Earlier this year, masses of protesters calling for a new era of prosperity and accountability in Sudan cheered as military forces ousted Omar al-Bashir, the country’s long-reigning dictator. But Bashir’s fall did not guarantee freedom or democracy, and Sudan and its 40 million people now risk falling into the grips of a crisis that threatens to destroy what demonstrators have achieved and sink the country into violent conflict.
In recent weeks, the hope of a transition to a civilian government has been replaced with the fear that security forces are willing to kill protesters in an attempt to hold on to power. Militias have committed horrific rights abuses, authorities have cut off internet access across the country in an attempt to stifle dissent and foreign powers seem intent on preserving military rule.
Mass violence in recent weeks and a fragile political situation have led to international concern that Sudan could fall apart, with different factions of the security forces fighting each other for control and widespread violence against civilians. Sudan now teeters between a movement toward stable democracy and further atrocities.
Sudan Ousts Its Dictator
The anti-government demonstrations in Sudan began gaining traction last December, when protests over food prices morphed into a wider movement against Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship.
Bashir took power in 1989 following a bloodless coup and has devastated Sudan and destabilized the wider region in the decades since. He harbored Islamist terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s; waged a long civil war in the country’s south; and more recently sent child soldiers to fight in Saudi Arabia’s conflict in Yemen. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant against Bashir in 2009 for war crimes and genocide for his role in the violence that overtook Sudan’s Darfur region.
Bashir escaped accountability for years, carefully balancing Sudan’s various security forces and militias against each other to prevent a military coup while repressively cracking down on protests and opposition groups. But this time Bashir couldn’t hold on to control, and an uneasy coalition of military and militia groups formed to oust him from office on April 11 while mass demonstrations filled the capital of Khartoum.
The protests slowed down following Bashir’s ouster, shifting from initial jubilation into weeks of talks with a coalition of unions, activists and opposition groups who wanted civilian rule meeting with the security forces and militias who became the de facto leaders of the country — a group known as the Transitional Military Council.
As the TMC talks with the civilian groups continued, protesters remained a presence in Khartoum as they tried to apply pressure on the military to agree to some form of democratic transition. Despite some progress toward a deal, the leader of the powerful Rapid Support Forces paramilitary — a part of the TMC — warned in late May that security forces would no longer tolerate the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign.
The Military Launches Its Crackdown
During the negotiations with the TMC, Sudan’s demonstrators congregated in a large sit-in camp near the country’s military headquarters in Khartoum. The sit-in became the site of mass killings and sexual violence on the morning of June 3, when fighters from the Rapid Support Forces began shooting protesters and medical workers with live ammunition. The RSF reportedly gang-raped female demonstrators, violently beat civilians and burned down tents at the sit-in. Witnesses described thousands of soldiers running rampant over the protest camp and committing assaults with impunity. At least 100 people were killed, and medical staff aligned with the opposition said they found over 40 bodies had been dumped into the Nile following the attack.
The attack on June 3 derailed negotiations and hopes of a peaceful transition to a civilian government. Demonstrators suspended talks and launched mass strikes in the weeks following, while the attack brought international condemnation of the TMC and the suspension of Sudan from the African Union. Security forces once again resorted to firing live ammunition and tear gas during the strike, reportedly killing several more demonstrators this week.
But despite international backlash for its crackdown, the TMC retained its most important supporters — leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who have essentially acted as guarantors for the military rulers. These states have provided immense assistance for the TMC, offering political and financial support to keep tight control over the country.
“The TMC’s clear constituency is not in Sudan but in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi,” said Alan Boswell, senior analyst for South Sudan at the International Crisis Group.
Egypt and the Persian Gulf states essentially hope that Sudan will wind up in a similar place as Egypt following its own uprising, Boswell said, with a military government that is friendly to their interests — a plan that has major problems even beyond its support for authoritarian rule.
“The Egypt model is missing a key ingredient in Sudan, which is a cohesive military,” Boswell said. “Bashir didn’t leave behind anything close to what you have in Egypt in terms of a professional, unified military.”
Although the TMC has managed to keep a fairly unified front since the ouster of Bashir, analysts fear that if that alliance fractures it could lead to rival factions vying for power and the potential for Sudan’s crisis to deteriorate into civil war.
The most powerful figure in Khartoum among the TMC leaders may be Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is known as Hemeti and who leads the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary. Hemeti’s forces have essentially assumed control of the capital, and groups of RSF fighters now roam the capital looking for opposition members and protesters who have gone into hiding amid fears of violence.
Hemeti’s RSF militia largely consists of former Janjaweed fighters, which for years under Bashir led a horrific government-backed campaign of mass killings and sexual violence in the western Darfur region of the country. Janjaweed fighters committed rampant war crimes as they targeted non-Arab tribes in Darfur, while the Sudanese military supported their atrocities with the aerial bombing of villages. Between 200,000 to 300,000 people were killed, and millions were displaced in what the United Nations described as a genocide.
Hemeti was a Janjaweed commander before assuming leadership of the RSF, and more recently his forces have been sent to Yemen to aid the Saudi-led intervention there. As a result, Hemeti has gained powerful patrons and become an influential player in Sudan’s politics.
“There’s now a giant Hemeti problem in Sudan because it’s difficult to see how you move on with him,” Boswell said. “But it’s difficult to see how to move on without him because he’s grown too large.”
As head of the RSF, Hemeti has received the backing of Saudi Arabia and in May met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that country’s de facto ruler, in Riyadh. Meanwhile, the other figures in the TMC, including leader of the Sudanese army Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, also continue to receive support from the Saudis, United Arab Emirates and Egypt despite widespread reports of rights abuses.
An Internet Blackout Stifles Protests
The Transitional Military Council is not solely relying on violence in its attempts to break down the opposition movement. Following the assault on demonstrators in early June, the TMC also began shutting down access to the internet — first targeting mobile networks and social media but eventually completely blocking any access to the internet across the country.
Most important, the shutdown blocked access to encrypted messaging apps that protesters used to communicate and coordinate actions, forcing Sudanese citizens to use landlines and mobile networks that state security forces could potentially monitor.
Human rights groups and monitors now find it increasingly hard to confirm reports of violence and atrocities.
“It’s really slowed down the flow of information coming out of the country,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s made it extremely difficult to verify anything in a way that’s ethical and takes into consideration people’s safety.”
Only around a third of Sudan’s population has access to the internet, but many of the country’s social media users participated in the protests and helped bring the crisis to international attention. Images and videos from April’s rallies turned demonstrators such as 22-year-old Alaa Salah, an architecture student who sang revolutionary poems on top of cars, into icons of the protest movement.
The shutdown has had devastating effects beyond the protests, making it harder for medical services to quickly get information about emergencies and for citizens to avoid conflict. Doctors who would have used social media and messaging apps to put out information on sexual assault and medical care were unable to reach those in need following the attacks earlier this month. Parts of the economy that rely on internet connectivity are unable to function, with monitors estimating that the shutdown has already cost Sudan hundreds of millions of dollars.
The TMC has been open about its use of the internet blackout, giving no timeline for the return of services. The shutdown is indicative of a wider tactic of authoritarian governments to block internet and telecommunications access to assert their power — in recent years, an internet blackout in Cameroon lasted 230 days. But these shutdowns are also a means of blocking the outside world from seeing atrocities and rights violations committed within the country, effectively allowing authorities to operate without regard to the rule of law.
“If no one can see what’s going on, if no one can prove it, then how can you hold people accountable?” Motaparthy said.
What Comes Next?
Although the internet remains cut off and the potential for further violence remains high, there have been some positive signs in recent days. The TMC admitted rights abuses during the attack on June 3, while protesters called off a strike in order to resume peace talks with authorities. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken a lead role in attempting to broker a settlement.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been extremely slow to get involved in the Sudan crisis, which analysts point to as part of the State Department’s broader lack of engagement with African politics under President Donald Trump’s administration. The U.S. has no ambassador to Sudan and the State Department appointed a special envoy to the country only this week — a position that has been standard in previous administrations.
“The U.S. has been remarkably absent,” Boswell said.
The lack of U.S. involvement is especially notable as it’s in a unique position to influence Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — three countries with extremely close ties to the Trump administration — when it comes to their support for the TMC. If those states are left to pursue what appears to be their current strategy of backing military leadership, experts warn, there is the potential for Sudan to fall further into crisis and the threat of civil war to grow.
Protesters have also begun to gather again, led by local neighborhood committees that are managing to organize demonstrations despite the lack of internet access. How authorities respond to the renewed calls for a civilian government will test whether Sudan can move forward or whether more violence is yet to come.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.