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Why did the talks between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and protest groups break down?

Sudanese demonstrators attend the ongoing protests demanding a civilian transition government in front of military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan on 27 April 2019 [Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency]
Sudanese demonstrators attend the ongoing protests demanding a civilian transition government in front of military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan on 27 April 2019 [Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty Images]

If the walls of Sudan’s presidential palace could speak, they would tell of a stark difference in the atmosphere of the talks between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) before and after the 72-hour delay imposed by the TMC last week.

The failure of the two sides to agree on Monday appears to be a direct result of the events that transpired in the intervening 72-hour period that saw compliance with the army’s demand for barricades across Khartoum to be dismantled, as well as massive counter-demonstrations by tens of thousands of people belonging to religious groups. Members of more than 500 mosques marched outside the presidential palace demanding that the agreement between the TMC and DFCF be brought to an end, and Islamic law in the land be protected.

A week earlier, the TMC had agreed on a Sovereign Council and Legislative Ruling Council made up of 300 members, two-thirds from the DFCF and one-third from the groups not involved in the negotiations. However, reports suggested that the TMC seized on the general discontent on the street that the talks should be called off because it was not prepared to surrender power to civilian rule and needed to buy time. Suspicions that the Sudanese Army wanted to renege on the deal intensified given the disproportionate time allowed to dismantle the barricades.

The move wrong-footed the DFCF, which appeared to have the country’s sympathy due to the killing of five protesters by “rogue” army officers, but who many felt had overstepped the mark with a haphazard and lawless imposition of barricades which brought the capital’s traffic to a standstill. However, the break in talks allowed the army to announce the arrest of 15 soldiers involved in the killings, which partly dispelled the claim that the institution itself was behind them. The announcement, coupled with the removal of the barricades, swung public opinion in favour of the TMC.

READ: Sudan’s transitional agreement and its importance for Africa and the Arab world

However, on Friday, religious leader Abdul-Hai Yousuf made an incendiary speech. “They [the DFCF] want to get rid of any trace of Islam, they want to change the school curriculum, they want to replace dictatorship with dictatorship,” he claimed, adding that members of the TMC were unhappy with the agreement and called for the agreement to be cancelled. “We say and we continue to say to the Military Council, we emphatically reject this agreement which does not represent the consciousness of the Sudanese people.”

From then on, the uneasy public truce between the two sides was derailed. In response to Yousuf’s comments, the DFCF launched a public attack on the TMC, accusing it of using religious groups to undermine the transition agreement, a move that is reported to have incensed the TMC and, indeed, the leaders of the religious groups. On Friday, three major religious leaders —Yousuf in Jebbra, Mudathir Ismail in Hajj Yousif and Mohammed Abdul Kareem in Jaaref — staged impromptu marches after prayers in various districts of the capital before descending on the presidential palace on Saturday.

The same day, the DFCF intensified its attacks against the religious groups and let it be known that it was insisting that the leader of the Sovereign Council be a civilian. This was another move which shook the relationship with the TMC as it contradicted the joint statement and went against the consensus not to publicise the points of difference between the two sides. There seemed little doubt that the turnout of religious groups condemning the agreement had swung the balance and changed the atmosphere within the walls of the palace when the talks resumed on Sunday.

There, the army could now legitimately claim a base represented by the Islamic groups that supported its retention of power, undermining the DFCF claim to be the representatives of the people. It could point to the arrests of the suspects thought to be responsible for the killings, quelling allegations of its complicity. It could also allege that the DFCF was unjust in accusing the TMC of orchestrating religious protests when, in fact, the TMC had prevented religious groups from marching a week earlier. In addition, the TMC could point to the breach of agreed principles that the DFCF had made by publicly giving voice to the points of disagreements between the two sides.

READ: After ousting Bashir, Sudan’s activists struggle to loosen military’s grip

Inside the palace walls the TMC was in no mood to concede the DFCF’s most innovative but highly controversial suggestion. Sources therein say that the DFCF suggested that the Head of the TMC should resign from the army but remain President of Sudan in the three-year transitional period so that the DFCF could legitimately claim that the country was ruled by a civilian president. The leader, Abdel-Fatah Burhan, rejected the suggestion out of hand.

The talks ended yesterday with a promise of more talks between a joint technical committee, but no clear date was set for when full talks might resume. The coming days could prove the most difficult yet for the Sudanese revolution unless a solution is found. As rival protest groups announce plans to continue protesting, in the country of two Niles the people and Republic of Sudan head into uncharted waters after seemingly being so close to bringing the boat home safely.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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