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.
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.
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.
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.
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.