The agreement between the signatories to the Declaration for Freedom and Change and the Transitional Military Council in Khartoum has not been fleshed out in great detail, but the historic deal has paved the way for a new Sudan and a new model of change in Africa and the Arab world. It comes a day after five peaceful protesters and one army officer were killed and over 200 were injured, 77 of them with gunshot wounds after being fired on by soldiers hoping to derail the peace process. However, when the celebrations die down in the weeks ahead and the protest barricades are removed from the streets, the task of rebuilding a new democratic Sudan will begin in earnest.
The problems facing the country are deep and complex, but already Sudan has benefited from the Arab Spring experience of Egypt, where popular protest removed a military leader in Hosni Mubarak, but the army retook control of the country. The Sudanese people used non-violent means to weaken Omar Al-Bashir’s tight grip on power. The approach was in sharp contrast to the violent insurrections in Libya, Syria and Yemen that have led to much death and destruction. It was also contrary to the armed insurrections in three different parts of Sudan that made little headway in changing or removing the now-ousted state President. The Sudanese are hoping that a promise to once-marginalised groups of participation in government may persuade them to cease hostilities and come to a final settlement.
The hope is that a peaceful transition will set a precedent to bring about change thorough the establishment, building and strengthening of democratic institutions. Al-Bashir’s government infamously controlled every facet of society. The professional and trade unions were affiliated to the ruling party; civil society groups were financed by the central government; partisan judges and prosecutors were appointed by the government; and even social events like group weddings, breaking the fast in Ramadan and charity football matches were tightly controlled.
What’s more, the Sudanese insistence that power be handed over to civilian rule appears to have paid off. This is still a demand of the Algerians who ironically forced their leader – Abdelaziz Bouteflika – to step down before Sudan was able to do the same to Al-Bashir. However, Sudanese unwillingness to concede matters to the elite now means that the country can begin to move to dismantle the “deep state” and remove the key figures who have held and monopolised the country’s power and wealth over the years.
The economic challenges facing Sudan are immense. Monopolies on export goods once enjoyed by members of the old regime may take some time to break, as might the links between politicians and trade, where government ministers funnelled business to private or family entities. Sudan remains in need of investment, and whilst investors like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are prepared to bankroll the country, Khartoum may have to make a commitment to continue its support for the Gulf alliance against Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Hence, although Sudanese support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen remains unpopular, it may be the price that Sudan has to pay in order to get some assistance to kick start its economy.
Sudan now has a unique opportunity to lead the region by removing the press censorship that resulted in the constant jailing of journalists and sequestration of newspaper print runs. Freedom of expression was curtailed and led to an uneasy self-censorship by the press and broadcast media. The international press and mass media were restricted heavily throughout Al-Bashir’s rule, particularly in the last days of the regime, when international outlets were expelled.
Creating an openness based on facts and analysis instead of rumour, innuendo and partisanship remains a challenge. However, Sudan’s use of social media platforms is driving a new youth culture across the continent and in the region, providing an exchange of views and ideas that have become an essential feature of the country’s development. The complete lack of trust and confidence in official radio and television channels in Sudan and the marginalisation of the fine arts and culture have led to the Sudanese finding open places in social media in which to express themselves.
Observers and commentators will argue that there is now a tangibly different temperament visible amongst the Sudanese. Whilst the mood is one of hope, the revolution has brought an awareness and new consciousness of civil duties. The people, particularly the young, now have a new sense of achievement and pride in their nation state, along with a new understanding of politics, economics and national institutions. It can be argued that there is also a new sense of openness and candour about facing the problems ahead. In rejecting dogma, an enemy to progress has been identified. Resentment against the people at war with Al-Bashir’s regime has to a large extent started to disappear. The chants of “We are Darfur” during the recent demonstrations was a major shift towards healing the rift created during the years of armed conflict.
For most Sudanese the peace agreement will be the beginning of a long road to build respect for and trust in authority. A lack of transparency and accountability, and broken promises can only serve to damage the attempt to create a united, diverse and more just society. However, long after a new government is elected, the Sudanese revolutionary experience and the chants and slogans of “houriyah, houriyah” (freedom, freedom) will resonate in the ears of those bold enough to take a position in government during the transitional period. There is no doubt that the new Sudan will be watched closely by neighbouring countries in Africa and across the Arab world.