Editor’s note: Justin Lynch is a researcher and analyst in Washington, DC. He is co-author of the book “Sudan’s unfinished democracy.” The opinions expressed here are my own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Four years ago, almost to this day, the people of Sudan were celebrating a revolution after overthrowing the dictator Omar al-Bashir. Now the East African country faces the possibility of total collapse similar to the chaos we see today in Yemen or Libya.
On Saturday, rival military factions began fighting each other in the capital Khartoum. The two sides fought for control of the nation’s airports, bases, and military compounds. Violence quickly spilled into the streets and across the country.
Some 45 million Sudanese are effectively being held hostage and cannot venture out of their homes for fear of being killed in the crossfire. at least 180 people have been killed in the fighting, including three World Food Program humanitarian workers.
The conflict pits two bitter rivals against each other and their powerful armed forces. On one side are the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. On the other side are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti.
There is no good side in this conflict. Both have been accused of a long litany of human rights violations.
How did Sudan go from throwing off despotic rule and creating a fledgling democracy a few years ago to teetering on the brink of state collapse?
On April 11, 2019, Sudan’s longtime dictator Bashir was overthrown. Bashir’s ouster was caused by months of protests led by unions in Sudan, which led to a military coup by the SAF and RSF. Both Burhan and Hemeti joined forces to remove their former boss.
It was a moment of promise because there was hope for democracy. I remember walking around the “sit-in,” a gigantic freedom carnival in the middle of Khartoum that protesters had blocked to demand change. it was electric
But social movements like the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), the union behind the protest, often struggle to translate the momentum of their demonstrations into real political power.
The reason for this is, in part, structural. Social movements like the SPA are often based on grassroots activism. A dictator can arrest one or two leaders of an organization, but not an entire country.
However, once a dictator is overthrown, these types of social movements often struggle to build the necessary leadership hierarchy during the political negotiations that take place. Like many other movements, the protesters in Sudan were unable to translate mobilization into political power.
Civilian leaders began a negotiation with the military over the country’s future shortly after Bashir’s fall in April 2019. The two sides were not evenly matched. Because of these leadership challenges, the pro-democracy forces struggled to negotiate with the disciplined military.
Any momentum pro-democracy advocates had during the negotiations was wiped out in June 2019 when RSF soldiers violently dispersed the sit-in More than 100 people were killed.
After the June massacre and leadership challenges, a transitional constitution it was signed in August 2019 that gave the SAF and RSF most of the power in Sudan. Burhan was the head of state and Hemeti held a high political position. Elections were promised in 2022, but few believed they would actually happen.
The transition period began in August 2019, and I interviewed Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister, several times for a book I co-wrote on the Sudan revolution. The way the constitution was written meant that Hamdok had limited power as prime minister. Burhan was the head of state and wanted to preserve the powers of the SAF.
Hamdok often told me that revolutions come in cycles. Bashir’s ouster in 2019 was a highlight of the revolution, and he saw his job as being to make as many reforms as possible before the low tide of counterrevolution swept him away.
Hamdok found that the legacy of 30 years of dictatorship meant that Sudan’s political and economic models were in shambles. But Burhan and Hemeti blocked the big reforms that Hamdok wanted to make.
Outside of Khartoum violence grew. Parts of Sudan such as Darfur saw a new round of inter-ethnic conflict orchestrated by RSF troops. More than 430,000 people were displaced due to the conflict in Sudan, mainly in Darfur.
The soldiers did not hide the atrocities they committed against civilians. I remember having tea with an RSF-aligned soldier at his home in Darfur as he explained why he had recently been involved in burning down a village from another ethnic group.
The soldier reasoned that a member of his tribe had been killed in an altercation, so RSF-aligned forces retaliated by burning down a village that had been home to 30,000 people. At least 163 people died.
Tensions grew between the SAF and the RSF. Burhan saw Hemeti and his RSF forces as upstart usurpers from Darfur who were undisciplined. Hemeti, on the other hand, believed that it was time for Darfur to lead Sudan.
Hamdok was about to start turning the economy around when Burhan and the SAF intervened. As we wrote in the book “Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy,” the potential success of civilian rule was too much for Burhan. In October 2021, Hamdok was ousted in a military coup.
After the October 2021 coup, the United States and the United Nations pushed through a worse version of the transitional constitution in Sudan. discussed that it was the best way to carry democracy.
The idea was to restart the transition period, but I and many others argued that it was myopic and it would not work. Returning to a government led by Burhan was clearly will not score in democracy If the plan ended in a coup the first time, why would it work the second time?
Some activists stopped associating themselves with the US and came to see the UN mission as an obstacle to democracy due to these policies. I felt sorry when I spoke to the best American and foreign diplomats, who also understood that international politics in Sudan would not work. They saw the flaws, but felt powerless to dissent and were forced to carry out decisions made at many levels above them.
What preceded the outbreak of clashes this weekend was a controversial part of international politics that tried to unify the SAF and the RSF. The idea was to make a single army, but neither Hemeti nor Burhan wanted to give up the power they had accumulated.
The plan to unify the armed forces had not worked in similar contexts. Was A repeat of the 2013 and 2016 unification processes that took place in South Sudan with similarly bloody results. Instead, the tenuous relationship between Burhan and Hemeti boiled over under the pressure.
It can be easy to look at the recent history of “revolutions” in countries like Myanmar, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan and conclude that they ultimately backfire. I disagree I learned from Sudanese activists that the political fortunes of a nation is an active battle.
One day we can hope that Sudan will see its dreams of democracy come true. But right now, the Sudanese people are just hoping to get through the day.
The lesson from Sudan is that a revolution is only the beginning of change, not the end.