In Sudan, President Bashir is gone – but the shadow of his government remains

Protesters want to instate a civil government, but years of autocratic rule have left Sudan devoid of civil society leaders. 

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It has been almost a week since Omar al Bashir was deposed. Despite euphoria, Sudan’s political situation still hangs in the balance. It's difficult to encapsulate or trace how this moment finally crystallised, but there was both a long and short lead up to the April revolution.

The long story stretches 30 years into the past, back to a military coup that ushered in Omar el Bashir's dictatorship. It was, in hindsight, an experimental dictatorship that endured several phases, each more devastating than the last. There was a religious phase, where sharia law was established; then there was a capitalist phase, where the government used the spoils of newly discovered oil wealth to line its pockets, create a large patronage network, and isolate ethnic challenges to its power, blitzing unrest so forcefully that the International Criminal Court indicted Bashir for war crimes. Finally, there was the pauperism phase, when the money ran out and Sudan spluttered on, begging, borrowing, and building a security state so vast that it became a shadow government in itself.

The short history is that life had ground to a halt for many Sudanese citizens, who could not imagine a worse scenario than the predicament that led to their revolt. Four months of protests finally achieved the unthinkable: the army caved and Bashir was removed. But that was not the end. The new military head of government was rejected so resoundingly that protests escalated. Within a day he was gone. And that, also, has not been the end of it. The protestors refuse to leave their sit-ins or abandon their marches. Arresting Bashir and placing the former president in custody dead headed his government – but the regime is not yet ancien.

There is now a standoff between the military transitional government and the Sudanese people. The latter want to instate a civil, democratically elected government, and insist that there should be no half-measures, no kicking the can further down the road, and no remnant of the old regime. In an effort to appease protesters and signal a clean break with the past, the transitional military government has thrown heads to the protesters; a Chief Justice here, a security head there. But the problem runs deeper. Every member of the current transitional government has not only played a part in Bashir’s regime – they have been complicit in his wars and security crackdowns.

When a government rules for so long, and dedicates itself in its last years to governing by muscle, the political field is purged of politics and instead more closely resembles the maintenance of a criminal cartel. Protesters have demanded the instatement of a civil government, but this poses a dilemma: there are no civil society leaders, no figures outside government that have been allowed the breathing room to incubate a political movement or build an electoral profile. Bashir’s government was effectively a complicated knot of armed security groups. With Bashir deposed, they still maintain their conscripts and weaponry – making liquidation a tricky and potentially dangerous affair.  

Long-term autocracy has ignited short-term impatience. Angry street protestors are less concerned with careful considerations about the forces that must now be defused and domesticated. Bashir’s government embedded itself so deeply that dismantling it overnight is impossible. Similarly, the suspicion, anger and frustration of Sudanese people has deep roots; there will be little good will towards a new regime that involves members of the old guard.

The question that people are asking is: what next? It’s a question that begins from the wrong starting point. This is a time of tense confrontation. Street protesters have leverage over the new regime; protesters, pushing for more concrete signs of a civilian handover, have made clear that streets can swell to paralysis once more if the transitional government puts a foot wrong. The question now is who will blink first. Judging by the determination of protesters witnessed during the past weeks, it doesn’t look like it will be the street. 

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.