While the Sudanese military continues to grapple for power by violently cracking down on protesters, some regional Arab powers are working to prop up authoritarian rule in the country and quash a possible repeat of the Arab Spring uprising that began in January 2011.
Demonstrators and the military have clashed since the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir on April 11 after months of protests. The military targeted a protester sit-in camp near military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum, over the past week. Demonstrators reported more than 100 deaths, including 40 bodies pulled out of the Nile River and more than 500 injuries. Witnesses said militiamen belonging to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) opened fire inside hospitals and other paramilitary soldiers raped civilians.
The ruling military council said the crackdown was in response to the protesters’ criminal activity. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the council, canceled all agreements made so far with the protesters and said the government would hold new elections in nine months. An internet blockade prevented more reports on the unrest.
“It seems the military decided it’s fed up with the protests,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow with the Washington-based Wilson Center. “The only thing it has left as a leverage is the use of the militia.”
Since the overthrow of al-Bashir, a coalition of activists and opposition groups called the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces has led talks with the military over who would lead the transitional government for the next three years. Both sides started to make progress in talks about the transitional Cabinet and legislature but reached a stalemate over the makeup of the top sovereign council. The military initially promised protesters safety and freedom to continue with demonstrations, but after the talks stalled late last month, Burhan, leader of the ruling military council, visited Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—three nations with interests in maintaining autocratic rule in Sudan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi pledged to back the will of the Sudanese people, but the sudden violence against protesters mirrors a 2013 army crackdown in Egypt during widespread protests in North Africa and the Middle East, when authorities raided two protest camps, killing more than 800 people.
“Sudan’s military council today are giving the same ridiculous speeches almost verbatim in an attempt to discredit their opponents,” said Osama Gaweesh, an exiled Egyptian journalist who participated in Egypt’s revolution.
Since the military seized power, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan, and Sudan’s militia has backed both countries with troops in their fight against Yemen. As many as 14,000 militia men have fought in Yemen, the majority of them from the RSF. The same militia group faced accusations of human rights abuses in the Darfur region, and the group’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, is the deputy head of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council.
Burhan offered to renew talks with the protesters, but protest leaders said they wouldn’t negotiate while the crackdown continues. The demonstrators launched a general strike this week that left shops and the international airport mostly empty.
“Our success depends on our full adherence to peaceful protests, no matter how hard the criminal militias seek to drag us into violence,” the association said in a statement posted on Facebook on Thursday. Last week, the African Union suspended Sudan from all of its activities until the military hands over power to a transitional civilian body.
Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, will travel to Sudan this week to broker talks between the warring sides amid calls for the United States to step up its involvement in the conflict. The White House will also appoint Donald Booth, a former diplomat with experience on the continent, to advise Nagy.
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said the United States could also appoint a special envoy for Sudan to back peaceful reforms in the country. He said the position would enable the United States to “remind Arab states that Sudan’s civilian leaders can, in fact, protect their long-term security interests in the country while at the same [time extend] civil and human rights to its deserving citizens.”