Analysis: Can Sudan’s civilian leaders save their country from collapse?

Civilian forces were central to the movement that overthrew former President Omar al-Bashir, but are now marginalised.

People stage a demonstration demanding the restoration of civilian rule in Khartoum, Sudan
Sudan's civilian movement has played a large role in the country's politics in recent years, but its political leaders currently find themselves sidelined [File: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu]

Months into a ruinous war between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), many Sudanese people have been surprisingly less than welcoming about the re-emergence of the civilian coalition that was part of the country’s 2019 revolution.

In July, one of the leaders of that civilian movement, former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, appeared at a regional summit, after two years of absence from the political scene.

Despite the war in the country, the re-emergence of figures like Hamdok and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) a coalition of parties, unions and civil society organisations that the former prime minister led a government with, is seen as opportunistic by many who still remember that the civilian coalition was overthrown in 2021.

“The same faces that disappeared and were silent after the October coup are now lined up in front of foreign diplomats to present themselves as representatives of the Sudanese people,” said Qusai, a 28-year-old pharmacist living in Khartoum.

A splintered democratic scene

Hamdok and the FFC, along with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF, were meant to guide Sudan to democratic governance after the 2019 overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir, and ostensibly, his old power structures.

But the coalition could not keep itself together, the infighting splintering it to the point where the SAF and RSF were able to stage their own October 2019 coup and remove the civilians from power entirely.

Out of power, observers say that the civilian groups have taken sides, aligning themselves with one of the other of the belligerents. The Democratic Bloc, an offshoot of the FFC, is said to have sided with the SAF, seemingly to push for its demands that more civilian groups be included in any settlement agreement struck in Sudan.

The Democratic Bloc has its political weight, counting among its members factions of Sudan’s two biggest parties, the Reform and Renewal bloc of the Umma Party, and the Jaafar Mirghani-led bloc of the Democratic Unionist Party-Jaafar Mirghani. Also included were regional actors like the Beja Tribal Council from the east, as well as Darfur Governor Minni Minnawi’s Sudan Liberation Movement and Finance Minister Gibril Ibrahim’s Justice and Equality Movement, also from Darfur.

On the other hand, the FFC-CC (Central Council), which emerged after the split with the Democratic Bloc, is accused of having fallen for the ploys of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, who, at least in public, has called for a transitional civilian-led government, hoping to win the favour of such a government, if it comes to pass.

“The FFC-CC denies that they have any sort of political alliance with the RSF, but through their actions, statements and dealings we can deduce the existence of their relationship,” Mohanad Elbalal, a British Sudanese observer and commentator on Sudanese politics, told Al Jazeera.

Elbalal also pointed to FFC-CC and the RSF’s shared hostility toward the deposed political Islamists of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), as well as their shared talking points during the post-2021 coup negotiations and after the outbreak of the war.

“The FFC[-CC] provided political cover [for the RSF] claiming that Islamists were behind this [war], and lobbying the international community that an army victory would see a return of the [al-Bashir] regime overthrown in 2019,” Elbalal said.

In addition, both are against the inclusion of any other political groups – including the Democratic Bloc – in the approval and implementation of a framework agreement. The agreement, a December 2022 deal between the civilian politicians and the generals, had, for a short while, seemed like hope for Sudan’s future.

“The FFC[-CC] wanted to be able to appoint the majority of government ministers,” Elbalal added, referring to statements by Babiker Faisal, a prominent FFC-CC member, days before the war, that the bloc was not open to any changes to the framework agreement.

A teetering framework

Sudan’s civil movement was at the heart of one of the most significant events in the country’s modern history – the 2019 overthrow of al-Bashir.

The FFC had formed in 2018, as discontent built, and was a main mover behind the protests triggered by a deteriorating economy and rising prices. After al-Bashir’s fall, it made an initial power-sharing agreement with the SAF and the RSF in August 2019.

Then the October 2021 coup happened, and the leadership was plunged into negotiations to end the military’s rule, leading to the framework agreement. However, the deal said that the RSF would be absorbed into the SAF – leading to a dispute between army head General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti as the SAF pressed for a two-year integration while the RSF pushed for a 10-year window.

The breakdown in negotiations that followed, and the ensuing beginning of the conflict, led to accusations being thrown back and forth between the civilian groups

“The parties who were not part of the framework agreement blame those in support of the agreement as being responsible for the current situation,” said Nagi Musa, a civil society activist and founding member of Girifna, a movement that rose up against al-Bashir.

The FFC-CC’s decision to sign the framework agreement is still backed by some, who see it as an attempt to avoid bloodshed.

“[The FFC-CC] saw that the presence of the RSF was a threat to Sudan’s future,” added Wael Aldabi, a mechanical engineer from Khartoum. “It therefore insisted on signing the framework agreement to unify the armed forces through a process of negotiation rather than by force – the way that it is happening right now.”

But others see it as evidence of a silent and continued support for the RSF, in the hope of securing a political future in case the RSF survives the war.

Mohammad Saad, a political observer and journalist who recently left Khartoum for Cairo, said: “None of the other parties within the Central Council have enough popular support to win elections and secure the political influence they would gain through their participation in the framework agreement and their alliance with Hemedti. They may still see him as their golden ticket to power and are careful not to denounce the RSF’s actions”.

Betting on the wrong side?

The FFC-CC’s supposed ties to Hemedti have been problematic for it since the outbreak of the war, particularly as the RSF finds itself accused of more human rights violations, including attacks on civilians. In Khartoum, the RSF has been accused of engaging in a campaign of rape, looting and commandeering of civilian homes, and in Darfur, mass graves have been found, allegedly of victims of the RSF.

One neighbourhood resistance committee member in Khartoum, who did not wish to be named, said that “almost all of the violations recorded by us in our neighbourhood involved individuals in RSF uniform”.

But Yasir Arman, one of the FFC-CC’s leading figures, penned an article after the outbreak of war distancing the body from the RSF, writing that the coalition had an ongoing neutral stance in the conflict and that all hostilities must end.

Al-Tayeb al-Abbasi, secretary-general of the Sudanese Lawyers Union and a member of the FFC-CC, told Al Jazeera from Cairo that “neutrality is not a sign of support for the RSF”.

“To support any side in the conflict is to prefer more death and destruction,” al-Abbasi added. “The priority should be to stop the war and preserve what’s left of the institutions of the state.”

That view was backed by Khalafallah Bushara, a Sudanese doctor living in the United States, who is optimistic that Sudan’s civilian leadership, including the FFC-CC, can help end the war by “putting pressure on foreign nations to apply sanctions [against the warring parties] and hold violators of international humanitarian laws accountable for their actions”.

Despite the denials, according to Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudanese and African Politics and Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, the FFC-CC’s post-war stance has undermined its reputation among the Sudanese public.

“The RSF’s problem is that its military advances have become political defeats because of the atrocious way its soldiers treat civilians,” de Waal explained. “I don’t think it can recover from the reputational setback, and FFC-CC wasn’t quick enough to distance itself from the RSF to escape the fallout.”

No easy way out

As the conflict continues, it is growing increasingly apparent that there is no easy way out of the predicament Sudan finds itself in.

“People need to come to terms with the reality of complete state collapse,” Ahmed Kodouda, who served as a policy adviser in the post-revolution transitional government, told Al Jazeera.

Kodouda also believes that, while Sudan’s civilian politicians have often come up with ideas for solutions to the country’s conflicts, in reality, they have only led to more indecision and practical delays on the ground.

Some observers do think that civilian leaders are trying to do what they can, even if they have failed so far to find an effective means to rescue Sudan from its current situation.

“The political parties are done for and the door is open for civilian forces to appear in a new form,” Nasreldin Elmahdi, former Vice-President of the National Umma Party and a former co-deputy chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), said.

Elmahdi left Sudan a few weeks after the outbreak of the war and is now working with Sudanese activists in Europe through the newly-formed Civil Conglomeration for Peace and Development.

He envisions that the organisation can leverage its location in Europe to document human rights violations in Sudan and forward its findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigations and prospective prosecutions.

More recently, Sudan’s political parties are continuing their efforts to stop the war through the formation of broader coalitions. The Popular Congress Party, the political Islamist party founded by the late Hassan al-Turabi in 1999 after a fallout with al-Bashir, recently called for a national dialogue bringing together all of the country’s power brokers in Port Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) also called for an anti-war coalition that would encompass Sudan’s broad political spectrum.

Following suit, the FFC-CC and the Democratic Bloc held separate conferences in Cairo in late July in which they both made similar appeals to form broader civilian coalitions to put an end to the fighting and restore a transition to civilian-led rule.

“There has been a lot of talk about forming united anti-war coalitions since the war started, but nothing has come of it and nothing will come of it because these initiatives lack coordination and the different coalitions are still sticking to their pre-war positions and alliances,” Saad commented.

Al-Abbasi, who is also one of the founding members of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), an umbrella group representing several trade unions that spearheaded the popular protests that led to the demise of the al-Bashir government, is also pessimistic about the state of Sudan’s political parties.

“Their divisions contributed to the weakening of the revolution, and led to the current state of affairs,” he said.

Instead, al-Abbasi believes that one of the last hopes for Sudan’s rescue is through civil society groups and professional unions, given that civil society organisations and some unions have remained non-partisan and independent bastions of civilian power.

“The involvement of union members in politics caused serious rifts in the Sudanese Professionals’ Association,” al-Abbasi said. “We don’t want this mistake to repeat itself,” al-Abbasi said.

While the FFC once symbolised hope for a democratic transition in Sudan, its gradual fragmentation reflects a concerning trend – the strengthening of armed actors and the weakening ability of the civilian bloc to shape Sudan’s political present and future.

“[All] political parties in Sudan need to rebrand themselves,” Kodouda said. “ They need to improve their image in front of the Sudanese people and Sudan needs to find a new model and new way in which it can exist.”

Source: Al Jazeera