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Sudan Struggles for Secular Democracy

“We have dropped all the articles that had led to any kind of discrimination. We assure our people that the legal reformation will continue until we drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan.” - Nasreldin Abdelbari, Incumbent justice minister of Sudan in an interview in July 2020.

Based on some recent headlines, it may look to us as if a torch of light is carried throughout the North-Eastern African country of Sudan. In 2019, an authoritarian Islamist rule of 30 years came to an end in the country through a popular revolt. We are witnessing the repealing of many extremely socially conservative Islamic laws not long after the revolution.

The most important of these legislative changes pushed by the transitional government currently in power is the Miscellaneous Amendments Act, which entails many promising changes.

These include the criminalization of female genital mutilation, the abolition of death penalty for the acts of apostasy and sodomy, as well as the abolition of flogging as a punishment. The government has also abolished legislation limiting free movement by women. Information and anti-cyber crime laws were also signed this July. These initial headlines sound promising for those who value a freer society, but reflect only a tiny fraction of the whole picture.

Legal changes do not transform a culture or an economy after all.

Sudan is at a crossroads. The success of the country’s transition into a liberal democracy is far from certain.

Firstly, a lot can go wrong before elections and the coming to existence of a new constitution in 2022.

Secondly, latest legislative amendments were hard-earned through struggle and there is no uniform response to them. Many celebrate the changes but some don't think they go far enough. The latest legislative changes have been cautiously celebrated by more secular minded people and Sudan’s religious minorities, such as the Christian community. Islamic conservatives oppose them. From my perspective, these are great first few steps but the country is divided in so many ways.

Sudan is among some of the most troubled places in the world as far as recent history goes. This is a country that has been ruled by authoritarianism and discrimination towards certain ethnic minorities The nation has been riddled with decades of civil conflict. Some of this continues. Inflation in Sudan is second to only to that of the nearly collapsed South-American state of Venezuela. Independence of the oil-rich South has thrown fuel to the fire of the difficult economic situation in the country. And it does not help that Sudan has suffered from sanctions by the United States, which were enforced due to Sudan's former role as a state alleged of sponsoring Islamic terror. This has led to Sudan being in an awkward position on the world stage, where the country lacks investments, foreign trade and is heavily indebted.

Change is happening however: the US government has recently removed Sudan from its sanctions list. There are less barriers for stability and prosperity but unfortunately it won't be without compromises as great powers seek to benefit from Sudan’s desperate position. The removal of Sudan from the American list of countries sponsoring terror for instance happened at the cost of the developing nation having to pay the US a $335m compensation to victims of terror attacks Sudan played a role in.

More political difficulties in Sudan

Some unrest continues in parts of Sudan. It may be key that peace agreements have been signed with rebel groups. It helps that the transitional government has promised to push through key rebel demands; one being the separation of state from religious affairs. if enforced, this contentious principle could potentially be the much needed push towards achieving the goals of the 2019 coup. This seems like a logical follow up to the recent liberal amendments but would be even more of a rupture with the past. Those seeking lasting secularist gains and religious equality on such a groundbreaking level must be aware of the backlash that such a push will inevitably face. In this crucial period of transition, the slogan of "Peace, Equality, and Freedom" should be the yardstick for them to measure the government's actions against. They are more than vacuous words. They encapsulate what was envisioned by so many in 2019.

The transitional government has already met opposition due to its policies from different forces for different reasons.. In terms of the Islamist opposition, they want to bring back formal religious rule. They have concrete legislative changes to oppose and much cultural capital on their side.

Some of the fears are more multipartisan and have their basis in the steps that Sudan is taking internationally: The US has pushed for Sudan to normalise relations with Israel and this has recently led to an agreement that was stressed as preliminary and unconfirmed. Mass protests have followed from civil society and distaste has been shown across political parties. This includes the center-left secularist Congress Party, which is the second most prominent component of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) political coalition.

Furthermore, Muhammad Wadaa, from the Ba’ath Party said the anti-normalisation front includes a number of parties. including many in the FFC that have threatened to withdraw support for the government if normalisation with Israel is agreed. This shows the potential fragility of the coalition due to disagreements. Fear over western influence is therefore not limited to just Islamic conservatives. Not all believe playing to all of the demands of international institutions after years of sanctions is going to bring the country to prosperity. The Sudanese communist party too for example has come out against the transitional government's deal with the IMF saying it would not lead to “real development in Sudan or other countries trapped in the pliers of foreign debt — unless they get rid of the debts and steer clear of the advice and conditions of the IMF." The problem may however also rise with other powers' contrary interests as well as states such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Turkey that seek to influence developments in Sudan.

Furthermore, hostile opposition on religious grounds towards secularists is prominent. As large protests against the conservative rule of Al-Bashir were, thousands have demonstrated protest against the repealing of Islamic restrictions, One famous cleric Abdul Hai Youssef has outright accused the justice minister of apostasy and called for "jihad" against Hamdok's government. Islamic parties naturally oppose them too. They see the steps taken by the government as a threat to 'their country's values'.

Dismissing state secularism as inherently foreign is false but may be a very powerful narrative if the country simultaneously perceives itself as economically exploited. The government has tried to deal with the Islamist threat and all though effective pressure and repression has increased towards the Muslim Brotherhood, it hasn't annihilated it. Indeed, a more radical fundamentalist group known as Hizb ut Tahri calling for a global Islamic caliphate has found an opportunity to grow because of the gap left by the Muslim Brotherhood. This sort of reaction seems almost inevitable when established order is challenged but the battle of islamism ought to not compromise the promise of democracy.

Even more worryingly, resistance to the new regime in Sudan has lead to an alleged attempted assassination against the interim prime minister Abdalla Hamdok in March 2020. And right before this, legal and political officials announced the finding of a foreign Islamist terror cell, which was allegedly caught planning to kill Sudanese officials tasked with the dismantlement of the former regime.

Correct strategy in this crucial period of transition can prevent such forces from posing a real existential threat. Consulting the more religious sections of the population, where it is possible, can be strategically smart. This does not imply capitulation but a humane connection. Islamic opposition seems to constitute a relevant faction of both middle and upper classes, which is where the current ruling people seem to also come from.

Class difficulties

Over the past years, anti-government protests in Sudan have varied in class character. The subaltern classes of marginalized regions rose against the authoritarian neoliberal rule they were subjected to by the former regime. Such background to the revolt surely can teach us something about the difficulties any government in Sudan will face.

In this latest period however, the educated urban professional middle class seems to be over-represented politically according to Magdi el Gizouli. This includes the protests in Khartoum. Just like the working poor in many parts, they wanted to overthrow al-Bashir. They called for social justice but their priorities still seemed to differ. Therefore, understanding the differences in material concerns between the middle and subaltern classes are of paramount importance. If the government fails to understand class dynamics, it will likely meet the same fate as al-Bashir did. A democracy must necessarily provide integration into the regime.


Sudan faces difficulties with regards to political stability and legitimacy. As an outsider who took time to analyse events in Sudan, I believe there is no easy road towards secular democracy due the multitude of problems I described shortly here. I also don't think we are the ones to prescribe the solutions: agency is in the hands of the Sudanese people and there is no simple triumphalist narrative that can be projected. We can relate to the joy of the people celebrating these movement away from the most brutal laws entrenching cronyism and lack of religious freedom. Cautious optimism is warranted and hopefully this will inspire solidarity across the world.


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