Khalid Medani speaks to Eddie Conway about Sudanese opposition to al-Bashir and the sit-in that continues through Ramadan
EDDIE CONWAY Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Protests in the Sudan continues. The military, which had turned against Omar al-Bashir’s government and protected the protesters from the presidential guard, has seized power, but they refused to relinquish this power for the sake of a civilian government. Protesters flocked to the capital of Khartoum and intensified their demand for democracy. Against the deadly fire arms used by the military, protesters are using paint and brushes and utilizing art as a means of resistance. Here is a clip of two graffiti artists who are contributing in their own way to the protests.
EDDIE CONWAY Joining me to explain what’s going on in Sudan is Professor Khalid Mustafa Medani. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Islamic studies, Chair of the African Studies at McGill University, and he wrote and edited a lot of articles on Sudan, among his prolific writings on Africa, Arabic, and Islamic political economy. Thanks for joining me, professor.
KHALID MEDANI You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me as your guest today. It’s my honor.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. We interviewed Khalid Ahmad here at The Real News about two weeks ago, and he said that the revolt started out as a fake coup orchestrated by Omar al-Bashir himself. Do you agree with that?
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KHALID MEDANI I didn’t see his interview so I’m not sure of the context, but no, I don’t agree with that at all. The protest began on December 19th, 2018 last year in a small town north of the capital of Khartoum and they quickly expanded all over the country. So by the time that Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power, the entire country continued and participated in the protest. Not only throughout the country, in every region of the country, in the north, and the West, and the east, but also across the different social groups in the country. So by the time that Omar al-Bashir was ousted, there were millions who were participating in the protests, and hundreds of thousands who continued their sit-in in front of the army headquarters to force him out of power. So I don’t agree that the protests were instigated or orchestrated by Omar al-Bashir. That is something that is—I actually haven’t heard this before. So I wouldn’t agree with that. I think he may have. I haven’t seen the interview, but he may have, you know, suggested that there was some kind of agreement between Omar al-Bashir and Awad Ibn Auf, the other military leader that took over power after Omar al-Bashir was ousted, because there are close relationships between Omar al-Bashir, his allies, and those who are now in the transitional military council. So your guest may have suggested, I’m not sure, that they took over, so to speak, the protest and the revolutionary attempts of the Sudanese people in order to remove Bashir, but at the same time, not hold him or his allies accountable to trial for the crimes that they committed over the past 30 years when they were in power. So he may have simply suggested that there was and continues to be an alliance between Omar al-Bashir, who is now under arrest, and his allies from the former regime and remnants of that former regime which are now presiding over the transitional military council. That’s very different from saying that the protests themselves, that are truly popular and unprecedented protests in the country, were somehow orchestrated by Omar al-Bashir or anyone in the military.
EDDIE CONWAY And so, even though the military had made efforts to meet the demands of the protesters, the protesters continue to sit outside the military headquarters. Has this grown beyond the ability of the government to control it at this point?
KHALID MEDANI I think so. I think that, certainly the transitional military council that has taken over, has attempted to break up the sit-in in a variety of different ways, but they have been genuinely, truly unsuccessful. Once again, because this is a broad-based opposition. The protests include people from all over the country who now participate in the sit-in and continue to participate in the sit in. I think that they are trying to negotiate a soft landing for themselves, so to speak.
But the reason the sit-in continues and will continue, and the opposition has made it very clear is that their number one demand has not been met. And that is a demand of a transition from the transitional military council, into a truly genuine transition to a civilian government that would oversee a transitional period leading up to multi-party elections. And so, the reason that the Sudanese population continues to protest and continues to participate in the sit-in—Remember now, we’re into the holy month of Ramadan, and the protesters are setting up their traditional iftar, or the breaking of the fast meal, in order to sustain these sit-ins and protests. And so, until—from the perspective of the opposition of course, until the major demand of a transition to a civilian government from a military one is met, they have no intention of stopping the sit-in and returning to their homes, so to speak.
EDDIE CONWAY Is the reason that the military is reluctant to hand power over to civilians, is that they might be afraid that Omar al-Bashir and other generals will be extradited to the International Criminal Court to stand trial over the war crimes committed during the Civil War, the war in Darfur?
KHALID MEDANI Absolutely. That’s one of their most important considerations. I think you make an excellent point. Absolutely. As I said before, the military council definitely has remnants of the previous regime. Not only al-Burhan, who is the head of the transitional military council, who was very close to Omar al-Bashir and also participated in recruiting soldiers to fight in support of the Saudi Arabian effort in Yemen, but also the deputy of the transitional military council, a man by the name of Hemeti, was a leader of something called the Rapid Support Forces, which is essentially a paramilitary force created by former President Omar al-Bashir to put down protests and opposition in Darfur and in the central part of the country, the Nuba Mountains, and other locales, including protests in the past in Khartoum.
And so, one of the major reasons, you’re absolutely right, is that if they were to give up power completely to a civilian government that is calling not only for a civilian government but to the return of accountability, transparency, an independent judiciary, a rule of law— that Omar al-Bashir and others who committed crimes in Darfur, war crimes, humanitarian crimes, or crimes against humanity, would be not only if not forwarded to the International Criminal Court, they would have to face very stiff penalties within Sudan itself since the Sudanese are fully aware of the crimes that Omar al-Bashir and his allies committed against many, many people in the country. So that’s one very important aspect of why they’re reluctant to give up power to a civilian government.
Another one is simply also to maintain their privileges. This is a deep state that was built over 30 years. Many in the military have a great deal of wealth that they accumulated through a lot of shady and corrupt dealings and those assets that they established over 30 years that are very important to them, not only Omar al-Bashir and his brothers, but many in the upper ranks, not the lower ranks, but the upper ranks of the armed forces, would of course come under threat. Already many Sudanese—the opposition has been calling not only for accountability, but for the returning of these assets that belong to the Sudanese people back to the population because most of this wealth was accumulated under the context of very corrupt deals, not only within Sudan, but with patrons outside of the country, foreign powers outside of the country. So that is another really important reason why they don’t want to give up power because they feel that not only their own security, personal security, but also their financial privileges and economic privileges that they amassed under 30 years of authoritarian rule, would be taken from them and many of them of course would be held accountable for the crime of corruption. That is something that they’re very concerned about.
Of course, their own discourse is a little bit different from that. They claim, of course, that they are concerned about the stability of the country. And of course, they have allies in the Gulf and elsewhere that are supporting them, so their discourse, of course, is one to rationalize their continued hold on power by saying that it’s only the military at this stage that would be able to maintain stability. But I would suggest to you and maintain very confidently that that is not the case. The only road towards stability for Sudan, we can see very clearly, is a genuine transfer to civilian accountable government that represents the voice of the millions of Sudanese that have been protesting now in Sudan for over four [inaudible] these protest incidents.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay. You mentioned that they have allies in the region and it seems that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates often aid to the military and aid to the government. Why are they suddenly interfering into this situation in Sudan and what are they trying to achieve? I understand Sudan already has troops supporting their war in Yemen. What else is involved here?
KHALID MEDANI Well Sudan, if you look at the map, is extremely geopolitically strategic and important. It borders the Red Sea, which is a very short trip to Saudi Arabia. It also, of course, borders Egypt and Libya and has real close connections to the Sahel region, across the Sahel region of Africa, and, of course, in the Horn of Africa itself with Ethiopia and Eritrea on the eastern flank of the country. So strategically, it’s very, very important. So there is a strategic interest on the part of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. They feel very strongly that their own interests are really influenced and in great part shaped in the region by a close alliance with a government in Sudan.
And therefore, for decades, of course, they have supported and were supporting the regime of Omar al-Bashir. Once he was ousted, they feel from their perspective that their own interests— economic, strategic, and financial—would only be secured with a close alliance with a military leader of the type that Omar al-Bashir represented to them. That’s a really important aspect of their strategic interest. Now another aspect is that these are, this is a coalition, essentially an alliance— Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt— an alliance that is in stiff competition geopolitically and regionally with the also wealthy and powerful country of Qatar that is in alliance with Turkey.
So you have Sudan at the moment in the midst of geopolitical competition between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates that have strategic and financial interests in Sudan and in competition, regional competition, with Qatar and Turkey that also have very important economic, financial, and geopolitical strategic interest in a country that is located in that part of the world. So, this is the reason. There is also another important related reason and that is that the example of a democratic government, a civilian government in Sudan, and in particular a successful protest leading to democracy and overthrowing military rule or authoritarian rule, would of course set a precedent from that perspective of countries. I’m talking about the leadership, not the people, but countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. It would set a precedent for them of a potential kind of reverberation of a protest calling for human rights and a transfer to civilian democracy in their own countries. And that is something, of course, that threatens the leadership of these countries as well.
So there are financial, economic, and geopolitical interests, but there are also these longer-term considerations that have to do with what would happen in the region to these countries if these millions of protesters in Sudan were able to not only overthrow an authoritarian military regime but move towards civilian democratic government that represents the largest majority of the population in civil society. So if you take all of these together, you can see that there are great concerns, and this is why just recently following the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, reportedly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia forwarded upwards of three billion US dollars of aid. I believe that that’s an accurate number, but I’d have to check up on it again.
EDDIE CONWAY Yeah that number is what’s been reported.
KHALID MEDANI That’s right. That’s right. Yes.
EDDIE CONWAY So exactly where—I mean, there’s protesters right now still outside the military headquarters. Exactly where is this whole thing right now today? And what, if the protest is still pushing, what are they pushing for?
KHALID MEDANI Right now the sit-in that encompasses hundreds of thousands of people who’ve come from all over the country, not only the capital city of Khartoum, is in one of the most central parts of the capital city. Essentially, a very large square that is in front of the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces. And of course, as you know, they are now into their second month protesting and sitting in. And that is something that has been very important for the opposition because the sit-in is the major weapon they have, so to speak, to pressure the military council, the transitional military council, to negotiate with them in terms of transferring the governmental institution to a civilian government.
And so, where it stands at the moment is that there are negotiations between the main opposition under the umbrella of the Declaration of Freedom and Change. This is a very important umbrella organization opposition that includes the very important Sudanese Professional Association that has for the last upwards of four months, or now in the fifth month, that have been coordinating, orchestrating, and organizing these very, very large protests; other civilian opposition independent political parties; and three very, very important armed insurgent organizations that have been fighting the government for decades in Darfur and in the border regions with South Sudan. This opposition umbrella is negotiating with the military, the transitional military council, on the structure of the interim civilian government to come. And the negotiations have been partly successful in the sense that the transitional military council, after many days of being very reluctant to agree to a principle point, and that is that this opposition I just mentioned should be the sole representative of the opposition in the negotiations.
Through the pressure of the sit-in, the transitional military council under the leadership of Burhan accepted that this would indeed be recognized as a legitimate opposition and representative of the entire Sudanese population. Once that was recognized, the negotiations continued, but they became a little bit trickier mostly because on the issue of the representation of the transitional council to come. Right now, the negotiations really have to do with the number of civilians and military personalities that would be in the Supreme Council in the transitional government. And the opposition just yesterday forwarded a declaration, or rather a constitutional draft, to the transitional military council with a number of important points, focusing on what the structure of the interim civilian government should be. And the declaration or the draft declaration of this constitution, interim constitution, basically puts forth the proposition or the demand rather, that there would be a sovereign supreme council made up of approximately seven civilian leaders and three military leaders.
In addition to that, there would be a second level of the interim government consisting of a council of ministers that would be appointed by the opposition and there would be a legislative assembly or parliament that would represent the third branch of government. So the focus of the opposition now, through this draft constitution that they forwarded to the military council, is to focus on the structures and the balance of powers and authorities of the civilian government to come. It’s very, very important to emphasize that. Another important point that I really would like to emphasize because it’s not often discussed in the media, and that is the number one demand in addition to the structure of a civilian government on the part of the opposition, is an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resolution to what has been Sudan’s biggest problem for the last three decades. And that is the civil conflict that continue to really embroil Sudan in not only a political and humanitarian crises but also economic crises.
These are the conflicts that you’ve heard about I’m sure in the western part of the country, in the Darfur region, in the state of Southern Kordofan, a region called the Nuba Mountains, and on the border of South Sudan in a state called the Blue Nile State. The opposition, in addition to forwarding this draft constitution stipulating what the interim government should be, emphasizing that any interim government must address as a priority, the resolution of these civil conflicts, and that the leaders of these armed insurgency organizations must be brought in as part of the civilian interim government. So this is where it stands at the moment. And what is happening as we are speaking right now is that the opposition and the entire Sudanese population, as a matter of fact, is awaiting the response on the part of the military transitional council to these demands that I just outlined for you.
EDDIE CONWAY Okay, professor. Thanks for that update and that overview. And if things change, let’s see if we can’t come back and revisit this and talk about the new changes. Thank you for joining me.
KHALID MEDANI Thank you very much for having me. A pleasure.
EDDIE CONWAY And thank you for joining The Real News.