On the Coup in Sudan
Some military takeovers are carefully orchestrated, plotted in secret for months; others are haphazard affairs conjured in the heat of the moment. The coup in Sudan last week was neither. It had looked like a strong possibility for a year and a half; then, with four weeks to go, it was heralded by a round of strenuous manoeuvring and astroturfing. Yet the timing was awkward and the execution sloppy, and now General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the head of the junta, is facing off against intense domestic and international pressure.
The authorities announced on 21 September that they had narrowly averted a coup attempt. Observers wondered whether the story was real, or the pretext for a purge, or simply a ploy by Burhan – then the head of a ‘sovereignty council’ overseeing a precarious transition process – to gauge domestic and international reaction in the event of a real coup that would bring the ‘transition period’ to an end.
The September ‘coup attempt’ led to recriminations between the military and civilian politicians, partners in government since August 2019 under an internationally brokered power-sharing agreement. Burhan accused the civilians of bungling economic reform. In a meeting with army officers, he called for the dissolution of the civilian-led cabinet. In the east of the country, his ally Sheikh Tirik put a stranglehold on the economy by rallying his followers to blockade Port Sudan.
On 16 October security forces allowed several thousand demonstrators, bused into Khartoum, as far as the gates of the presidential palace, where they called for the overthrow of the transitional government. Partisans of the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, responded on 21 October, demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands across the country.
Matters came to a head on the evening of 24 October, after the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Burhan and threatened to cut off US assistance if he challenged the political transition. On Twitter, Khalid Omer Youssef, the minister of cabinet affairs, denounced an ‘ongoing coup’. Hours later he was arrested along with other senior civilian figures, including Hamdok, who had refused to dissolve his government. On the morning of 25 October activists on the streets of central Khartoum reported modest military deployments. Burhan was slow to announce on television that he had dissolved the cabinet and the sovereignty council. He made vague promises to appoint a technocratic cabinet and hold elections. But the sequence lacked the decisiveness of successful coups.
Protesters piled into Khartoum. Civil society organisations, political parties, and any ministers who had not been arrested, promised to fight on. Within hours of Burhan’s appearance on television, security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing seven and injuring 140. The coup drew near-unanimous condemnation from the international community, with the notable exceptions of Egypt, the UAE and Russia. The US and Germany announced that they were suspending bilateral assistance.
Burhan’s decision to go ahead despite the predictable backlash raised suspicions that he’d received assurances of foreign support; muted reaction from Russia and the Arab Troika did nothing to allay them. In May, I asked a senior Sudanese politician (now in detention) to summarise the attitudes of Gulf states towards Sudan. ‘It’s clear they want a military dictatorship,’ he said. ‘It’s not just the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It’s also Qatar, Turkey, Egypt.’
But a former minister, close to the military, suggested that Burhan took the leap because his position in the military and security apparatus was under threat from hardliners who thought the time was ripe: if he’d held back, he would have been toppled by his fellow officers. For the moment, the takeover gives the army a façade of unanimity and postpones their confrontation with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces – many of them former Janjawid – whose influence is resented by senior officers. Videos of the demonstrations in Khartoum showed regulars and RSF militias moving together against demonstrators.
Sudan has since returned to a rhythm of civilian disobedience and repression reminiscent of the huge mobilisations of 2018-19. Residents come out in the morning, raise barricades and chant their demand for civilian rule, until military and paramilitary forces seek to dislodge them with bulldozers, tear gas and live rounds, giving chase to demonstrators until well after dark. People go home to rest and mourn their dead. They reappear the following day. Meanwhile, the US and the UN Mission in Khartoum are trying to broker yet another compromise between civilian politicians and the army.
The Sudanese are returning to the struggle that went on hold during the summer of 2019, when international mediators were pushing for the power-sharing arrangement that has just been adjourned. The deal forced the generals, who had overthrown Omar al-Bashir at the height of the popular mobilisation in April, to relinquish their hopes of unilateral military rule. It also forced the opposition to pause their demands for civilian rule, even as a massacre of protesters by the RSF on 3 June had made youth leaders more defiant and determined. The Sudanese Communist Party criticised the deal as a ‘soft landing’ for the generals. Many – and not only the communists – now see the end of the two-year transition as evidence that compromise with the military was never an option. On 30 October, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – marched in cities across Sudan to protest against the coup. Several demonstrators were killed by security forces but on the Manshiya Bridge in Khartoum they forced the military into a humiliating retreat.
This is not a replay of 2019. Above all, the army is emboldened. Two years ago, after four months of street protests, the generals thought better of detaining revolutionary leaders. Now the security forces knock on doors at night, arresting leaders and organisers who haven’t already gone into hiding. The Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army, two armed groups from Darfur which signed up to the peace deal last year, have fallen in behind the army and have no wish to see their new status abolished by civilian elites in Khartoum, whom they hold in contempt. The ‘transition’ period has taught generals and militias alike that popular demands to bring them to account will be irresistible if civilians are allowed to set the political agenda.