Georgetown University

Proceed with Caution: Predictions of Democratization Prospects in Sudan by Anne Della Guardia

Just last month Omar al-Bashir’s ouster shocked the world. And with good reason: it’s naturally shocking when a dictator who has held power for three decades is deposed  non-violently. But it actually isn’t that surprising when looking at long-term trends.

Research shows that since World War II authoritarian transitions were more likely to occur via military coup where, for instance, about half of autocrats in the 1960s and 70s exited office by the hands of their own militaries. Now, the contemporary picture is changing where autocrats are increasingly vulnerable to losing power due to mass movements. And, as one might suspect, the way that an autocrat is ousted does have implications for the state’s democratization prospects. So what does this mean for Sudan’s transition?

Historical Trends

Let’s start with the bad news. It’s easy to assume that when an authoritarian leader leaves office that this opens up prospects for democracy. But the data show that most outgoing dictators are merely replaced with new ones, where only 20% of transitions between 1950 and 2012 led to democracy no matter how the dictator exited office.

Sudan’s history supports the trend. The balance sheet of past transitions goes like this: after three military coups and two mass uprisings in 1964 and 1985, autocrats were replaced by another form of autocracy after all the coups where mass movements did not feature. Where mass movements did feature, democratization was attempted but never lasted longer than five years before another dictatorship was able to cease power. I doubt many Sudanese protesters are unaware of this, but even if they are, their instincts to continue demanding that the military cede control to a civilian-led transitional government is spot on, because of broader historical trends but also because of Sudan’s own experience with military coups regularly culminating in further autocracy (with the exception of the 1985 coup).

So, perhaps that track record doesn’t bode well for this transition, but fortunately, there are other factors that suggest that Sudan actually may stand a chance to at least attempt a civilian-led democratic transition.

Mass Movements

Even if transitions in authoritarian regimes or leadership continues to lead to more authoritarianism more often than not, the literature also shows that transitions that are instigated by mass uprisings stand a better chance of leading to democracy. Historically, 45% of popular revolts lead to a democratic transition while only 10% of coups do. Even though the ongoing transition in Sudan is a bit of a hybrid case where the transition was brought about by both mass protests and (arguably) a military coup, because mass protests feature at all, this apparently indicates that this transition stands a greater chance of successful democratization.

On top of this, if Sudan’s history can offer any lessons, its only other such hybrid transition in 1985 actually did result in a transitional military coalition that ceded power peacefully after elections were held in 1986. Suffice it to say that in instances where mass protests feature, this apparently makes democratization more feasible than it otherwise would be.

Degree of Violence

Researchers have also shown that the degree of violence experienced during mass movement transitions may also affect democratization prospects, where lower levels of violence are more promising and higher levels less so. Protests in Sudan have not been entirely non-violent, given death toll estimates range between 38 and 51 and thousands of civilian protesters have been wounded as of February.

While this may not compare to the violence experienced in other uprisings like Libya, Syria or Yemen, these figures are still considerably lower than those of cases considered to have relatively low level of violence. For instance, during the Tunisian revolution, an estimated 338 people were killed. This suggests that Sudan again stands a better chance for democratization by this measure. 

Now, now. Not so fast.

While macro-trends can be helpful in getting a sense of what might be possible, it’s important not to rely on them too much, particularly when making predictions about evolving situations like in Sudan. I wanted to go through all of this to demonstrate how relying too many high-level quantitative trends can result in missing the contextual nuance of a given case that might actually give us more predictive and explanatory power. Read between the lines: what are the above macro trends missing? 

Do we really buy that in this case the mere involvement of mass protests makes a democratic transition likely? In the past example of the 1985 coup, we will probably never know the full story of what backchannel dealings that occurred between the military apparatus and the executive that could have made such a peaceful transition possible. Perhaps it had absolutely nothing to do with the protests at all. Maybe it had more to do with the motives of key individuals like al-Dahab who was apparently quite committed to enacting changes immediately (like suspending the Sharia Law that Nimeiri had imposed) and who appeared to genuinely support a democratic transition, as evidenced in his peaceful transfer of power after a year as interim head of state.

In the present case, however, the composition of military leadership and factions have understandably given Sudanese protesters and movement leaders pause. Greater signals of continued support for al-Bashir say, in the decision not to extradite him to the International Criminal Court to face prosecution for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Darfur rightly raises red flags that perhaps a transitional military council in this case would not have the same peaceful transfer of power as the last. I therefore think it would be a mistake to base our assessments on trends that would point us to the opposite conclusion, given the particularities of this case demonstrate that things are quite different than they were in 1985.

As for drawing on violence levels as an indicator, if we observe the details of some of the most recent developments, we find that as factions within the Sudanese military clash and the potential for violence seems to be escalating, it is actually too soon to tell whether these low numbers of casualties are so far indicative of a promising transition as the situation evolves. Many more could very well follow. 

While this may be controversial to say in a field that privileges positivism (often quantitative, widely generalizable trends) above all else, let’s be careful to avoid the pitfalls of an over-reliance on unified theories or generalizations to explain widely differing, complex situations. And I’ll go further to say that let’s be sure to improve our methods of assessing contextual signals in real time by listening to the people on the ground who are privy to the significant details and nuance of a situation, to the experts who know a country inside and out, and (dare I say?) to local populations who are most impacted by whatever current event of the moment happens to capture the news cycle.

This is not to entirely undercut the value of positivist approaches. It’s only to suggest an improvement in how we think to avoid making questionable predictions—worse yet—acting on them.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan, (Unsplash), Creative Commons, Zero license.


  1. Anjali Nahata

    May 3, 2019 at 11:47 am

    This is really interesting! I never thought about how the different ways an authoritarian leader can lead to different degrees of violence. How much power does the Sudanese military have? How has foreign intervention affected the prospects for democracy there?

  2. Sammy Elmasri

    May 7, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    Another consideration is that the United States under the Trump Administration has not been nearly as aggressive in promoting democracy abroad relative to the historical foreign policy under which your statistics were likely gathered, which leads me to believe personally that the probability of democratization is much lower than what you seem to predict. Several powerful Middle Eastern countries have offered support for the military council currently governing Sudan, with what I suspect to be the intent to gain influence in the country, further their own control over the entire region, and squander more organic revolutions that may spread from it; the interference of these countries in the democratization only serve to enflame the concerns you illustrated that there is a possibility of failure, which I thus feel may be somewhat understated, given the more particular circumstances surrounding the coup.

  3. Meghan Ward

    May 7, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    I like how you distinguished between general theory of how democratization usually plays out and the real world situation happening in Sudan. It is interesting to think about how factors we might not necessarily know that much about, like behind the scenes events happening within the Sudanese military, ultimately can play a huge role in how democratization happens (or does not happen). It will be interesting going forward to see if Sudan does continue down a democratic path or if it will be stymied by the military.

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