Sudan is Dying for Democracy | Opinion

Innocent and unarmed Sudanese protesters are once again demanding their right to live in a peaceful democracy. Once again they paid for their demands with their lives.

One week after the military arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and dissolved the country's civilian leadership, tens of thousands rallied in capital Khartoum and across the country. Facing down security forces that fired tear gas and live rounds, at least 11 peaceful demonstrators were killed and over 100 injured. Members of the cabinet, party leaders and dozens of grassroots activists and community organizers are among the detained.

Military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan's thin excuse that the coup was necessary to maintain stability is exposed by his refusal to transfer leadership of the joint sovereign council to civilian control—demanded by most Sudanese. Instead, we have seen the architects of some of the country's most violent episodes—including Burhan's second in command Gen. Mohamed Hamdan "Hemeti" Dagolo who oversaw brutal Janjaweed militia in Darfur—stubbornly refuse to relinquish power, knowing that a democratic Sudan would hold them accountable for their historic crimes and threaten their illicit economic networks.

The power grab was executed mere hours after Jeffrey Feltman, President Joe Biden's special envoy to the region, departed the country after strained diplomatic meetings. Washington has since announced the suspension of $700 million in financial assistance, but this is dwarfed by the billions poured into the country by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who ideologically oppose democracy and are using Sudan's military to exercise control by proxy. Sudan's peaceful society is fighting an asymmetric struggle on numerous fronts.

In April 2019, following months of nationwide peaceful protests, Sudanese men and women from all walks of life finally removed former President Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist regime that brutalized the country for three decades. Our demands then are our demands now—a people's democratic government and the rejection of military rule. Post-Bashir, space for a civilian role in a troubled transitional power sharing government was only formed as a result of enormous pressure from Sudanese opposition movements and civil society. But it was doomed from the outset.

The mediation was led by the African Union (AU) which was supposed to negotiate the transfer of power to civilian leadership. Instead, the outcome was a hybrid government in which the civilian component of distinguished democrats had to navigate an uneasy balance of power with warmongering generals of the Bashir-era who still maintain their grip on the security apparatus and energy sector. The civilian government was allowed to manage the executive branch of the government and form a transitional legislative council, but it was left without any access to resources other than trying to negotiate for international support. And inevitably, Burhan resisted any attempts to relinquish power and the Sudanese remain at the mercy of the same actors who violated and robbed their country for decades.

Sudanese youths protest
Sudanese youth protest in the streets of the capital Khartoum, amid ongoing demonstrations against a military takeover that has sparked widespread international condemnation, on Nov. 4, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

Over the last three years, the (mainly youth-led) Sudanese protesters have very clearly expressed their desire for a civilian-led government that serves their rights and ends armed conflicts across the country. These demands did not form in a vacuum, they are the result of over 60 years of resistance against a violent post-colonial state where fighting has not abated even after the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

Women of Sudan in particular are on the frontline of the resistance. We understand that further militarization of society and allowing Bashir's Islamist allies and the paramilitary warlords to run rampant will dramatically compromise our rights, health and safety.

Despite the positive steps taken in ratifying the Juba peace agreement of August 2020 to end fighting particularly in the most volatile areas of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, even this is beginning to unravel. Some of the same armed movements involved in the peace deal—the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) Minnawi—have been siding with the military and turning on protesters and civil society that worked to include them in the power sharing agreement.

The October coup is the result of an ongoing trend of undermining the voices and demands of the Sudanese people, favoring collaboration with local warlords and foreign dictatorships over accepting the legitimate demands of citizens. This approach is unsustainable. Sudan is a vast country with complex problems that cannot be ruled through the kind of centralized, totalitarian regime which the Sudanese have rejected three times since independence in 1956. Meddling powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE fear the potential of a peaceful Sudan as much as they fear people power in their own countries.

The latest military coup in Sudan is another attempt to draw the country back into a dark corner. It will ultimately fail, as demonstrated by the bravery and resilience of the Sudanese people who take to the streets in ever-increasing numbers. The men with guns are increasingly unpopular with wider society, but we cannot stand up to them and their powerful allies alone. Without concerted and coordinated efforts by the international community to pressure the junta and their international backers to restore a representative democratic and civilian government, we will see more avoidable bloodshed and a descent into protracted chaos.

Hala Al Karib is an activist, researcher and regional director for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa. Her work focuses on gender justice and democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.