Talks have stalled, and divisions are growing. Is Sudan’s post-Bashir honeymoon over? Sudanese protesters flash victory signs and wave flags as they gather for a sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum on May 19. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Since early April, the thousands of participants in Sudan’s long-running protest have slept rough in tents and on sidewalks and endured oppressive heat.

At times, they have fled gunfire as regime loyalists attempted to break up the sit-in, a demonstration that prompted the overthrow of president Omar al-Bashir[1]. But the protesters stayed put, calling for an end to three decades of military rule and reveling in music, dance and solidarity.

But patience is growing thin.

On Tuesday, protest leaders called for a general strike after talks with military leaders on a proposed transitional government collapsed. Divisions are appearing both within the protest camp and the military leadership, and the feeling of hope that blossomed after Bashir’s ouster has given way to frustration, a sign that Sudan’s revolutionary honeymoon may be coming to an end.

“We’ve been waiting for a change: Are we going to be a civilian government or not?” asked Iram Usama, a college student who has participated in the protest with her sister Ilaf since April 6. “We’re just here, and it’s a waste of time.”

At issue is the makeup of a new governing council: Neither the protesters nor the military leaders[2] are willing to give up a majority of a proposed transitional government’s sovereign council, or control of the council’s presidency.

The tension is palpable. There is a heavy troop deployment across Khartoum. Pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns are a common sight. The protesters have likewise fortified the sit-in with tents, kitchens and barricades of bricks, signposts and fencing ringing the site.

The stakes could not be higher. With Libya, Syria and Yemen in chaos after popular attempts to challenge dictatorial regimes, many worry Sudan, a chronically unstable country already suffering from wars in Darfur and along its border with South Sudan, could succumb to the same fate.

“The situation in Sudan is extremely dangerous and could turn potentially into a serious conflict, not only within [Sudan’s] regions, but within the military itself,” said Rashid Abdi, a researcher who is the former Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

Already, things have turned deadly. On May 13, gunmen opened fire on protesters at barricades around the sit-in, killing five people, including four civilians, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee. Another 200 people were wounded, 77 by gunfire — the worst outbreak of violence in Khartoum in over a month, the doctors committee said.

Protest leaders blamed the Rapid Support Forces, a government militia separate from the army that is accused of atrocities in Darfur and whose leader is the deputy head of the transitional military council. On May 15, three witnesses said, RSF soldiers attacked protesters again, wounding 14.

RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo[3] claimed his forces arrested the perpetrators. But protest leaders and experts say the timing of last week’s violence suggests a link to dissent within the transitional military council, which includes leaders from the army, the RSF and other agencies.

The May 13 violence broke out after the council reached a deal with civilians to give two-thirds of seats in a proposed legislative council to protest leaders. The shooting two days later occurred just hours before the two sides were to announce a final deal, which was later canceled.

The clashes have put the spotlight on Dagolo. Under his leadership, the RSF has transformed from a counterinsurgency militia to a force rivaling the army itself, giving him the power to dictate terms — or derail progress.

“Essentially, it’s a second army,” said Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at Nairobi’s Rift Valley Institute. “Resolving the dichotomy between the army and the RSF today is not possible without a war.”

The protest movement is also showing cracks. From the start, women featured prominently at the sit-in[4], but now the vast majority of protesters on the streets are men, as are all members of the leadership’s negotiating team. Some minorities and people from marginalized areas such as Darfur, who harbor perhaps the biggest grievances against the regime, also say they are sidelined.

“When the coup d’etat happened, I thought that was the end of classism and the end of the exclusion and the end of the political elites,” said Adeeb Yousif, a Darfuri academic at George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. “The reality is that Darfurians are not represented in the negotiations . . . It makes me think this is a Khartoum-Khartoum dialogue to decide for the rest of Sudan.”

But the most significant rupture among the protesters is between radical youth urging for direct action to pressure the regime to hand over power and more cautious protest leaders.

The divide emerged when protest leaders ordered the removal of barricades erected during and after the violence on May 13 that shut down much of central Khartoum. The military council blamed the roadblocks for the chaos and demanded their removal. When protest leaders acquiesced, many protesters objected.

Ilaf Usama, Iram’s sister, said with all the delays, she would not necessarily follow future directives from protest leaders.

“We need to apply pressure to [our leaders] to solve this by tomorrow, maximum two days,” she said Monday, as disappointed protesters streamed past her, preparing for another day and night of waiting. “If they don’t do this and give us the complete civilian government, we’re going to rebuild the barricades, and we’ll never let them go until we get what we want.”

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