Will Sudan Break Through to Democracy?
After a rocky few months in which it looked as though the Sudanese military might condemn the country to the same fate as Egypt after the Arab Spring, pro-democracy forces have prevailed in seating a transitional government. But whether the transition to democracy succeeds will depend on what happens next.
KHARTOUM – On September 8, Sudan’s first civilian cabinet in 30 years was sworn in. Led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and comprising technocrats, it will oversee a power-sharing arrangement brokered between the country’s military and pro-democracy movement last month. The question now is whether factions within the military, the Islamic opposition, or various rebel groups will end up preventing the transition to democracy under elections planned for 2022.
Aside from Tunisia, Sudan is the only Arab country making genuine progress toward democracy at the moment. The Sudanese Revolution that began in December 2018 will be remembered for its participants’ remarkable perseverance, courage, and organization. Having learned from the Egyptian fiasco – which ended with a return to even harsher despotism – Sudan’s democracy movement wanted the army to give up power, and sufficient time to organize the transition. Under the power-sharing arrangement, it had to compromise on its first goal, and the military will rule for the first phase of the transition, to be followed by a civilian government.
Since the formation of the new cabinet, the mood in the capital, Khartoum, has been ebullient. Ministers are unveiling new policy proposals, foreign diplomats are arriving, TV coverage of soccer has been replaced by political talk shows, talks with rebels have begun, and the Islamist parties that formed a key pillar of the previous regime have been banned and driven underground. As civil-society groups and the generals vie for popular support, even the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is trying to improve its image.
There are three major items on the medium-term agenda. First, under the transitional constitution, the government must negotiate regional peace agreements within the next six months. That will lead to a more democratic and liberal national order. But the new leadership also must prepare for the additional political, institutional, and financial commitments that each regional agreement will produce.
Second, the government must reform the security sector. In addition to establishing a professional and inclusive national army and reducing the power of the intelligence service, it needs to rein in the RSF, integrate the rebel forces, and work toward eventual budget cuts.
Finally, the government must revive the economy, which is in urgent need of external support. Because the country’s debt overhang will take a year or two to resolve, funds from the Gulf Cooperation Council will play a central role in the first phase of the transition. Moreover, the government needs to implement structural reforms to improve public services and strengthen the private sector.
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Sudan’s economic problems are daunting. The country has reverted to near-autarky. Imports and exports amount to just 10% and 6% of GDP, respectively. Public and private institutions have withered away as state-backed strongmen have financed militias and other clients through revenues raised from illicit activities (gold mines, contraband, and the like). According to the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, credit to the private sector and total investment both stand at a paltry 8% of GDP. By 2018, public expenditures had fallen to 9% of GDP, tax revenues to 8% of GDP, and civil-service wages to just 3% of GDP.
To achieve economic growth, the government must reconstruct monopolized domestic markets and shift public spending away from patronage. In setting priorities, the new cabinet will have to be mindful of its scarce political capital. The most urgently needed reforms will also be the most contentious, because they will run counter to the military’s interests.
Political constraints will inevitably impede economic growth. But as long as the overall pie is expanding, Sudan will make progress. In the early phase, improved security and reduced political uncertainty will encourage economic activity by lowering transaction costs. That should result in some catch-up growth, given pent-up demand and a capital stock in need of replenishment.
In fact, many new opportunities are already opening up. Sudanese entrepreneurs have access to a prosperous diaspora, and now that budget priorities are poised to shift, social movements can organize to demand new public services. Similarly, international donors are being encouraged to shift their focus from humanitarian aid to social and economic development.
Reprising Egypt’s 2016 economic program, one early policy package under consideration would include an exchange-rate devaluation to attract remittances, and parallel measures to reduce contraband and increase tax revenues. At that point, a social-insurance program could be introduced to replace the inefficient, unequal subsidies regime.
Should these policies succeed in stabilizing the economy, deeper problems will become easier to solve. Increased revenues will make it possible to fund both the civil service and the military. And a more open, interconnected, and competitive national market will work against local monopolies.
The stakes are high for both Sudan and the wider region, which is why the United Nations and other parts of the international community are mobilizing. Outside political pressure has pushed the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to support a democratic resolution. And a reinvigorated Friends of Sudan Group is committed to facilitating political and financial cooperation, and preventing proxy warfare like that which has ravaged Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The next priority is to convince the United States to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, so that the country can access international banking channels and accelerate its debt-reduction process.
Sudan has a unique opportunity to adopt representative democracy. The transitional government now hopes to create a virtuous cycle of progress and reform, but there will inevitably be bumps in the road. The country needs all the help it can get, but success ultimately will hinge on the perseverance of the democracy movement. In light of its recent history, that means there is cause for hope.