Sudanese protesters open their smartphones lights as they gather for a "million-strong" march outside the army headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 25, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Khartoum: Sudan’s military, which took over the country after ousting President Omar Al Bashir, said it intends to keep the upper hand during the nation’s transition to civilian rule. The announcement was a blow to the protesters who said Friday they will stay on the streets till all their demands are met.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the four months of protests that toppled Al Bashir after a 30-year rule, is demanding an immediate handover of power.

Shams Al Deen Al Kabashi, the spokesman for the military council, said late Thursday that the military will “maintain sovereign powers” while the Cabinet would be in the hands of civilians during the transitional period and until elections are held.

“This is disappointing and we did not expect to hear that,” said Ahmad Rabie, a leader in the SPA, an umbrella of independent Sudanese unions.

“For us, this option is completely unacceptable.”

Earlier this week, the SPA resumed talks with the military council after briefly halting the negotiations and accusing the military on stalling on relinquishing its grip following Al Bashir’s ouster and arrest on April 11.

What do the protesters want?

The protesters say they want a transitional council with “limited military representation” to run the country, along with an interim Cabinet until a new constitution is drafted.

The military has tried to appease the protest leaders.

After talks resumed, the council announced that three of its members, widely hated for their ties to Al Bashir had resigned.

A Sudanese girl with half painted face watches as protesters demonstrate outside the defense ministry compound in Khartoum, Sudan. Image Credit: Reuters

The move made some in the protest movement think that negotiations with the military council may eventually bear fruit.

But Rabie said Friday that after the latest announcement, one wonders “whether the council has more than one center of power and whether all its members agree among themselves.”

Since Al Bashir’s ouster, the protesters have expressed fears the military will cling to power and undermine all attempts to instate a civilian government in a country that lived for decades under military dictatorship.

“If the military insist on holding to sovereign powers, we will escalate our protests,” said Rabie, adding that protesters can call for national strike and civil disobedience.

How did the SPA emerge?

Under Al Bashir, the state controlled all professional associations, leading doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and others to form independent unions.

Three years ago, they joined together and formed the SPA.

In December, as Sudan grappled with rising prices and shortages, the SPA planned a march to the capital, Khartoum, to demand wage increases.

But when separate demonstrations over rising bread prices erupted in Atbara, a railway hub north of Khartoum, the SPA broadened its demands to the overthrow of the government.

The group’s decentralised leadership allowed it to keep organising, even after the arrest of several of its leaders.

Tech-savvy young people swelled its ranks, using social media to organise rallies and document the government’s crackdown.

The group established a mass sit-in outside the military headquarters in the capital on April 6.

Five days later, the military removed Al Bashir from office, and he now languishes in a Khartoum jail that was filled with detained protesters in the months before his downfall.

The SPA has rallied other factions and civil society groups under its “Declaration of Freedom and Change.”

The document calls for dismantling Al Bashir’s regime and establishing an elected government with a new constitution.

It also calls for ending “all discrimination and oppressive practices” toward women.

But the immediate focus is on pressuring the military to relinquish power.

The SPA has called for the formation of a legislative council—in which at least 40 per cent of the membership would be women—to draft laws and oversee a Cabinet of technocrats until a new constitution is written.

Is civilian rule possible?

Sudanese history since independence in 1956 has been marked by long periods of military dictatorship punctuated by short bouts of dysfunctional parliamentary politics.

“The Sudanese people have no faith in political parties because those parties were always making compromises with the regime in order to garner parliamentary seats or Cabinet portfolios,” said Mohammad Al Neel, a 25-year-old protester.

“What is making the Sudanese Professionals Association garner all this following is the fact that it does not have any partisan leanings,” he added.

The SPA may still struggle to negotiate Khartoum’s politics.

The military has said it is reaching out to all political forces, raising fears among the SPA that it could cut deals with established parties, or even Al Bashir’s National Congress Party, leaving much of his regime intact.

They are especially concerned about the Islamists who orchestrated Al Bashir’s 1989 military coup, and who still populate the upper ranks of the armed forces.