Can Sudan’s Democratic Opening Be Reopened?

CAIRO – The 2019 power-sharing agreement between Sudan’s civilian and military leaders, which envisaged a transition to a democratic order following the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship, was never going to be easy to implement. But following last month’s military coup, the question now is whether democracy is still even on the agenda at all.

The military and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), representing the revolutionaries who toppled Bashir in April 2019, distrusted each other from the start, but had no choice other than to compromise after his ouster. Civilian leaders suspected that the army, which first headed the Transitional Sovereignty Council, had no intention of relinquishing power by midterm (in November 2021), as per the constitutional agreement. The army leaders were torn between a fear of street power, and a desire to protect their economic privileges while preventing retribution for past misdeeds.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the army (and the Council) who led the coup on October 25, has called for Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s government to be replaced with an apolitical administration. Burhan says that political parties have wielded undue influence on the FFC, dividing the country and blocking economic and political progress.

Burhan expected domestic opposition to the coup to be muted – partly because the FFC had splintered, with some of its members criticizing the government for a lack of economic progress. He was also counting on a mild international reaction, like the one that followed Tunisian President Kais Saied’s constitutional coup in July.

But he was wrong in both cases. The coup has reunited opponents of military rule. Massive demonstrations have taken place in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities, with millions of people of all ages and backgrounds occupying the streets and threatening to paralyze the economy until the democratic transition is reinstated.

The international community has also stood its ground. The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the coup, the African Union suspended Sudan, and most donors froze their financial support.

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For now, the political situation in Sudan remains fluid. Mediation efforts are ongoing, but success won’t come easy, as the power-sharing deal had run into grave difficulties, and returning to the status quo ante will satisfy no one. Of the transition’s three main challenges, security-sector reforms have stalled, and the domestic peace process has yet to pacify some key rebel groups. The most progress has been made on economic reforms.

But attempts to address these issues have threatened the military’s interests, increasing the generals’ insecurity. For starters, an anti-corruption drive began to uncover irregularities in some of the business activities of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which dominate the economy. As a result, calls to bring military-controlled companies under state oversight became increasingly vocal. Moreover, there was growing popular pressure to bring to account the perpetrators of the June 2019 massacre of sit-in protesters at the army high command in Khartoum. Many commentators think that these developments triggered the coup.

Further complicating the picture, the FFC is no longer the sole civilian kingmaker after the October 2020 Juba Power-Sharing Peace Agreement assigned former rebel movements a prominent role in the transitional authority.

But as thorny as these challenges may be, resolving them is essential in order for the transition to advance. Launching a process leading to the integration of the RSF and other militias into a unified SAF, and broadening the peace process to encompass excluded rebel movements and other traditional communities also will be vital.

For such divisive reforms to have a chance of succeeding, better economic outcomes will be crucial. So far, economic reforms have proceeded briskly. Hamdok’s government has liberalized and unified the exchange rate, boosting revenues from customs duties. Gradually removing costly subsidies has helped to halve the government deficit as a share of GDP and increase state revenues. And $50 billion of Sudan’s external debts are in the process of being canceled.

These measures will eventually provide sufficient funds to start rebuilding public services, including an extended safety net, and boost the health and education systems, which had collapsed during Bashir’s nearly three decades of gross mismanagement.

But so far, the cost of reforms has fallen largely on poor citizens. Instead of a democratic dividend, Sudanese citizens have seen inflation accelerate to 366%, the economy shrink for the third year in a row, and absolute poverty increase, further diminishing the middle class. There had been signs of progress in recent months, with inflation decelerating and the family-support program expanding. But the coup threatens to reverse these gains and derail the debt-relief process, with devastating economic consequences.

To succeed, Sudan needs greater external support. Hamdok had asked for $13 billion to assist the three-year transition, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that Sudan needs $7.25 billion in financing over the next two years to eliminate budget monetization and beef up reserves. But the most recent foreign donor conference, in Berlin in June 2020, pledged only $1.8 billion – of which $350 million came from the European Union, $356 million from the United States, and much of the rest from the World Bank. Support from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, mostly in kind, was significant in 2019, but has since declined. Multilateral finance has so far largely gone toward repaying Sudan’s arrears and initiating the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries debt-relief process.

Contrary to popular narratives, financial inflows into Sudan have remained small to date, with about $800 million pledged in 2021. As a result, total budgeted government expenditures for 2021 are a mere $2.5 billion – equivalent to roughly 7% GDP – for a population of 45 million.

Widespread opposition to the coup demonstrates the Sudanese people’s rejection of military dictatorship. Revising the power-sharing agreement is now a necessity if the transition to democracy is to continue and have a chance of succeeding. More generous international financial and political support is vital to help this process. If Sudan’s transition is not rebooted, the military will likely rebuild an Islamic political coalition, threatening a return to the country’s disastrous pre-2019 status quo.

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