To Reverse Sudan’s Coup, Start With Heeding Protesters’ Demands

In a brazen attack on Sudan’s democratic aspirations, the country’s military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, overthrew the civilian government on Oct. 25. The coup ended a fragile power-sharing agreement between security officers and a civilian coalition known as the Forces for Freedom and Change, or FFC. The two sides had been on a collision course since they formed an interim government in August 2019, which was meant to pave the way to democratic elections following the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir earlier that year. 

Under the transitional charter governing the partnership, the 11-member Sovereign Council was supposed to serve as the country’s chief decision-making body, while delegating executive power to a civilian Cabinet. However, the transition was undermined by infighting between the two sides of the government, with the FFC attempting to dilute the military’s dominant influence over Sudanese politics and the economy. Burhan seemed to fear that if he stepped down from the Sovereign Council, as he was supposed to do in the coming months, then the military would lose control of the country. So instead, he annulled the partnership, dissolved the interim government, placed Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok under house arrest and jailed some of his former Cabinet ministers. 

The power grab should be understood as nothing more than a desperate attempt to preserve the junta’s economic power, as well as the legal immunity that senior military officials enjoy as sitting members of the government. This became clear when Burhan dissolved two civilian committees upon consolidating power. The first had been tasked with confiscating assets and funds stolen by Bashir’s cronies. In April 2020, the committee announced that it confiscated some 5,000 acres of residential land, millions of acres of agricultural land and numerous companies. However, the committee’s mandate threatened core patronage networks within the military.

The second disbanded committee was investigating the June 2019 massacre in Khartoum, when security forces killed more than 120 peaceful protesters outside the Defense Ministry. According to a recent report in Foreign Policy, members of Sudan’s security forces feared they would be criminally prosecuted for their role in the killings. For senior security officers, who benefitted from total impunity during Bashir’s three-decade rule, surrendering control of the state to a civilian government posed an existential threat. 

Since the coup, Sudanese citizens have taken to the streets to show that they’re willing to die to safeguard their democratic transition. In the past two weeks, security forces have used live ammunition and tear gas to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations, killing at least 15 people and injuring 300, but this hasn’t deterred trade unions and professional associations from going on strike to paralyze the military’s ability to govern. Resistance committees—neighborhood groups that coordinate to mobilize protests—have spearheaded the movement, which has included a nationwide event on Oct. 30 billed as a “march of millions,” despite a near total internet blackout.   

Foreign powers and multilateral organizations are also sending a unified message that military rule won’t be tolerated. So far, Germany has halted development cooperation. The World Bank has paused $2 billion in planned disbursements. And the African Union has suspended Sudan’s membership. The U.S has taken significant measures by freezing $700 million in assistance, while threatening to impose sanctions on coup leaders. The junta likely received guarantees from friendly states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and Israel to cover the steep financial and political losses. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal has reported that on the eve of the coup, Burhan quietly traveled to Egypt, where he met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and received assurances of support. But while these countries have major incentives to back Sudan’s military regime, they can’t bestow it with domestic legitimacy.

Burhan is now well aware that he has to muster up support from key power centers within Sudan if he wishes to govern effectively. He has already released prisoners closely linked with the Bashir regime, such as former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour and hardline Islamic cleric Mohamed Ali Jazuli. Burhan is presumably banking that these men can rally their supporters behind the junta and encourage more of Bashir’s old cronies to do the same.

However, support from the old regime will scarcely be enough. Burhan’s long-term political survival ultimately depends on striking a renewed power-sharing deal with Hamdok. Having already lost popular support, Burhan would at least regain international legitimacy through restoring some variation of the pre-coup power-sharing agreement. One proposal being discussed would give Hamdok greater powers, while putting him in charge of a Cabinet that is more palatable to the army. The military would also have full control of the security sector, so that neither the army nor paramilitary forces would come under civilian command. 

However, Hamdok and the rest of the FFC seem well aware that they will lose all credibility among protesters if they partner with Burhan again. Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi, one of the few civilian leaders not arrested during the coup, told Agence France-Presse that she refused to negotiate with the generals who orchestrated the power grab.

Rather than rehash a faulty agreement in the name of pragmatism, protesters are urging foreign powers to back their quest to defang the security forces.

Many of Sudan’s grassroots activists have long opposed any cooperation with the military. In 2019, radical factions of the FFC warned political elites that inking a deal with the army would merely postpone the day when the generals seized power. Having been vindicated, these activists are sending a clear message that they don’t want another civilian-military power-sharing government. In response, however, Sudan’s junta could escalate its repression in a bid to strongarm FFC leaders into inking a new deal. 

Juntas typically use a mix of coercion and co-optation to gain leverage against opponents and obtain a veneer of legitimacy. But Sudan’s military brass should have learned two years ago that violence won’t crush protests in the long term. That was made clear less than a month after the June 2019 massacre, when tens of thousands of people marched across Khartoum to defy the military again. 

Protesters are even more resilient now. Rather than rehash a faulty agreement in the name of pragmatism, they are urging foreign powers to back their quest to defang the security forces. One way to do that could be for Western leaders to exploit divisions within the security forces. Sources close to Sudan’s military have told me that a number of mid-level commanders detest Burhan’s alliance with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, who heads the powerful paramilitary organization known as the Rapid Support Forces. The RSF evolved out of the pro-government tribal militias that spearheaded mass atrocities during the Darfur War, and its fighters have been blamed for much of the bloodshed during the June 2019 massacre.

With its own command structure and lucrative revenue streams from dubious commercial activities that flow into a web of offshore accounts, the RSF has long maintained autonomy from the Sudanese armed forces. In June, Burhan tried to integrate the RSF into the army, but Hemeti outright refused. 

This intra-military tension is an opportunity for Washington, which could threaten to sanction the RSF unless it agrees to integrate into the armed forces. If it is no longer competing for relevance against a rival force, the military would be more likely to agree to significantly scale down and modernize its forces—thereby reducing the strain on an already bloated defense budget—while conceding some of its political and economic influence. To help persuade the army, donor countries could increase funding to ensure that rank-and-file soldiers are well paid, while promising to nicely compensate those who disarm and reintegrate into civilian life. Washington could also agree to help improve the army’s combat capabilities if it divests from lucrative civilian sectors. These incentives could help a younger generation of commanders imagine a new, constructive role for the military.

As for the RSF, any move to rein it in will require parallel efforts by the FFC to align more closely with the Darfuri rebel groups that are backing Hemeti. Rebel leaders and their constituents will only ditch the RSF leader if they secure fair representation and ministerial posts in the next transitional government. Otherwise, Hemeti could portray a move against him as an attempt by Khartoum-based elites to marginalize the peripheries, raising the specter of civil conflict. 

Even if deprived of allies, the RSF could still be a destabilizing force. Hemeti will almost certainly seek assurances that neither he nor his brothers will face criminal prosecution for the June massacre—a clear source of leverage for the civilian camp despite the ethical dilemma it poses. 

To be clear, attempting to rein in the RSF is a risky gambit. Even if it succeeds, the FFC and global community would still need to avoid restoring the same power-sharing agreement with the military that brought Sudan to its current crisis. That outcome could divide protesters between those happy to see Hamdok reinstated and the more radical activists demanding full civilian rule. 

A wiser approach would be to champion the remarkable power of the protest movement and encourage resistance committees to forge some sort of commission of representatives to take part in negotiations. Western powers could help boost the leverage of these representatives by insisting on mediating talks, but only once the military releases Hamdok, frees the activists and ministers who have been detained since the coup, and lifts the internet blackout. The next step would be to offer Burhan incentives to submit the army to civilian control and to relinquish control over key civilian sectors of the economy, while holding out the prospect of punitive measures if he doesn’t. 

While this hopeful outcome hinges on optimizing external and internal pressure to corner Sudan’s junta, nothing ever guarantees that men with guns will surrender power. This is precisely why the international community should rally around pro-democracy protesters: to give them the best shot at success.

Mat Nashed is a veteran journalist specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. He has reported from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and Sudan, and his work has appeared in Al-Jazeera, VICE, Newlines Magazine, The New Humanitarian, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among other outlets.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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