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Sudan’s civilian prime minister is back. Here’s why thousands are still protesting.

A woman wearing a mask lifts the Sudanese national flag over a crowd of protesters at a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, on November 21, 2021.
A protester lifts the Sudanese national flag at a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, on November 21, following the announcement of a deal to restore the country’s transition to civilian rule. | AFP via Getty Images

Despite Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s release, there are still many unknowns for Sudan’s democratic transition.

Almost a month after seizing power, Sudan’s military leadership on Sunday released civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and signed an agreement reinstating him to office as part of Sudan’s gradual transition to democracy.

Hamdok, who has been under house arrest since late last month, made a televised address to the nation at the signing of an agreement between Hamdok’s civilian government and the military junta, headed by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to restore the transitional government put in place after the ouster of former dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

“The signing of this deal opens the door wide enough to address all the challenges of the transitional period,” Hamdok said during the address.

Hamdok also thanked “regional and global friends” who helped broker the deal in his address; according to the AP, the United States and the United Nations both played “crucial roles” in Hamdok’s reinstatement.

Sunday’s agreement, according to Egyptian media outlet Ahram Online, requires the formation of a new, technocratic transition government and adherence to an amended version of the power-sharing agreement first enacted in 2019 after al-Bashir’s downfall, as well the release of politicians arrested by the military government and a transparent investigation into the deaths that occurred during coup protests.

At least 40 protesters have been killed since late October, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement Thursday that regime forces used live ammunition against peaceful protesters.

“Sudan remains the priority,” Hamdok said on Sunday after his release. “We will work on building a solid democratic system for Sudan.”

However, as Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Vox on Sunday, the full contents and context of the agreement — as well as what each side had to surrender to reach it — are still unknown.

“There’s a lot of room for interpretation and misinterpretation,” Siegle said, including as to what role the military will be expected to play in the restored transitional government.

Because of the uncertainty still surrounding the agreement and concern over the military’s role going forward, pro-democracy protests continued on Sunday as Sudanese activists demand accountability for the coup. In Khartoum, the capital, thousands of people marched on the presidential palace as Hamdok spoke, Bloomberg reporter Mohammad Alamin told BBC’s Newshour Sunday.

The coalition group Forces for Freedom and Change, which was instrumental in al-Bashir’s overthrow and which nominated Hamdok for prime minister in 2019, has already refused to recognize the agreement.

“For us, they have to be held accountable for the crimes they have committed,” Siddiq Abu-Fawwaz, a member of the media coalition for the FFC, told Newshour host Julian Marshall on Sunday. “Who is Hamdok to make an agreement on his own, and to call it a national initiative? He is a man who was in prison, and they were negotiating with him at the house, with a gun to his head.”

Nonetheless, the US Embassy in Khartoum released a statement Sunday, in conjunction with Norway, Switzerland, the UK, the European Union, and Canada, praising the release of Hamdok and expressing solidarity with the Sudanese people; the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan also tweeted a statement of cautious optimism.

“The fact that the junta has handed power back to Hamdok is a positive development, but it remains to be seen what this will mean for actual civilian control over the military and government,” Naunihal Singh, a political scientist and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, told Vox via email.

“The question remains, will PM Hamdok have the ability to pursue his policy goals in an unrestricted fashion, or has he had to accept limits as part of a pact that allowed him to return to nominal power,” Singh said.

How did Sudan get here?

In April 2019, a military coup ended Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, which was marked by press censorship, the jailing of political dissidents, and the imposition of harsh sharia law, all enforced by regime security forces. Following al-Bashir’s arrest, the military worked with civilian parties to establish a transition to democracy and civilian rule, as Vox’s Jen Kirby explained in October:

The core of this uneasy marriage was a pact between the Transitional Military Council, led by al-Burhan, and the Forces of Freedom and Change, the coalition of civilian opposition groups, led by now-deposed Prime Minister Hamdok. The ultimate goal of the transitional government was to ease into a fully (and eventually democratically elected) civilian-led government, with the military exiting from ruling powers.

That included a transitional power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian leadership, which was then amended with the Juba Peace Agreement in 2020, a deal between the transitional government and several armed groups which sets out the constitutional process and power-sharing arrangements, among other stipulations for the future democratic government. Crucially for the current crisis, civilian leaders insisted on an eventual governmental structure free from military influence; the memory of al-Bashir’s regime and its brutality was still fresh, and a government run under the auspices of the military couldn’t be trusted.

Following the 2019 constitutional agreement and its 2020 revision, Siegle said, Sudan was the most stable it had been in recent history — surprisingly so, to the extent that the transitional government successfully negotiated ceasefires between different warring groups, repaired alliances with its neighbors and the international community, and began to shed its status as a pariah nation.

But that progress appeared fleeting when al-Burhan moved to seize power on October 25, forcing Hamdok into house arrest, detaining other members of the civilian government, and using deadly force to crack down on the massive, widespread protests against the coup that occurred over the past month.

“It was rumored that the prime minister had been removed before the earlier handover date to prevent him from threatening core interests of the military, namely avoiding accountability for human rights violations and avoiding loss of unprofitable military-controlled economic enterprises,” Singh told Vox.

Upon seizing power, the New York Times reported last month, al-Burhan dissolved Sudan’s national government and imposed a state of emergency, in addition to arresting Hamdok and a number of other top civilian leaders.

The military also imposed a near-total communications blackout, according to the Washington Post, which nonetheless failed to quell rapid, well-organized pro-democracy protests that have been ongoing since the coup.

In response to the coup, which began shortly after Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, left the country, the US quickly froze $700 million in assistance to Sudan, and the African Union also suspended Sudan’s membership in the body.

Since the coup, according to Siegle, the junta, led by al-Burhan, has been searching for a civilian leader to serve as a figurehead prime minister while the military maintained actual control, and even appointed some politicians from the al-Bashir government, like Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who led brutal campaigns against opposition fighters in Darfur, into leadership positions — essentially trying to continue the regime that civilian groups had sacrificed so much to overthrow just two short years ago.

When the junta were unable to find a suitably legitimate figurehead, Siegle theorizes, it was decided that Hamdok would be able to return to his position and preside over a “technocratic” cabinet. What that means is unclear, however: While protesters are calling for absolutely no military influence in the selection of the cabinet, there have not been assurances that Hamdok will be free to select his own ministers.

There are still many challenges facing Sudan’s democratic transition

At this point, experts told Vox on Sunday, it’s not easy to see the road ahead for Sudan’s fledgling democracy despite the restoration of a civilian prime minister.

According to Singh, “the democratic movement will be very wary at this point, and may protest and strike in order to make sure that their concerns remain on the agenda and are being pursued. Conversely, military actors may also feel the need to signal and push back” after abandoning power.

Already, as civilian protest leaders have made clear, there’s little confidence in Hamdok’s return to office, and demonstrations will likely continue, as they did Sunday.

An additional complicating factor in post-coup Sudan, particularly if the military retains significant control over the government, is the extent to which outside powers will be able to influence that government, Siegle says.

“[The coup] actually made Sudan vulnerable to outside influence, because you have an unaccountable, unelected government,” Siegle said, particularly from nearby authoritarian governments like Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Should the coup reversal stick, however, and the democratic transition continue as previously planned, Sudan is on track to hold an election in mid-2023 — its first in decades. In the interim, the country’s leadership will have its work cut out for it building up the foundation for free elections, set to take place in July 2023, and democratic governance, such as drafting a new constitution.

Protesters are also demanding greater accountability for actions during the coup and under the al-Bashir regime, and Siegle warns that strong civilian leadership going forward will be key to making sure a thorough and transparent reckoning takes place.

“In any democratic transition, especially where you have long periods of authoritarian influence, and that’s been institutionalized, you have a situation where, one, there aren’t any experienced civilians to take over, and two, the institutions are authoritarian-structured,” Siegle said. In the best of circumstances, building democratic institutions under those conditions is incredibly challenging.

According to Siegle, however, it’s critical that Sudan sticks with its current push toward a democratic transition, despite a potentially difficult road ahead.

“The transition will be challenging, and there will be a learning curve, and there will be mistakes made and other issues,” he told Vox. “That is often presented as ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do this’ or ‘Maybe we shouldn’t move so quickly,’ but that becomes sort of a self-perpetuating argument.”

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