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Opinion Bloodshed and indifference: Sudan dreams of democracy, but nothing has changed

Elamin Abdelmahmoud is a writer based in Toronto.

For a brief, glimmering moment in April, there was hope in Sudan – that things might not be as they always were.

The army had just announced that it was taking over rule from Omar al-Bashir, questioned in a corruption investigation and wanted for war crimes, who had been in power since 1989. The Sudanese people and members of the diaspora worldwide were suspicious about another military government, but we allowed ourselves a day to celebrate: a nightmarish despot was gone.

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Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster came after a peaceful sit-in. As civilians negotiated with the transitional military council, the hopes of a pro-democracy movement grew, but the sit-in continued. People in Sudan, or people like me whose families were uprooted from the country because of Mr. al-Bashir’s regime, watched closely, waiting for a sign that civilian governance would finally come to a country where the regime had ruled with an iron fist for so long. The sit-in, refusing to leave, became the democracy insurance policy.

But the weeks turned into months. And eventually, it became clear that the military council was biding its time, and that it never intended to give up its grasp on power. Then, this week, on the last day of the holy month of Ramadan, a massacre erupted.

A Sudanese protester holds a national flag as he stands on a barricade, demanding that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians, in Khartoum, Sudan on June 5, 2019.

STRINGER/Reuters

A paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) unleashed hell. The RSF are infamous, made up of the scraps of another disreputable force, the Janjaweed, who were responsible for so much evil in Darfur.

The RSF dispersed the sit-in with an attack that killed at least 35, according to a doctors’ group associated with the protest. The same group says the RSF is now responsible for about 100 dead and hundreds injured around Khartoum. The RSF didn’t just kill; they also reportedly pillaged, raped and burned. They set up dozens of checkpoints, ready to crack down on protesters who gather. Bodies were pulled out of the Nile.

Which is to say: Things are as they were, again.

It was only a few months ago, in December, when Sudan’s pro-democracy dreams burst forth – the nebulous anger of 30 years of repression, transmuted by unrest over gas and bread prices, snowballing into a more fundamental protest against the idea of being ruled for another 30 years by someone such as Mr. al-Bashir.

It stands to reason, then, that the rest of the democratic world should have put its support behind these protesters, crying out for freedom. But things were as they always were. As the citizens of Sudan cried out for help against their abusers, the world around them – too concerned about strategic interests in the region – merely issued tepid statements backing the revolution. And while they dealt in symbolism and rhetoric, undemocratic forces were leaping into action. In the past few weeks alone, the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all laid out the red carpet for the top generals of the military council.

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Those countries have a strong stake in Sudan’s revolution never materializing. Egypt treasures the military’s involvement in government, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have benefited from an endless supply of Sudanese soldiers in their war against Yemen. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, China and Russia blocked the Security Council’s attempt to condemn this massacre of civilians. China reportedly objected to the draft of the condemnation.

Countries that profess to value democracy stood by as the sit-in dragged on. Whether it be the United States or Canada, France or Germany, the indifference was deafening. There were countless opportunities to be involved in ensuring a peaceful transition of power from the military to civilians. And once the military council felt confident that the world wasn’t paying attention, that’s when the violence came.

Now Sudan’s citizen protesters know what they must have always known, since things were always as they were: They’re going to have to realize their dreams on their own. In the days immediately after Mr. al-Bashir’s removal, the military council announced that his right-hand man, also a military general, would take over. Protesters at the sit-in started a chant: “saqqatat awal, tasqut tani” (“It fell once, it will fall again”). It was their way of signalling that they are not satisfied with what they’ve been handed. That general, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, lasted about 30 hours before he, too, stepped down.

In the wake of the massacre, there’s been an outpouring of anger and grief on Sudanese social-media channels. But another mantra has begun to emerge: “saqqatat tani, tasqut talit."

It fell a second time. It will fall a third.

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