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Sudan: Dozens injured as rival camps take to the streets

Tens of thousands rally in support of civilian-led democracy as rival demonstrators demand return to military rule
Many Sudanese have been hit hard by the tough International Monetary Fund-backed economic reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (AFP)

Tens of thousands of supporters of Sudan's transition to a civilian-led democracy took to the streets on Thursday, as rival demonstrators kept up a sit-in demanding a return to military rule.

Both sides appealed to their supporters to refrain from violence, but nearly 40 people were injured or had breathing difficulties after security forces sought to break up protests using "force, bullets, and tear gas," the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said.

Security forces fired tear gas as pro-civilian rule protesters rallied outside parliament in Omdurman, across the Nile river from the capital Khartoum, witnesses and an AFP correspondent said.

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The two sides represent opposing factions of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the civilian umbrella group which spearheaded demonstrations that led to the army's overthrow of longtime president Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

The mainstream faction backs the transition to civilian rule, while supporters of the breakaway faction are demanding the military take over.

Demonstrators joined the march organised by the mainstream faction across Sudan, including Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, Port Sudan in the east, and Atbara to the north.

Banners proclaimed "Civilian [rule] is the people's choice," while the marchers chanted slogans against supporters of political Islam and the military, the two main pillars of the former Bashir regime.

"Give up power, [Abdel Fattah] al-Burhan," they chanted in reference to the general who chairs the Sovereign Council, the joint civilian-military body overseeing the transitional government.

"Burhan is dirty, and was installed by the Islamists."

Integration of armed groups

Jaafar Hassan, spokesman of the mainstream FFC faction, said its supporters backed two key agreements - the 2019 power-sharing deal between the civilians the military, and a 2020 peace deal with rebel groups.

The two deals stipulate power will be handed over to civilian rule by the end of a three-year transition period in late 2022.

The deal also states that the chairmanship of the transitional Sovereign Council should be handed over to civilians from the military by late 2021.

"Our main goal is to have the military hand over the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council to the civilians," Hassan told AFP. "We also want the armed groups to be integrated in the Sudanese army."

Their rivals, the pro-military faction, have been holding a sit-in outside the presidential palace since Saturday.

It has drawn support from some of the many Sudanese who have been hit hard by the tough International Monetary Fund-backed economic reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a former UN economist.

"This government has not offered the Sudanese people anything for two years," said protester Hamada Abdelrahman, standing outside the presidential palace.

The sit-in's opponents charge it has been orchestrated by leading figures in the security forces with the support of Bashir sympathisers and other "counter-revolutionaries".

The same groups were blamed for a 21 September coup attempt that was thwarted by the government and military.

Security forces have sealed off roads leading to the large open space outside army headquarters, where tens of thousands of protesters camped out for weeks before and after Bashir's ousting.

'Dangerous' divisions

On Thursday, Hamdok praised those who had marched in favour of transition to civilian rule.

"You have proved today... your commitment to the path of freedom, democracy, and democratic civilian transition," he said.

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The prime minister has previously described the deep divisions over Sudan's transition as "the worst and most dangerous" since Bashir's overthrow.

Hamdok has made his top priorities addressing the chronic economic woes inherited from Bashir's government, and making peace with the multiple rebel groups that took up arms during its three decades in power.

A sharp improvement in relations with the United States has led to the lifting of sanctions giving some help to the economy.

But a package of painful structural reforms, including the slashing of fuel subsidies and a managed float of the Sudanese pound, has proved widely unpopular.

In October 2020, the government signed a peace deal with multiple rebel groups in Sudan's far-flung regions with a view to ending the ethnic conflicts that have dogged the country since independence.

The deal was widely hailed as a step forward, but its focus on the three battleground regions of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan left minority communities in other parts of Sudan feeling sidelined.

Resentment has been particularly strong among the Beja people of the Red Sea coast, who have mounted protests across the east since mid-September, including a blockade of the key trade hub of Port Sudan.