Editor’s note: Justin Lynch is a researcher and analyst based in Washington, DC. Co-author of the book “Sudan’s incomplete democracy. The opinions expressed here are his own. He reads More opinion in CNN.
Four years ago, almost to that day, the people of Sudan were celebrating a revolution after the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. And now the East African country faces the prospect of complete collapse, similar to the chaos we see today in Yemen or Libya.
On Saturday, rival military factions began fighting each other in the capital, Khartoum. The two sides fought over control of airports, bases and military complexes in the country. Violence soon spread to the streets and across the country.
About 45 million Sudanese are held hostage and cannot leave their homes for fear of being killed in the crossfire. At least 180 people Those killed in the fighting, including three WFP humanitarian workers.
The conflict pits two bitter rivals and their powerful armed forces against each other. On the one hand, the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Major General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. On the other side is the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.
There is no good side in this conflict. Both are accused of a long line of human rights abuses.
How did Sudan go from getting rid of authoritarian rule and creating a nascent democracy a few years ago to teetering on the brink of state collapse?
On April 11, 2019, Sudanese dictator Al-Bashir was overthrown. The reason for al-Bashir’s removal was months of protests led by Sudanese trade unions, which led to a military coup by the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Al-Burhan and Hemeti joined forces to remove their former boss.
It was a moment of promise because there was hope for democracy. I remember walking around the “sit-in” – the giant carnival of freedom in central Khartoum that was blocked by demonstrators demanding change. It was electric.
But social movements such as the Sudanese Professionals Association – the union behind the protest – often struggle to translate the momentum of their demonstrations into real political force.
The reason for this is partly structural. Social movements such as the Sudanese Professionals Association are often based on grassroots activism. A dictator can arrest one or two leaders of an organization but not an entire country.
However, once a dictator is overthrown, these types of social movements often struggle to build the necessary hierarchy of leadership while the political negotiations are taking place. Like many other movements, Sudanese protesters have not been able to translate mobilization into political force.
Civilian leaders entered into negotiations with the military about the country’s future shortly after al-Bashir’s fall in April 2019. The two sides have been no match. Because of these leadership challenges, pro-democracy forces have struggled to bargain with the disciplined military.
Any momentum advocates of democracy had during negotiations was shattered in June 2019 when RSF soldiers dispersed the sit-in. More than 100 people were killed.
After the June massacre and leadership challenges, a transitional constitution was signed in August 2019 that gave the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces most of the power in Sudan. Al-Burhan was the head of state, and Hemedti was placed in a high political position. Elections were promised in 2022, but few believed it would actually happen.
The transition period began in August 2019, and Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister, was interviewed several times for a book I co-wrote on Sudan’s revolution. The way the constitution was written meant that Hamdok had limited power as prime minister. Al-Burhan was head of state and wanted to preserve the powers of the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Hamdok often told me that revolutions come in cycles. The overthrow of al-Bashir in 2019 was a springboard for the revolution, and he saw it as his job to carry out as many reforms as possible before the low tide of counter-revolution swept him away.
Hamdok found that the legacy of 30 years of dictatorship meant that Sudan’s political and economic models were crumbling. But Burhan and Hamiti obstructed the major reforms that Hamdok wanted to enact.
Violence escalated outside Khartoum. Parts of Sudan such as Darfur witnessed a new round of conflict between ethnic groups orchestrated by the Rapid Support Forces. More than 430,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in Sudan, most of them in Darfur.
The soldiers made no secret of the atrocities they committed against civilians. I remember drinking tea with a soldier allied with the RSF at his home in Darfur as he explained why he had recently participated in the burning of a village of another ethnic group.
The soldier deduced that one of his clansmen had been killed in a scuffle, so the RSF-allied forces retaliated by burning down a village that was home to 30,000 people. At least 163 people have died.
Tensions escalated between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Al-Burhan viewed Hemedti and his RSF as apprentice rapists from undisciplined Darfur. On the other hand, Hemedti believed that it was time for Darfur to lead Sudan.
Hamdok was about to start turning the economy around when Burhan and the Sudanese Armed Forces intervened. As we wrote in Sudan’s Incomplete Democracy, the potential success of a civilian government was too much for Burhan. In October 2021, Hamdok is overthrown in a military coup.
After the October 2021 coup, the United States and the United Nations pushed a worse version of the transitional constitution in Sudan. They have argued that it is the best way to achieve democracy.
The idea was to resume the transition period, but I and many others argued that it was short-sighted and would not work. It is clear that a return to a government led by Al-Burhan will not herald democracy. If the plan ends in a coup the first time, why does it work the second time around?
Some activists stopped partnering with the United States and came to the UN mission as an obstacle to democracy because of these policies. I felt sorry when I spoke with the best American and foreign diplomats, who also understood that international politics in Sudan would not work. They saw the flaws but felt powerless against the opposition and had to implement decisions that were many levels above them.
What preceded the outbreak of clashes this weekend was a controversial part of the international policy that attempted to unify the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. The idea was to create a single army, but neither Hemedti nor Burhan wanted to give up the power they had accumulated.
The plan to unify the army has not worked in similar contexts. It was a repeat of the 2013 and 2016 unification operations that took place in South Sudan with similarly bloody results. Instead, the tenuous relationship between Burhan and Hamiti has fizzled out due to the pressure.
It might be easy to look at the recent history of “revolutions” in countries like Myanmar, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan and conclude that they are ultimately counterproductive. I do not agree. I learned from Sudanese activists that the nation’s political fortune is an active battle.
We can hope one day that Sudan will see the dreams of democracy come true. But for now, the Sudanese people can only hope to survive today.
The lesson from Sudan is that revolution is only the beginning of change, not the end.