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Sudanese protesters gesture and chant slogans at a barricade along a street, demanding that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians, in Khartoum, Sudan. Image Credit: Reuters

Almost three months since mass protests led to the toppling of Sudan’s strongman Omar Al Bashir by the military, the country remains locked in an impasse between civil forces and the ruling military council. Negotiations between the two sides collapsed last week after a crackdown by the military against thousands of protesters who had staged a sit-in in front of the headquarters of the transitional council that ended in violence.

As a result the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition representing civil society, political parties and labour unions, called for an open-ended civil disobedience campaign across the country until the transitional military council accepts to hand over power to a civilian body.

There are signs that the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohammad ‘Hemeti’ Hamadan is emerging on top. He is now believed to be leading what Sudanese protesters say is a counter-revolution.

It was never going to be easy for protesters to wrest power from the military. The army has been in control of the country for decades and has intervened whenever there was an attempt to introduce civilian rule. The only exception was when the late Field Marshal Abdel Rahman Suwar Al Dahab handed over power in 1986 a year after staging a military coup that toppled President Gaafar Numeiry.

Rebellion in Darfur

Since then, the country has failed to restore democratic rule and the alliance between Al Bashir, who seized power in 1989, and the military grew stronger, allowing him to rule Sudan almost unopposed for the last 30 years. Al Bashir also empowered the National Islamic Front (NIF) and facilitated its Shura council.

During that long period the country suffered as the civil war in southern Sudan intensified. A rebellion in Darfur in western Sudan became one of the world’s worse humanitarian crises with an estimated 300,000 deaths.

After the end of the conflict in 2016, Al Bashir turned the Janjaweed into the RSF, a strike force whose main task was to protect the president against his perceived enemies. Hemeti, a veteran Darfur fighter, found his way into the transitional military council and appears to be in charge.

It is highly unlikely that Hemeti will engage in serious dialogue with the FFC allowing for a peaceful path to handing over power to a civilian body. He has been hardening his position and is believed to have authorised the crackdown which led to the arrest of dozens of FFC supporters.

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The United States has been unclear in its position on Sudan although it announced this week that it was sending an envoy to encourage the two sides to negotiate a deal and halt a bloody crackdown on protesters. The influential Foreign Policy magazine criticised the Trump administration this week for turning its back on Sudan and abandoning the Sudanese people.

Inclusive transition

Also it is not clear if a mediation initiative by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to help the two sides reach a deal will work. So far, both the FFC and the military council have responded positively to his intervention. In a statement the Ethiopian prime minister called on Sudanese to show “courage” and move quickly toward a democratic, inclusive transition.

A long stand-off will have an unpredictable outcome. It may dampen popular protests as the country continues to suffer from worsening public services and an ailing economy. It could also refuel public protests that could easily turn bloody.

It is also discouraging that the Arab League has been absent from what is going on in Sudan. It is further evidence that it has lost its ability to intervene in regional crises. We have seen that absent role in Syria, Yemen and now the Sudan. In the latter’s case it is the African Union that has threatened “punitive sanctions” if the military doesn’t relinquish power.

Whatever the result of current initiatives to resume negotiations, one thing is clear: The military will seek to have a crucial role in the future of the country. For now the future of Sudan looks bleak.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.