The resignation of Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk on January 3 plunged the country into another cycle of chaos as street protests demanding a political transition have intensified. Hamdouk was initially overthrown by military chief Abdul-Fattah Burhan as the deadline for a handover of power to a civilian authority loomed. The Prime Minister was put under house arrest as Burhan sought to negotiate a new deal that would see his authority extended with civilian approval.

After much discussion, negotiation, and mediation, Hamdouk agreed to return to his post. However, it soon became apparent that he no longer had any substantial authority and was instead being used as a buffer for Burhan to enact controversial measures.

Hamdouk agreed to return to his post. However, it soon became apparent that he no longer had any  authority.

Hamdouk then leaked to the media that he intended to resign in late December 2021. For more than a week, Media reports endlessly repeated that Hamdouk’s resignation was imminent. The relatively lengthy period between the leak and the actual resignation suggests Hamdouk had sought to leverage his threat of resignation to secure greater powers and authority. However, it appears that Burhan and the military stubbornly refused to cede to his requests and he subsequently resigned.

The political transition in Sudan is now in limbo. Burhan does not want to be seen as ruling alone and he is keen to find a civilian partner. He is aware that any civilian figure must be approved by Washington if he is to secure any of the financial assistance that has been promised. This reality has plunged the civilian groups into crisis as they dispute over how to leverage Burhan’s crisis in their favor.

As protests have intensified, the United Nations has sought to step in and announced that it will engage in a dialogue with the political stakeholders in Sudan to create a viable roadmap out of the crisis. On January 10, the UN declared that the talks had commenced.

Yet, there have been mixed reactions to the UN’s bid to facilitate a dialogue, with three differing opinions emerging among Sudanese participants.

There have been mixed reactions to the UN’s bid to facilitate a dialogue.

The first camp has welcomed the initiative. This includes the head of the military council Abdul-Fattah Burhan who believes that such a dialogue is a tacit recognition of his authority. For other parties including the prominent Ummah party, a dialogue allows for a renewed legitimacy. As a political stakeholder the Ummah party has been undermined by ongoing protests which have turned against the civilian parties that brokered the original agreement with the military in the aftermath of the uprising that topple long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir in 2019.

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The second camp rejects the UN dialogue, arguing that it rescues the military from their political quandary. The key proponents of this argument are the Association of Professionals, and what remains of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) which were overthrown by Burhan in his coup late last year.  Ironically, the FFC had originally agreed to ally with the military in 2019 to secure political gains that they felt they would never be able to secure electorally.

The third camp argues that the solution to Sudan’s woes cannot come from outside the country, but requires an intra-Sudanese agreement brokered by either the Sudanese or the African Union. The advocates of this camp are typically those associated with the former regime who Burhan allied with to overthrow the original transition agreement and force Washington to do away with the condition that required Burhan to hand over power for the foreseeable future in exchange for restoring Hamdouk.

Yet, the biggest obstacle for the UN envoy is not the differing opinions regarding the attempt at facilitating dialogue. Rather it is the problem of civilian representation which has become deeply divided.

Protests on the streets have not only denounced Burhan and the military, but also the civilian forces of the FFC and the Association of Professionals that have sought to position themselves as the representatives of the civilian movements.

Protests on the streets have also denounced the civilian forces of the FFC and Association of Professionals.

Darfurian heavy weights Minni Minnawi and Gibril Ibrahim, as well as the prominent Ummah Party once led by the late veteran Sadeq Al-Mahdi whose daughter Maryam is the current Foreign Minister, have all left the FFC umbrella. The FFC and Association of Professionals have been accused of being a vehicle for unpopular leftist communist elements to assert themselves disproportionately to their actual representation among the Sudanese population. The lack of popular support for these civilian figures is what enabled Burhan to successfully topple Hamdouk’s government in the first place.

It is for this reason that the UN dialogue is focused more on the political stakeholders, and less on the military and civilian binary. The Ummah Party, the Darfurians, and other parties have indicated a willingness to negotiate and engage with the military to form a new transitional government.

Yet, this does not resolve the problem of popular legitimacy. For the protestors, the dialogue is between parties whose only legitimacy is that the UN is engaging them. The absence of any elections, or ratified agreement, means that the participants are those that have the power to impose themselves rather than those who have a popular mandate.  This explains why there is much suspicion and pessimism regarding the potential outcomes of such a dialogue.

Such a dilemma could be resolved by elections, or even a referendum. However, as with the original agreement in 2019 that produced the awkward partnership between the military and the civilian parties, the overwhelming sentiment among both the domestic parties and international players is that elections are not desirable given the uncertainty of the outcome.

Both the domestic parties and international players think that elections are not desirable given the uncertainty of the outcome.

The aim of US sanctions on Sudan was to bring about ideological changes to the structure of the state. The current composition of Sudanese society and the political dynamics suggest this is not guaranteed to happen if election take place. Normalization with Israel would not have happened under an elected government. The role of Islam in the constitution would likely not have been removed had the matter been put to a referendum.

Such uncertainty puts Burhan in a strong position in the negotiations. Yet, Burhan does not want to be exposed as the sole ruler of Sudan and needs a civilian partner to present an image of a transition. Al-Numeiri led the military to power with the support of civilian parties. Al-Bashir likewise did the same. Burhan was delivered to power by the Association of Professionals and FFC who chose not to protest outside the Presidency, or constitutional court, but outside the headquarters of the army chiefs in order to facilitate Al-Bashir’s overthrow. Now that the FFC is effectively defunct, Burhan needs a new civilian partner acceptable to Washington.

Realistically, the greatest threat to the negotiations is not the military, nor is it the civilian parties. Rather it is the protestors who are becoming increasingly aware that the aim of the transition is not to empower them or grant them freedoms, but rather to facilitate and implement Washington’s conditions for Sudan’s rehabilitation after decades of antagonism.