The honeymoon is over in Khartoum. There was a short period of ambiguity and hope between April 11, 2019 when Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir was removed from power by his own generals and June 3, 2019 when security forces brutally killed over a hundred peaceful demonstrators and subsequently called for snap elections in seven months.
During that short seven-week period, there was a chance, and even some real indications, that a very Sudanese solution – fragile, confused, but hopeful – would have been found along the lines of previous transitions from military dictatorship to civilian rule. Hopes that 2019 would be something of a repeat of 1964 and 1985 have, at least for now, been dashed although it should not be forgotten that both previous transitions to democracy were brief and led back to dictatorship after a few years. Sudan is closer to the edge and it seems that a much more violent future could be in the cards if another misstep is made.
The #SudanMondayMassacre (as activists dubbed it) underscored internal tensions within the cupola of the ruling Transitional Military Council and in the region. The killings were widely blamed on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), former Janjaweed irregular forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti) and there is no reason to doubt this.
Made up of members of Darfur's camel-herding Arab tribes (some are not even Sudanese but hail from Chad or elsewhere), the RSF had developed from shock troops to be used in breaking resistance in Darfur to Bashir regime "firemen" to be used in all of Sudan's brush wars. Their utility for the regime was further enhanced as Sudan's contribution to the Arab coalition force in Yemen fighting Iranian proxies.
However, in the past six months, the RSF and Hemeti seemed to ably maneuver in Khartoum's volatile politics, refusing Bashir's orders to crush civilian demonstrators and even trying to identify with civilian demonstrators as several of Bashir's generals were forced from the TMC. Sudan's Defense Minister and the head of its feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) were ostensibly swept from power and a general, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, who had actually met with demonstrators, was chosen as the new TMC Chairman. Al-Burhan is technically in charge with Hemeti as his deputy.
Hemeti's tone has hardened, warning against "chaos" as Al-Burhan has attempted to appear more flexible. Sudan's opposition has also hardened its position, refusing to return to negotiations until there is accountability for the TMC's actions, return to full civilian rule, and the disarming of the RSF.
If Al-Burhan is truly in charge, then Hemeti's days should be numbered. On paper, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are much stronger than RSF. Popular anger and international condemnation has coalesced around the RSF and its commander, who already have such a bloody track record. The massacre was, as Fouché once said, worse than a crime, a mistake. Using Sudanese history as a model, the military could have patriotically come to a real compromise, burnishing its credentials as a national institution. Even if the real intention was merely the cynical holding on to power, it could have been done differently. The TMC, holding all power, should have been able to string civil society along for months and engineer a political solution to its liking sooner or later. It could have, as the NCP did for years, find ways to divide and weaken the political opposition and find collaborators among a feckless political class. The blatant slaughter in the streets of Khartoum makes all of this much harder.
If Hemeti is not removed and the RSF suffer no punishment, it will only underscore what many already believe, that Hemeti's RSF have been able to transform themselves into the new-old regime's Praetorian Guard and that Hemeti's ambitions go further than TMC Deputy. While this is bad for Sudan's prospects for democracy, it is an interesting political development with the RSF perhaps attempting to follow a path blazed in a neighboring country. Sudan's neighbor Chad has been ruled since 1990 by Idriss Deby who ironically came to power with the help of the Sudanese regime but has generally been a fierce rival to Bashir.
Like Hemeti, Deby came from humble circumstances, from a marginal community on his country's periphery. While Deby is better educated than Hemeti, both have followed a similar path of using a key regime protection force to accumulate power. Deby is a Zaghawa, an ethnic group which makes up a tiny percentage of Chad's population. There are more Darfuri Arabs than Zaghawa in the world, but they too are a tiny minority population among Sudan's 41 million. It is entirely possible that Hemeti does indeed arrogantly dream of becoming another Deby. But if so, he may be in over his head in the current phase of the struggle for power in Sudan: powerful enough to be a major player but not strong enough to impose his will on a population that has tasted freedom.
Another key to unlocking this question may be the role of Sudan's security services in all of this, rather than SAF or RSF. The manipulation of political forces, public opinion and disinformation in Sudan is largely the work of NISS rather than that of crude Darfuris in Toyota Landcruisers. It is NISS, not the RSF, that is turning off internet access in Sudan to isolate the civic opposition and prevent more images of mass murder from emerging. The intention is to make the victims of Khartoum as invisible as the victims of marginalized areas turned into free fire zones like Jebel Marra and Nuba Mountains have become in the eyes of the world. In this scenario, Hemeti is not so clever but actually being manipulated by NISS and will serve as a convenient scapegoat when the time comes. Al-Burhan may not be a front for Hemeti but rather for a hegemonic Khartoum national security apparatus that maybe fraying. He could still change course and become the Sudanese general who embraces the banner of reform and change but that window is closing. And looming behind this internal jostling for control is the fear that Sudan could become chronically chaotic and more susceptible to Salafi-Jihadi subversion than it already is.
While a four-sided struggle for power – SAF, NISS, RSF, and everybody else – rages in Khartoum, another struggle is being waged on a pan-Arab and international level to define a narrative for what is happening inside Sudan. In an incredibly cynical media ploy, Qatar, through its media proxies in Arabic and English, is pushing propaganda placing the blame for events in Sudan at the feet of its bitter enemies in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
The reality is more complicated. Yes, those countries are supporting the TMC Junta. But Qatar and its ally Turkey were supporters of the Bashir regime as well. They empowered the same regime that created the RSF and forged close ties with the same ruling elite for years. If anything, they were closer to Bashir than their rivals, hoping that the kleptocratic Khartoum regime retained some of its old MB-inspired Islamist fervor.
The bitter truth is that Bashir and his offspring in SAF, NISS, and RSF were supported or coddled by all regional powers concerned principally about regional correlation of forces not about Sudanese domestic politics. None of them ever cared about human rights and democracy in Sudan (they do not care about them at home) and Qatar uses these issues now as a club to bludgeon its rivals. It is telling that Bashir and the Emir of Qatar were the only two Arab heads of state to attend Turkish President Erdoğan's inauguration in 2018.
* Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Government.