Sudan activists differ on transition deal

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The Khartoum district Burri was a fulcrum of the uprising against former Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir and the generals who replaced him, its residents beaten and killed rallying for freedom and justice.

With a three-year transition deal struck to deliver on their demands, activists from the tight-knit, Nile-side neighbourhood are torn over what to make of it.

Their support could be critical to the success of the power sharing agreement, which aims to replace three decades of authoritarian, Islamist rule with democracy, in a region where uprisings resulted in military crackdowns or civil war.

It was made between the ruling military council and civilian opposition a month after security forces killed dozens of people as they cleared a protest sit-in in the capital.

The raid appeared to derail the prospects Bashir’s ousting in April could lead to a peaceful transition. After another round of demonstrations on June 30 both sides resumed talks and announced a breakthrough.

Burri activist Munzir Awad joined thousands in Khartoum who flooded the streets to celebrate.

“I’m happy with this deal, it came to prevent the bloodshed,” he said, adding residents were swept up by the moment. “Most people celebrated because they are revolutionaries and act on their emotions.”

His friend Mohamed Farouk, a 35-year-old factory worker who organised protests in the neighbourhood, was wary.

“If you stopped and asked any of those people celebrating what the deal actually meant, or what civilian actually meant, they’d have no idea,” he said.

When news of the agreement broke last Friday, many people were unable to find out details because of a weeks-long internet blackout ordered by the military.

The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the alliance of protest and opposition groups that led talks with the military, is holding public meetings to sell the deal due to be formally signed this week.

The military and civilians will share power in an 11-member sovereign council, with the military expected to preside over the first 21 months of the transition before passing the leadership to civilians for 18 months before free elections.

The deal provides for a government of technocrats and an independent investigation into recent violence – though with senior military and paramilitary figures retaining political power it is unclear how this can be guaranteed.

The entrenched power of military and armed factions complicates the issue and Sudan’s position in north-east Africa and agricultural potential has long made it a focus of attention from rival Middle Eastern and global states.

INSTINCT

Mohammad Naji al-Assam, a leader of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) which spearheaded protests and now leads the FFC, said the deal was a first step when he addressed crowds in Burri.

“We should follow and protect this civilian transitional government until we see all the goals of this revolution met, one by one, because it came from the blood of our brothers and sisters,” Assam said.

For Burri activists, justice is key. The neighbourhood’s mainly blue-collar residents, with a reputation for near-reckless bravery, were at the heart of nationwide protests against Bashir.

“We didn’t know any of these people before protests started. We instinctively followed (the SPA) and had faith because ultimately the regime had to fall,” said Farouk who, like many young men in Burri, was arrested before Bashir’s overthrow.

As demonstrations led to deadly crackdowns, Burri protesters persevered. Two of its dead are among the best-known “martyrs” of the uprising.

Khartoum residents say Burri protesters were the core of the sit-in outside the Defence Ministry, started five days before the generals moved against Bashir.

When security forces crushed the sit-in on June 3 after weeks of talks stalled, Burri residents opened up their homes and mosques to shelter protesters, especially those from far-off like Darfur.

From his home, Awad filmed shaky footage showing security forces in pursuit, swinging assault rifles and shooting.

Sudan’s largest private hospital is in Burri and was overwhelmed. Residents tried to help by donating sheets and cooking for patients and their families.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES

Almost everyone in Burri was touched by events. Awad said a nephew was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. Farouk said a distant cousin was killed and a female colleague badly beaten.

At least 128 people were killed during the raid and two weeks after according to doctors linked to the opposition. Government confirmed at least 61 deaths.

Farouk’s outlook changed.

“My priorities shifted. Now I want justice for those killed during the dispersal, that massacre. These people are my priority.”

The sit-in blocked a major road to Burri, so near the protest camp echoes of megaphones blaring political debates and celebratory music reached some streets.

The connecting road is now empty, stripped of posters, barricades and tents. Traffic returned to its usual pace.

As life returns to normal, Burri residents are anxious about the future.

Rana Othman, a 25-year-old engineer, did not trust more established opposition groups in the FFC to fight for protesters’ demands after the deal with the military and the SPA should keep its distance.

“The SPA needs to split from the FFC because when we started the youth rose and we didn’t have a link to political parties because we know they failed.”

Awad describes the deal as a step forward “paving the way for other initiatives”.

Farouk says the deal falls short of full civilian rule and maintains protesters should have pushed for more. Demonstrations across Sudan on June 30, in which hundreds of thousands took part, are believed to have brought the generals back to the negotiating table.

“Nothing terrifies them more than pressure from the streets,” he said.