rarest of things for a political party and put the well-being of the country ahead of earned political power.
For Sudan’s transition to succeed, the military must show the same courage, leadership, and trust that the protesters and the SPA have demonstrated. The SPA took an incredible risk that the armed forces would side with them, particularly given the repressive history of the military, the Rapid Support Forces, and NISS.
Now, the Sudan Armed Forces must take the same risk and place the same trust in civil society and political leaders, so they can work together to form a lasting democratic government. Still, this does not mean that the military will not have a critical role in this transition. Security will, of course, remain paramount, and the plethora of militias formed by Bashir over the years that will now be competing for power will not help. But the relatively professional military should be able to keep the country secure without requiring a two-year transition to do so.
And of course, none of this will be easy, but the Tunisian experience is again instructive, as the dynamics of the National Dialogue Quartet of four organizations, which received the Nobel Peace Prize for its role, are similar to that of the SPA. But even assuming such a positive outcome, the Tunisian Quartet only ensured that the country survived the initial shock of democracy without collapsing into civil war or returning to autocracy. Moving to a peaceful democracy will require much more from all leaders throughout Sudan.
The Bashir Question and More Uncertainties
In addition to whether the military relents and allows for a civilian government, or at least the inclusion of civilians within the transitional process, another looming question is what happens to Bashir. In his announcement, Ibn Ouf said Bashir had been arrested and was being held in a safe location.
Bashir’s arrest warrants from the ICC have long been complicating factors in any plan to remove him from power. While Bashir has successfully evaded arrest since the Court issued these arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010, he relied on the argument that he had sovereign immunity because he was an acting head of state. Even assuming this argument to be correct—and many legal scholars argue it is not—that status no longer applies, and calls for his extradition to The Hague will only grow louder and could divide the country at a moment it sorely needs unity.
A new Sudanese government might be able to foreclose this issue by trying Bashir in Sudan for his alleged crimes in Darfur. But this is very unlikely, as Bashir based his political survival on building a strong network of support within the armed forces and security services. It is hard to imagine that these same men, many of whom also would be exposed for participating in serious human rights crimes, if not their own international criminal acts, would allow for this to happen. Indeed, Ibn Ouf was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 for his role in the Darfur atrocities. At the time, he was Head of Military Intelligence and Security.
Sudan’s Wars and Its Reach – South Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Egypt
Bashir’s removal from power raises many other political and security questions. Armed groups remain at war with the Sudanese government in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, even though the fighting has lessened considerably.
Regionally, Bashir was the East African leader most invested in the success of the South Sudan peace process, itself a fragile deal with a fast-approaching deadline to form a transitional government by May 12. Across the Red Sea, Sudan has contributed a significant number of soldiers to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, but given the instability at home, this support might be drawing to an end. Sudan is also in the middle of a serious dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the building of the largest dam in Africa.
Lastly, the United States relies heavily on Sudan for intelligence in its counterterrorism efforts in East Africa and beyond. At the same time, Sudan remains on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a designation imposed in 1993, and cannot access desperately needed debt relief until it is removed. Depending on the outcome of Sudan’s transition, now could be the time to remove Sudan from this list. At the very least, the prospect of being removed gives the U.S. considerable leverage in pushing the transitional government towards a more democratic and inclusive state.
While all of these considerations are important and even pressing, today is also a day for celebration. It is worth remembering that, after 30 years of authoritarian rule, it was not armed struggle, U.S. sanctions, or the International Criminal Court that ended Bashir’s rule. Rather, it was the will of the Sudanese people and the remarkable bravery of the protesters in Khartoum and throughout the country.
“Just fall, that is all!” was a key slogan repeated at demonstrations through the last four months. But for peace and democracy to take hold, the spirit of this uprising must continue for years and not end at the removal of Bashir.
IMAGE: Sudanese anti-regime demonstrators, holding up a banner calling for “Freedom, Peace and Justice” carry on with their protest on April 11, 2019 in the area around the army headquarters in Sudan’s capital Khartoum. After months of protests demanding the resignation of longtime leader President Omar al-Bashir, thousands of Khartoum residents chanted “the regime has fallen” as they flooded the area around the military headquarters, where protesters have held an unprecedented sit-in now in its sixth day. (Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images)