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Sudan protesters at a crossroads after deadly crackdown

July 3, 2019
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Sudanese protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against the ruling military council, in Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, June 30, 2019. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Sunday in Sudan's capital and elsewhere in the country calling for civilian rule, nearly three months after the army forced out the autocrat Omar al-Bashir. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

CAIRO (AP) — The mass marches held in Sudan this week breathed new life into the uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir, but the protesters and the ruling military council remain at an impasse amid fears the country could slide into further chaos.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and other areas on Sunday, vowing to complete the revolution they launched in December. Nearly a dozen people were killed in clashes as security forces prevented the demonstrators from reaching the military headquarters and the Nile-side presidential palace.

It was the biggest show of determination by the protesters since security forces violently dispersed their main sit-in outside the military headquarters on June 3, killing at least 128 people. That triggered the suspension of talks on forming a transitional government just as the two sides seemed on the verge of an agreement.

Ethiopian and African Union mediators are working to restart the talks, but both sides have hardened their demands since last month’s violence, with the generals saying earlier proposals are off the table and the protesters calling for an immediate transition to civilian rule and an investigation into the killings.

Here’s a look at where things may be heading.

FROM TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY

Protests first erupted in December in response to price hikes but rapidly escalated into near-daily marches calling for an end to al-Bashir’s nearly 30-year rule. The military largely refused al-Bashir’s orders to fire on the protesters, and removed him from power on April 11, after police forces killed around 100 people.

Al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other war crimes committed during the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, now languishes in a Khartoum prison where his forces once jailed and tortured his opponents.

But the protesters remained in the streets, fearing that the military, with support from regional powers like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, would cling to power or elevate a new autocrat. When the military announced it would govern for up to two years until elections could be held, the protesters demanded an immediate transition to a civilian body that would govern the country for four years.

After several rounds of talks the two sides appeared to be closing in on a power-sharing agreement in which the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which represents the protesters, would hold 67 percent of the seats in an interim legislative body and appoint a Cabinet. But the two sides remained divided over the makeup of the sovereign council, which would hold executive power for three years.

The process came to a screeching halt on June 3, when security forces attacked the sit-in. The military then imposed a nationwide internet blackout, making it difficult to organize anything beyond scattered demonstrations, mostly held at night. The generals annulled all previous deals and threatened to hold elections in nine months.

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AN UNWIELDY COALITION

Sunday’s marches provided a powerful show of unity, but internal divides among the protesters threaten to undermine their struggle going forward.

The initial uprising was led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of independent unions, which later joined forces with the country’s various opposition parties.

The parties appear more eager to cut a deal with the military. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the Umma Party and Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, opposed calls for a general strike after the June 3 crackdown. He has also agreed with the military on expanding the negotiations to include other political groups that many protesters view as too close to al-Bashir.

The Sudanese Revolutionary Front, a rebel group that is part of the protest movement, meanwhile threatened to negotiate separately with the military council, the English-language Sudan Tribune reported Monday.

Gibril Ibrahim, an SRF leader, was quoted as saying that decision-making within the coalition has been “kidnapped” by a small committee “formed in vague circumstances with limited representation.”

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MEDIATION EFFORTS

Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with both sides in Khartoum last month, and his administration along with the African Union has sought to mediate the crisis. The White House has expressed support for those efforts and has appointed a special envoy to Sudan.

But while the African Union has called for a quick transition to civilian rule, other regional powers, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, support the generals and may see a democratic transition as a recipe for instability or a threat to their own brand of authoritarian rule.

Last month, the African Union and Ethiopia offered a joint proposal based on previous agreements that left the makeup of the legislative body open for negotiations. The generals welcomed it as the basis for future talks, but the protesters refuse to meet with the military until it fully accepts the roadmap.

“We are back to square one,” said Amany el-Taweel, a Sudan expert at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I believe they are playing for time, especially after the pressure from the street decreased due to the breakup of the military headquarters sit-in.”

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FEARS OF CIVIL WAR

The deadlock in the negotiations has stoked fears that Sudan could slide into civil war, as Yemen, Libya and Syria did after their own uprisings.

Sudan has been at war with rebels in Darfur and other regions for decades, and the centrifugal forces that have convulsed the country since independence could tear it apart in the absence of a stable central government.

“Civil war is a terribly distinct possibility,” Sudan researcher Eric Reeves said. “The failure of the international community to push harder for civilian governance — for various reasons — is proving deeply counter-productive.”

Osman Mirghani, a Sudanese analyst and the editor of the daily newspaper al-Tayar, said resuming negotiations offers the only hope of avoiding the “Libya model.”

“If the impasse continues, Sudan could become a new Libya, which means a set of militias control parts of the county and each militia has its government.”

Sudanese novelist Hamour Zyada blamed the impasse on the military, calling it a threat to the country’s peace and stability.

“In the near future, I am not optimistic. I do not expect that the military council will relinquish its grip on power,” he said. “But at the far future, I am optimistic. The public mood is with the civilian state and the revolution.”

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