‘Smoke and mirrors’ in post-revolution Sudan: Lessons from Egypt

This time two years ago, Sudan was in the midst of an unprecedented revolution. Citizens of all ethnicities, religious beliefs and walks of life across the whole country had come together to call for justice, democracy, human rights, and an end to nearly three decades of repression under President Omar al Bashir. An Islamist army officer, al Bashir had seized power from an elected government in 1989, and had enjoyed support from the Muslim Brotherhood movement both inside and outside the country.

After several months of consistent demonstrations which saw the Sudanese people overcome a repressive and heavy-handed response from the government and its security forces, it seemed as though their vision for an inclusive Sudan was finally within touching distance. President al Bashir was arrested in April 2019, and in August a transitional government was appointed to oversee the country’s progression towards democracy, with the transition period scheduled to end in 2022.

While these welcome developments were praised by many as ushering in a new era for Sudan, progress since then has been frustratingly slow.

Human rights violations, including violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), continue to occur on a regular basis, and there is still a need to ensure that justice is served for atrocity crimes committed under the previous regime, and indeed by members of the current government who are alleged to have been complicit in crackdowns on protesters, including the shocking massacre of demonstrators in Khartoum on 3 June 2019.

A concerning parallel

In many ways, Sudan today finds itself in a similar position to that of Egypt a decade ago. There, on 11 February 2011, the Egyptian government announced that the country’s president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, had resigned and transferred power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after just over two weeks of widespread protests which took place amid the wider Arab Spring.

Much like the ouster of al Bashir over eight years later, the removal of Mubarak was welcomed as ushering in the opportunity for a democratic transition and inclusivity by bringing an end to decades of repressive rule characterised by police brutality and limits on fundamental human rights such as FoRB and freedom of expression.

Protesters gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “Tahrir Square ميدان التحرير” by Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي is licensed under CC BY 2.0

However, under the SCAF the country saw a surge in sectarian attacks, including the infamous massacre of 27 unarmed protestors at Maspero in what became known as “Egypt’s Bloody Sunday.”  Subsequently, requirements for electoral participation designed by the SCAF effectively ensured the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2012.  The organisation was a late comer to the anti-Mubarak protests, but was united and far better organised than the fragmented progressive forces that had been at the vanguard of the movement for change. 

During President Mohammed Morsi’s tenure Egypt witnessed the unprecedented siege on St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox papacy; the murders of four Shi’a men, including a prominent clergyman; an increase in blasphemy accusations, and the tacit endorsement of Egyptians travelling to participate in jihad in Syria.  However, less than a year after the Brotherhood assumed power, and amidst overwhelming discontent at economic chaos, repression of civil society, continuing sectarian violence and the “brotherhoodisation” of key sectors, the army seized control once again, creating an interim government that ultimately ushered in the presidency of General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi.

Sadly, over a decade later and genuine positive change remains elusive for many Egyptian citizens. In fact, the current situation of human rights is highly concerning. The current government is  responsible for excessive crackdowns on human rights defenders non-governmental organisations and fundamental freedoms, including jailing female social media influencers and gang rape witnesses on vague morality charges.

Limited positive developments have been observed, such as the legalisation of places of worship and symbolic overtures towards the country’s Coptic community; however, vulnerable religious communities continue to experience sectarian hostilities and violence due to abiding and unaddressed societal hostility. Clearly, the promise of the revolution is yet to be fully realised.

Smoke and mirrors

There are growing indications Sudan’s revolution may suffer a similar fate.

The transitional government appears to have taken several positive steps for human rights, including by repealing the death penalty for apostasy, by pledging to co-operate with the International Criminal Court, and by taking steps to investigate attacks on churches in the country.

In December 2020 the country won its long-sought after removal from the US State Sponsors of Terror list, enabling Sudan to gain access to debt relief from the International Monetary Fund and other global institutions.  Sudan has also repeatedly drawn praise from the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for the progress the country has made.

Nevertheless, there is a genuine concern that the steps taken so far to address infamous issues such as apostasy and cooperation with the ICC, may essentially be little more than a smoke and mirrors exercise, winning favour in the eyes of the international community whilst failing to undertake the fundamental legal and institutional reforms that would lead to the systemic change that ensures and safeguards democratic gains for Sudan’s citizens. 

Sudan has been re-integrated into the international community, despite continued and pressing human rights concerns, and without consideration of the sad trajectory of the revolution in Egypt, or more recently, events in Myanmar, where the power imbalance inherent in a military-civilian hybrid leadership has been illustrated so starkly.

The forces that united for change to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds have now fractured, hindering the ability to formulate effective strategies to drive the reform process forward, and weakening the influence of the civilian element of the government. 

Meanwhile, the military increasingly has gained the upper hand.  The head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF, formerly the Janjaweed militia), General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, is currently deputy chair of Sudan’s Sovereign Council and is considered the most powerful person in the country.  He is increasingly assuming the air of a self-ordained leader in waiting.

Hemedti’s forces were responsible for the June 2019 attack on sit-in sites in Khartoum which resulted in at least 128 deaths, over 70 verified reports of sexual assault, and at least 650 people injured.  Worryingly, 166 decomposing bodies were recently discovered in the Gezira state mortuary who are also thought to have been victims of the 2019 massacre.

200+ RSF vehicles remove barricades, Almashtal St, Khartoum. Photo: Sudanese Translators for Change

The RSF and its leader are yet to face justice for these violations, or for earlier atrocities committed in Darfur. Many of its members are battle-hardened from fighting in Yemen and Libya. RSF elements are also implicated in a current increase in insecurity in South Kordofan that targets civilians. A massacre which claimed at least 129 lives marked the commencement of an ongoing surge in militia violence in the aftermath of the termination of  the mandate of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), and the subsequent withdrawal of the forces.

CSW continues to receive reports of attacks on Christians and churches, which occur amidst abiding societal hostility.  In a positive development, in October 2020, a criminal court in Omdurman dismissed all charges against eight leaders of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) who were initially arrested on 23 August 2017 for refusing to hand over administrative control to a government-appointed and unelected church committee. However, the illegal committee is still operating, despite the Supreme Court decision that ordered its dissolution.

Additionally, although the Committee for dismantling the empowerment of the former regime had promised to investigate all corruption claims and to returned church properties that had been sold illegally, no action has been taken so far.

Moreover, several laws remain in effect which contain provisions that limit personal freedoms and criminalise blasphemy in violation of the right to FoRB, with little indication from the authorities that these laws will be amended or repealed.

Learning from experiences

In another worrying echo of past events in Egypt, where demonstrations resumed in Tahrir Square to protest poor governance and ongoing injustices under the Morsi government, there has been a wave of protests in Khartoum and in the states opposing new bread prices and repeating demands for action, including on such issues as justice for the martyrs of the revolution and the formation of the legislative assembly.

Developments such as these lay bare just how vital it is that the international community continues to maintain a robust degree of scrutiny on Sudan, and to strengthen progressive forces within the government. While the transitional government’s pledges and policies are a good start, these must not be mistaken for the comprehensive transformation needed by a nation and society which has over three decades of egregious human rights violations to contend with, and where the institutional and economic structures that underpinned the former regime remain unchanged.

Sudan must ensure that those responsible for violations of FoRB and other human rights are held to account, no matter how historic such violations may be, or indeed who is responsible. It must continue to investigate attacks on minority religious and ethnic communities, and the return of properties illegally sold or seized.

Most of all, the country must take the hard decisions that will ensure the structural reforms that are essential to the guaranteeing of lasting change.  Only then will it realise the vision of the genuinely inclusive nation that united so many of its citizens in protest, and create a Sudan where every individual can enjoy fully the rights afforded to them by the constitution and by international legislation to which the it is a signatory.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer, Ellis Heasley

Featured image by Amgad Salah (Facebook)