Why Sudan Must Be Understood in the Context of the Arab Spring
Sudan's recent protests-gone-violent are another in a series of civilian uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
2011 saw the biggest wave of civilian unrest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sparked by a poor vegetable vendor in Tunisia, who self-immolated in protest of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali's abuse of power and the country's high unemployment rate, peaceful and tweetable protests soon spread to the rest of the Arab world.
Once Tunisia sneezed, Big Brother Egypt soon caught the cold. Protests would spread like their viral hashtags. The vegetable vendor's name would become the venerated hashtag, #Bouazizi, propelling the symbol of the every-man against the machinery of the state. Little Bahrain would catch the cold, along with Libya, Yemen, Syria, and many other siblings in the region.
How do these events lay the groundwork for Sudan? Like in Sudan, Arab Spring protesters demanded the upheaval of long-time dictators who had ruled their countries for ten, twenty, sometimes more than thirty or even forty years.
Post-Cold War leader Omar al-Bashir had ruled Sudan for 26 years (1989-2019). He was instrumental in the 2003 genocide in the country's western Darfur region. The International Criminal Court even has an arrest warrant out for him.
His ousting, like so many others in the Arab world, saw widespread civilian protests starting in late 2018. On 11 April 2019, Omar al-Bashir was removed from power and arrested -- by the military. The last part is key to understanding the current situation in Sudan. While the civilian voices gave the military the legitimacy to seize power, the protesters and anyone watching would tell you, getting the military to rescind that power to some sort of democratically elected government was going to be the hard part.
Tunisia and Egypt learned this lesson just a few years earlier. Tunisia did see the ousting of Ben Ali, but the machinery of the military remains. Little progress, if anything more disaffection, has seeped into Tunisian institutions.
Egypt's military, with the world's spotlight shining on it, did oust 30-year leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011, more than a little to the world's chagrin. Egypt would experiment with the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership, under Mohamed Morsi (r. 2012-13), until he too was ousted by the military and Gen. Sisi (r. 2014-present) was put in charge. Egypt's military has only grown in scope since the 2011 Arab Spring. Political imprisonments, torture, and extortion are more common stories on Egyptian streets since their political revolution.
The Sudanese witnessed these dramas unfold above their heads. They know that military machinery is awfully difficult to dismantle. Once al-Bashir stepped down, they had the collective wherewithal to demand transition to a civilian government. Their cries were clear and amplified. And all remained relatively calm, as the military jostled for an expedient solution.
Then, from 3-9 June 2019, protests turned increasingly violent as military cadres opened fire on civilian targets. Looks like this is the military's big plan -- intimidate, torture, rape, and murder civilian protestors. What's the world going to do? Does any state or the UN have the stamina and interest to stop the Sudanese military?
It's a crude gamble, but it's one the Sudanese military is playing out.
What's Next? The most likely path points to the side with preponderant force -- the military. With enough time, they can likely dispel civilian protests, and loot the state. Unless a particular military or political personality rises to bring dictator-like unity and an iron-fist to the country, this path would likely result in fractured fighting and country-wide instability.
The less likely path points to a deal struck up between the military and the civilian contingency. This path is more likely to succeed if the civilians have backing from outside organizations like the UN or a sponsor state, but any outside involvement threatens to drive things even more bloodily off-course. With UN help, some civilian government could be established in theory, but the track record of this working is slim (although not impossible).
If the Arab Spring taught us anything, it's that mass civilian protests against entrenched military dictatorships produce two main scenarios: 1) the military seizes power and repression continues, just with a different face, or 2) civil war breaks out between military and armed civilian militias and/or outside sponsors. We still don't have a good example of democracy rising from the ashes, but, that doesn't mean it's impossible.