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Sudan's difficult path to democratic transition

November 18, 2022

Sudanese protesters have been calling for the removal of a German diplomat from the UN mission to the country. Despite the fractious nature of post-dictatorship politics, there are some reasons for optimism.

Protesters hold pictures of UN envoy Volker Perthes at a recent demonstration
Protesters held pictures of Volker Perthes at demonstrations against foreign interferenceImage: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

Over the past few weeks, the calls from protesters in Sudan have become louder. Carrying signs that say "Volker out!" and "No to foreign interference," thousands of Sudanese people have indicated that they would like to see the back of German diplomat Volker Perthes, who heads the United Nations' Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS).

Established by a 2020 UN resolution, the mission is tasked with supporting Sudan in its transition to democratic rule.

"I do find it unpleasant when things get personal, as is the case here," Perthes told DW. "But at the UN we stand up for the right to peaceful assembly. And we know that, as we try to progress a political solution, together with Sudanese parties, the military and others, that we become part of the controversy."

Perthes said there had been about 2,500 people demonstrating in front of UN headquarters in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, over the past few weekends, and he expects about the same number again this weekend.

Perthes, representative for Sudan and head of UNITAMS, speaks into a microphone
Perthes was appointed special representative for Sudan and head of UNITAMS in 2021Image: ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

Years of upheaval

A transitional civilian-military government was formed after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. It was described as an historic chance for a return to civilian rule and democracy, and elections were planned for 2023.

But, in October 2021, the transitional government was itself overthrown, with the military half of the government ousting civilian politicians and taking over.

Since then, Sudan has not had a prime minister or Cabinet, and its economy has been in difficulties as international investment, debt relief and development aid stopped after the 2021 coup. The UN's World Food Program recently projected that one-third of people in Sudan would become food insecure in 2022 because of ongoing political and economic problems.

Civilian pro-democracy groups have continued to take to the streets to voice displeasure about the military takeover. They have suffered casualties as a result but have also managed to prevent a complete military takeover.

Opposing 'foreign interference'

Neither the military nor the pro-democracy groups have been demonstrating against UNITAMS and Perthes though. Many of the Sudanese people most opposed to "foreign interference" are self-identified Islamists, often former supporters of al-Bashir, whose National Congress Party had Islamist leanings. They, too, would like a path back towards political power. 

Despite the fractious nature of post-dictatorship Sudanese politics, there have been some glimmers of hope since the middle of this year. Most recently, the military and civilian groups have been trying to agree on a set of rules that would set the country back on course toward elections, and democracy. 

On Wednesday, news agency Reuters reported that Sudan's main civilian coalition, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) announced that it was planning to sign a new agreement with the military on how go back to transitioning toward democracy.

Demonstrators raise their arms to demand the return to civilian rule a year after a coup
Pro-democracy groups in Sudan have kept up pressure on the military for over a yearImage: Marwan Ali/AP Photo/picture alliance

"So, if we compare the situation today, with the situation a year ago, then things have improved," Perthes said. "There is a general feeling that, after a year of standstill and of different groups trying to shut each other out, something is happening here and a compromise may be reached."

Sudan's many challenges

Even if a deal is reached, all Sudan is doing is moving from one political impasse to another, Kholood Khair, founder of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory and an expert on Sudan's democratic transition, told DW.

"At first, the international community was very concerned about the impasse between the FFC pro-democracy umbrella group and the generals that are part of the coup," she said. "Now, there seems to be some level of agreement between the FFC and the generals."

But, Khair said, there are still a lot of people left out of the discussion who have not agreed to anything. That includes former rebel groups to the south, as well as youthful resistance groups and tribal and religious leaders.

"Effectively the nature of the impasse has shifted," Khair said. 

Khair and Perthes say there are a number of other issues that have the potential to wreck any deal almost immediately.

This includes questions such as who gets to be prime minister and president during the transitional period and how to reform the military. The current plan is for a transition period to last two years but this may be too short to achieve much, Khair said. It is likely to fall short of people's high expectations after a year in political limbo and ultimately end in more protests — and then more instability.

Distrust for military

It's also important to be clear-eyed about the Sudanese military's role in all of this. In a November study of how Sudanese military leaders had behaved in the "post-coup" situation, researchers from the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg and the University of Central Florida concluded that, even though the military said it now wanted democracy, its leaders were making incremental changes that would continue to allow the army to dominate. "Even seemingly tame policy changes can fortify military rule against civilian challenges," the researchers wrote. When negotiators focus only on the more general outcome, they may miss these incremental but important changes, they concluded.

Khair said officials would have to consult more with the population. "The nature of Sudanese politics has shifted," she said, "and we can no longer say that certain leaders are representative of large swaths of the Sudanese public." For example,the FFC used to represent the majority of pro-democracy parties in the country, but it no longer has the same backing.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan greets supporters on his arrival to a rally in Khartoum's twin city
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has said the military is ready for democratic transitionImage: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

"Without those large, diverse groups of people feeling that they have been heard and feeling like they are part of this process, this is not going to go anywhere," Khair said.

This is another criticism that has been leveled at UNITAMS and other international bodies working in Sudan: Rather than wanting them to get out of the country, these critics say they have not been present in enough of the country.

"There's a grain of truth in that," Perthes said. "In an ideal world, we would have the resources to open more offices all around the country. But we have a huge mandate and relatively few resources."

As for the idea that Sudan is simply moving from one political impasse to another, the German diplomat was more sanguine. "You could look at it that way," Perthe said. "But I'd say it is more about gradually reducing the gaps and that any settlement, and any compromises, will come in stages."

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.