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Sudan may follow a perilous Arab Spring playbook: The strongman falls, his allies remain

A Sudanese woman chants slogans and waves national flag in celebration following Sudan's ruling military council and a coalition of opposition and protest groups reached an agreement to share power during a transition period leading to elections, along the streets of Khartoum, Sudan July 5, 2019. (REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

In a landmark agreement reached on Friday, Sudan’s opposition and military leaders tentatively pledged to hold new elections in just over three years. After months of protests and violence, the announcement was greeted with tepid optimism.

Still, many worried that the involvement of notorious military leaders in Sudan’s planned transition to civilian rule suggests the country will follow a well-worn playbook that doomed almost all of the Arab popular uprisings in 2011: The strongman falls, but his allies remain.

In April, persistent street protests forced Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir from office after three decades of rule. Bashir was an autocratic leader who kept a tight grip on the country, with his government repressing civil rights and launching violent campaigns against ethnic minorities.

Bashir was the latest Arab leader to be forced out by pro-democracy activists since the Arab Spring saw the fall of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and more recently, Algeria. But in the aftermath of Bashir’s overthrow, his military allies have learned a critical post-Arab Spring lesson: stepping-in to “preserve” the revolution often means having total say over how the country moves forward.

Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir is ousted by military after 30 years in power

In Egypt, post-revolutionary democratic fervor has been replaced by a repressive, military-backed government. In Libya and Yemen, conflicts continue to rage in which former regime figures have been central players. Even in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, insiders from the country’s autocratic past have regained political sway.

Sudan’s protesters are well-aware of the risks. At the heights of protests, some held signs that read: “We don’t want to be like Egypt.”

On Friday, a mediator for the African Union announced that Sudan’s opposition and military leaders had reached a power-sharing deal that works toward elections and civilian rule. The deal calls for military leaders to retain control for the next 21 months, before passing power to a newly created joint sovereign council to civilians.

Though the agreement stipulates that those involved in violence should not be allowed into a post-deal government, it currently does not exclude Sudan’s most infamous military leader: Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

Hemedti is part of a ruling military council seen by many in Sudan as an extension of Bashir’s rule. The military has suppressed protests since the president stepped down, including one incident this month where at least 100 protesters were killed.

As leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Hemedti has been accused of links to some of the worst violence against protesters. Years before, at the height of ethnic violence in Darfur, he headed the notorious Janjaweed militia, estimated to have killed thousands in what was labeled a genocide.

Though once Bashir’s enforcer, Hemedti is now presenting himself as Sudan’s savior. Though he is officially the deputy to the head of the transitional military council — Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a veteran lieutenant general — many believe Hemedti holds the real power.

The warlord wrecking Sudan’s revolution

Khalid Mustafa Medani, an associate professor at McGill University, said Friday’s agreement was cause for optimism given the unity of the opposition, the promise of an independent inquiry into the mass killings last month and real concern about Hemedti in Europe and the United States.

However, Medani said the worry is that regime figures might be able to use delay tactics or try to divide and co-opt the civilian opposition before the planned handover. “At this juncture, the role of the international community is extremely important,” he added.

If Sudan’s military leaders do delay reform, they will follow pattern established in other Arab Spring countries, where regime insiders have been able to cling to power and, in some cases, block attempts at democratic reform.

The overthrow of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 resulted in free and fair elections in 2012 that brought to power Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The next year, the military pushed Morsi out in a coup and imprisoned him. He died earlier this year.

The Egyptian military at the time of the coup led at the time by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who had served as director of military intelligence under Mubarak. Sissi subsequently became Egypt’s president in elections that were marred by the jailing of disqualification of his opponents; critics say he has implemented a system of repression that is worse than Mubarak’s.

In the chaotic conflicts that followed the Arab Spring in Libya and Yemen, regime loyalists still have power: Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was a powerful force in the civil war that wrought havoc on the country until he was assassinated in December 2017, while opposing the new government of his own former deputy, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Even in Tunisia, heralded as the Arab Spring’s only democratic success story, efforts to push the former regime out of politics have stalled.

Shortly after the 2011 revolution, Tunisia disbanded former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s political party, the RCD. An interim government passed a law that spring preventing RCD members from standing in the 2011 elections, which brought Tunisia’s Islamist party to power in a coalition government.

Sudan’s opposition and military leaders reach power-sharing deal

In the years following the revolution, the new Tunisian government wrestled with several separate proposals to ban those tied to the former regime from participating in politics. The electoral law governing Tunisia’s 2014 elections did not contain provisions barring ex-regime affiliates from running.

Current President Beji Caid Essebsi served in two successive autocratic governments and his new party, which attracted many old regime supporters, became the leading political bloc in government. A separate party of old regime supporters has surged in the polls ahead of presidential and legislative elections slated for this fall — a sign, experts say, of democratic backsliding in Tunisia.

H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington, said that while many of the underlying political and social factors that sparked the 2011 uprisings remain in place, pro-democracy movements often fail to make a compelling argument for why they should oversee reform.

“It is easy to see why autocrats, particularly because they are backed by such power, have the upper hand at the moment,” Hellyer said. “I am not sure that is a winning formula for the long term.”