Sudan’s move to democracy is in jeopardy after the military seized control of the country’s transitional government through a coup.
The country’s democratic project began just two years ago, after Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted amid mass protests in 2019. Civil society and protest leaders and the military have finally reached a power-sharing arrangement that put both into the country with the commitment of a transition to full civilian rule that would lead to a new constitution and elections in 2023.
Monday’s coup overthrew all that effort, breaking what was already a solid arrangement between the military and civilian factions and jeopardizing any gains made. Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s top general, staged the seizure of power, arresting civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian leaders, and firing ambassadors who resisted the takeover.
But the coup also revived resistance as protesters returned to the streets in towns and cities across Sudan to denounce the military takeover. The Sudanese army has shut down the Internet, making it difficult to fully understand the extent of the resistance – and the response of the security forces to it – especially outside major cities such as Khartoum. At least 170 people were injured, and at least seven people were killed in Monday’s protests, according to data compiled by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Some pro-democracy leaders were reportedly arrested.
All this makes a very volatile, and unpredictable, situation. Despite international and regional pressure on the Sudanese army to restore the transitional government, experts said it is difficult to see a way forward under the same framework. “Confidence is broken,” said Michael Woldemariam, director of the African Studies Center at Boston University. “The military has really bared its teeth here – and the more we see violence deployed by the security forces, the harder it will be to get back to this old arrangement.”
That offers a bleak outlook for Sudan’s democratic experiment. But Sudan’s civil society, which helped celebrate the revolution that ousted al-Bashir in 2019, remains well-organized and strong. Civil society groups are calling for large-scale protests on October 30th in the last act of defiance against the coup. From the outset, protesters did not trust the military to introduce democracy, and they continued to distrust the armed forces and press civilian control, even before the takeover this week.
The coup demonstrated the pre-democratic camp, which reinforces their demand for a civilian-led government. How they can achieve this is uncertain, but the ongoing protests are a sign that the military cannot fully undo the democratic project initiated by Sudan.
“What’s spreading now is that‘ we’ve done this before, and we can do it again, ’” said Sarah O. Nugdalla, a Sudanese researcher currently based in Washington. “That is the spirit now. It’s again ‘we have nothing to lose.’ ”
Sudan’s transition was already quite precarious before the coup
There have been many warnings that Sudan’s democratic transition is in jeopardy. The transition process has always been a bit unstable. “All this time, it’s been a very troubled marriage,” said Akshaya Kumar, director of emergency protection at Human Rights Watch.
At the heart of this troubled marriage was a pact between the Transitional Military Council, led by al-Burhan, and the Forces of Freedom and Change, the coalition of civilian opposition groups, led by now deposed Prime Minister Hamdok. The ultimate goal of the transitional government was to settle into a fully (and later democratically elected) civilian-led government, where the military emerges from ruling powers.
A 2020 peace deal also brought rebel groups into the transition – an essential part of the process, but one that added new factions with competing interests. All these tensions have increased in recent months, as pressure grew on the military to maintain its commitment to hand over its powers to the civil-led government. It also came amid calls for more government accountability, particularly on abuses by security forces, including those related to the 2019 massacre of peaceful protesters. The military likely felt it needed to protect its political interests. and, just as importantly, economic ones that come from taking root in power for decades. “They just didn’t want to give up on that,” Woldemariam said. “They felt this was going to be their last shot to hold.”
And military leaders may have assumed the rest of the region would not care at all about a coup, including Egypt, and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries have come close to Sudan, and are also not well known for accepting democracy. The Sudanese military “may have had faith – or assumption – that the region would close its eyes to this,” said Joseph Tucker, a senior expert on the Great Horn of Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). “I think that’s a key part of this. We just don’t know the details of what messages, if any, the military has received.”
The full untangling began in September, after authorities thwarted a coup allegedly carried out by al-Bashir loyalists. That pushed the divisions into open view, with the military leaders accusing civilian politicians of creating the conditions for a coup ignoring the needs of the people, specifically Sudan’s dire economic situation. Civilian leaders have criticized the military for threatening the democratic transition. An alliance of rebel leaders and a number of civilian leaders joined forces with the military to demand that the government be disbanded. Protests erupted across Sudan in October, including one major pro-democracy, pro-civilian government-led protest in Khartoum last week.
And then, on Monday, the military stepped in really. The military arrested Hamdok and other civilian leaders. Al-Burhan declared a state of emergency and claimed he had dissolved the transitional government because the divisions within it were so intense that it risked a possible civil war. “Experience over the past two years has shown that the participation of political forces in the transition period is flawed and arouses strife,” he said.
Al-Burhan said the military would instead appoint a technocratic government – read, the people they like – and they would plan for the elections in July 2023. He also, bizarrely, claimed that Hamdok had been taken to al-Burhan’s home. for his safety, although the prime minister later returned to his own residence but under security.
This is obviously a pretty standard coup – claim the government is in crisis, say you’re still in a democracy, you just want to get there on a completely different path than originally agreed, and only if you can call the shots, oh, and we will only shut down the internet in the process. But a large part of the public seems unlikely to buy this self-service justification. “I don’t think that holds water among the protesting public,” said Tucker, of USIP.
Democracy in danger, or another revolution?
Sudan’s transition was imperfect, but it was also a remarkable achievement for a country that has seen a military coup after a military coup. The military interceded in the removal of al-Bashir in 2019, but a revolution led by actors and professionals from civil society and grassroots organizations introduced the fall of the dictator and this current transition.
These are still powerful forces in Sudan, and they are already mobilizing against the military takeover. Pro-democracy groups called on their supporters to protest, and the Alberta Communist Party directed workers to go on strike, according to Al Jazeera. Nugdalla, who was in contact with friends and activists on the ground in Sudan, said there was initially a feeling of exhaustion. “My friend told me that women in the streets held each other and cried just in disbelief that they were in the same place again, fighting for their democracy again, something they had just done.”
After exhaustion, there was action. Activists connected via social media and email, and if the internet was out, they found ways around it – distributing papers in smaller neighborhoods or making local mosques announce civil disobedience actions. “They know what to do; now, they know what not to do, ”Nugdalla said.
In Sudan, now that the democratization process has begun, the military is unlikely to be able to undo all the gains. It can, and did, usurp the transition process, but the transition itself was transformative, even if incomplete. It made peace with rebel groups, it expanded religious freedoms, it judged al-Bashir. “These are all changes that I don’t think a military transitional government can overcome,” said Alden Young, an assistant professor of African-American studies at UCLA. “I think we’ve seen a broad democratization of where people come from to participate in civil protests and the depth of that participation.”
Sudan is also facing real crises, beyond one of domination. The country is in deep economic turmoil. It is the Covid-19 pandemic and one of the lowest vaccinations in the world, in addition to rising tensions with Ethiopia, which is in the midst of its own disaster. The military has bet that it could blame the civilian leadership – “the politicians” – for failing to solve these problems and try to exploit disappointment with the transition process. But so far, the backlash on the streets suggests that much of the population is still blaming the people who are carrying out the coups, and the military that has ruled for decades. “What can be said is that civilians have shown in recent years that they are not willing to just accept things as they come,” said Christopher Tounsel, an assistant professor of history and African studies at Pennsylvania State University.
The resistance of the Sudanese public does not make the military coup less annoying and threatening for Sudan’s democratic experiment. Few experts thought that the transition process could be saved in its current form; many said Sudan’s best hopes, even with an active public, will be for progress along the way. “We have seen many times in Sudanese history where it is never too late to withdraw issues from the sidelines or to negotiate a new ban that creates a broad enough coalition to promote issues,” Tucker said. “That will be very difficult to do soon; I think we’re looking at a medium-to-long-term situation developing here. “
This medium-to-long-term situation can still be quite tense for the region. Sudan was a bright spot in a region otherwise in misery: dictators in neighboring Chad, South Sudan and Eritrea, and Ethiopia – once a successful history – now engulfed in conflict. This coup could further destabilize the region.
The international community is also putting pressure on Sudan. Its democratic transition has helped it re-establish ties with the United States and other Western allies, and this coup can undo all that. The United States has said it is suspending $ 700 million in aid to Sudan. The “troika”, the team of the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway, which has traditionally engaged with Sudan, condemned the coup, and continued to recognize Prime Minister Hamdok. The African Union has suspended Sudan.
The United States is trying to put some pressure on Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, to use their influence to avoid a deeper crisis. Whether such international pressure will work is an open question – especially since the U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa met with Sudanese officials in early October to tell them to stick to the democratic transition or risk losing U.S. support. (And then, yes, they went ahead and did the coup a few weeks later.)
But now the Sudanese pro-democracy and civilian groups are mobilizing to preserve the democratic experiment they have begun. Nugdalla said there is now no choice but to fight for full civilian rule. “People are tired, they’re angry, and they’re ready to die, unfortunately, if that’s what’s needed,” she said.