Sudan crisis: What is happening, and where does it go from here?

Roland Oliphant
Protests broke out in Sudan in late December when an economic crisis emptied bank machines and forced the government to triple the price of bread - AP

Why are Twitter and Instagram users turning their profiles blue?

Mohammed Hashim Mattar was just 26 when he was gunned down by Sudanese security services last week.

Now his favourite shade of indigo blue has become a symbol of the country’s embattled pro-democracy uprising.

Thousands of social media users have switched their Instagram and Twitter Avatars to the same colour, using the hashtags #blueforsudan.  

“It started off with the friends and family,” said Amal Amir, a British-Sudanese social media user who has taken part in the protests. “It’s his favourite colour and it was his display picture on all his social media accounts. Then it started being for all martyrs.”

What happened?

Mattar was one of dozens of people shot, beaten, and stabbed to death when Sudanese security forces brutally cleared a protest camp in central Khartoum in the early hours of June 3.

No one knows exactly how many people died but the Sudanese Doctors’ Committee, which is part of the protest movement, on Wednesday released the names of 112 people confirmed dead.

There have also been numerous and credible reports of beatings and almost systematic rape of protesting women by security forces Credit: AFP

The list did not include around 40 bodies repeatedly fished out of the Nile after the massacre.

There have also been numerous and credible reports of beatings and almost systematic rape of protesting women by security forces.

How did we get here?

Protests broke out in Sudan in late December when an economic crisis emptied bank machines and forced the government to triple the price of bread.

The protests soon morphed into a nationwide movement demanding the resignation of Omar al-Bashir, the Islamist-backed military dictator who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1989.

Mr Bashir was finally overthrown in April, when a massive sit-in camp outside military headquarters in Khartoum forced top generals to mount a coup against him.

But talks between the Forces for Freedom and Change, representing the protesters demanding democracy, and the Transitional Military Council, the generals now ruling the country, soon hit a deadlock.

On June 3, the last day of Ramadan, the generals sent in the Rapid Support Forces, a militia linked to atrocities against civilians in Darfur, to break the revolutionaries' grip on the streets.

Mattar was one of the first to die.

Is the revolution finished?

Since the massacre on June 3, the military - and in particular the Rapid Support Forces - have done their best to eliminate any sign of resistance.

The murals and street art the protesters created over two months have been painted over. And Khartoum is now basically controlled by the Rapid Support Forces, who roam the streets in pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns roamed the streets, arresting, beating, and symbolically scalping anyone they decided looked like a threat.

But the revolutionaries say they are not giving up.

When the country went back to work on Sunday, the first day after Eid, they called a general strike in a bid to make the country ungovernable, which effectively turned Khartoum into a ghost town.

But they called it off after two days, citing the impact on ordinary people - and with gunmen roaming the streets, it is difficult to see what leverage they have left over the military.

Who is in charge in Sudan now?

The Transitional Military is headed by Lt-Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, a career officer in the regular army.

But many suspect the real power broker in the country is Lt-Gen Burhan’s deputy, Lt-Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, who commands the RSF - an irregular force outside the regular military chain of command.

His troops control the capital and he has apparent financial backing from regional super powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - putting him in pole position to become Sudan’s next military dictator.

The military government has also shut down most of the internet, citing "national security" - a move apparently designed to prevent protesters using social media to organise and frustrate reporting on what is going on inside the country. 

Many suspect the real power in country is Burhan’s deputy, Lt Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, who commands the RSF  Credit: AP

What about outside powers?

The African Union, the European Union, the UK and the United States have condemned the violence and demanded a transition to civilian rule

Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, spent Wednesday shuttling back and forth across Khartoum in a desperate bid to broker some kind of compromise.

And Tibor Nagy, the US envoy for Africa, has also flown into Khartoum to bang heads together.

But Sudan watchers warn regional powers have more clout, and more skin in the game.

It is widely believed last week’s massacre was encouraged by the authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who have no interest in a democratic revolution succeeding on their doorstep and tend to see dictatorial “strongmen” as the only reliable bulwark against political Islam in the region.

Generals Burhan and Dagalo both have strong ties to Riyadh and UAE because they have sent troops to fight with the Saudi-led alliance battling Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Meanwhile, documents obtained by the Dossier Centre, a group of investigators funded by the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggest the Kremlin has been trying to build up influence with the Sudanese military for years.

There are suggestions that the Kremlin has been trying to build up influence with the Sudanese military for some years Credit: REUTERS/Sputnik

That relationship does not seem to have been disrupted too badly by the change in power. The Russian defence ministry published the text of a deal on military cooperation with Sudan in May - after Mr Bashir was overthrown.

What happens now?

The next few days will be crucial.

If Mr Ahmed can persuade both sides to accept a compromise, it is possible the crisis will be defused - and Sudan will take another step down the shaky, uncertain path towards democracy.

If not, Sudan will once again be facing a showdown between the Rapid Support Forces and the unarmed protest movement.

And while the revolutionary movement is defiant, the brutal truth is that the balance of power lies with the men with guns.