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After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition
After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition
KHARTOUM, SUDAN - OCTOBER 30: Sudanese people stage a demonstration demanding the end of the military intervention and the transfer of administration to civilians in Khartoum, Sudan on October 30, 2021. Mahmoud Hjaj/ANADOLU AGENCY/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Q&A / Africa

After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition

Mass protests have erupted throughout Sudan following the 25 October coup, prompting backlash from the security forces. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Jonas Horner outlines de-escalatory moves that could reinstate the constitutional order – and reset the country’s transition.

What has been the reaction to the coup over the past two weeks?

The Sudanese people have mobilised swiftly and peacefully against the 25 October coup, recalling the protests that toppled the dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Since the generals wrested full control of government from the civilian-military power-sharing arrangement made to oversee the post-Bashir transition, men and women in the capital Khartoum and other towns have taken to the streets, culminating in coordinated countrywide demonstrations numbering hundreds of thousands on 30 October. Many Sudanese workers are meanwhile striking, paralysing the country’s economy, though banks and key businesses such as pharmacies have occasionally reopened as organisers sought to ease the burden on the public. Protesters have also erected roadblocks in Khartoum, leaving most streets not being used for demonstrations deserted. Further protests are expected in the days ahead with a nationwide set of gatherings scheduled for 7 November.

The military, which has declared a state of emergency, has shown it is ready to use force. Reports indicate that security forces have killed at least twenty protesters since 25 October, with soldiers in some instances firing directly into crowds. The generals have also turned off the internet and arrested many activists, as well as those ministers from the ousted civilian cabinet whom they see as particularly effective opponents.

Dreadful as it has been, the military’s response has been less violent than in June 2019, after Bashir fell, when soldiers killed at least 120 protesters and injured hundreds. International opprobrium directed at the generals for their role in that lethal crackdown helped force them into the hybrid transitional government that they terminated on 25 October. The generals are wary of more international condemnation, which may be why the repression is lesser now. The fact that the military are now open to some type of negotiation with civilians over what form of government should be put in place shows that the generals may have underestimated the street’s determination. Early on 5 November, the military announced they have ordered the release of four former ministers whom they had arrested. Even if those four are released, others will remain in detention.

Many of Sudan’s partners have meanwhile started turning up the heat. The African Union (AU) has suspended Sudan, while the UN Security Council called upon the military “to restore the civilian-led transitional government” and urged parties to engage in dialogue with the aim of restoring the country’s democratic transition. The U.S. on 25 October also paused $700 million in assistance to Sudan. The World Bank has halted disbursement of some $2 billion in aid and France is looking at ways to freeze a $14 billion debt relief deal agreed to by Khartoum’s creditors on 17 May, until there is progress on political negotiations. Reaction from other actors perceived as more sympathetic to the generals, notably Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, has been more muted, however.

What do military leaders want?

The generals claim to have acted in the Sudanese people’s interest, saying the civilian cabinet had failed to get the country’s economy moving or to calm tensions that could spark conflict. Underpinning the coup, however, was the generals’ fear that a civilian would chip away at their powers and protections if one were to assume chairmanship of the Sovereign Council, the transition’s key executive body. Prior to the military takeover, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the coup’s public face, was Council head. A civilian was slated to take the helm, however, at least in principle, and some in the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) were insisting that the transfer was due in November. The top brass thus feared that some of them might soon face charges for crimes committed during the Bashir era and after the uprising that led to his downfall. They also fretted about losing control of the large parts of Sudan’s agricultural and industrial sectors that they have held for decades. The generals would like to appoint a civilian government, but one friendlier to their concerns and those of the Bashir-era Islamists who, together with them, presided over the economy’s ruin.

Now that the coup has taken place, the military want to consolidate their grip on power.

Now that the coup has taken place, the military want to consolidate their grip on power. In the week after 25 October, sugar and wheat prices dipped sharply while supplies of previously scarce basic commodities suddenly peaked, suggesting that authorities were flooding the market to placate the street if not to gain popular support. The generals, meanwhile, appear determined to put in place a cabinet that will safeguard their interests. Days after the coup, Burhan asked former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to return to his post with the proviso that he form a new government more congenial to the generals. Hamdok refused, demanding the release of all arrested officials and his full reinstatement. The generals are now proposing a cabinet made up of compliant technocrats representative of the country’s geographic diversity, replacing Hamdok’s cabinet, in which posts were distributed equally among political and former rebel factions.

What do the civilians want?

Civilian opposition to the coup has been diffuse and fragmented. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), made up of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other educated and organised workers broke apart after forming the backbone of the 2018-2019 popular uprising against Bashir. The SPA had not just supplied people power in the streets, but had also served as a key convening and coordinating platform that brought other organisations into the protest movement. These included the civilian political parties and civil society organisations that eventually formed the FFC, the bloc that negotiated the terms of, and took positions in, the transitional power-sharing government with the military. They also included the neighbourhood Resistance Committees, informal, grassroots entities that were crucial to Bashir’s overthrow. The SPA split in 2020 due to differences among its leaders over the degree to which they should accept military representation in the transitional government.

While the street continues to mobilise, it is primarily senior FFC figures who have stepped in to handle political negotiations with the military from the civilian side. The coalition has tabled a slate of demands: immediate release of government officials detained by the military, return to the pre-25 October constitutional order, moves bringing the coup perpetrators to justice and reinstatement of Hamdok, who is under house arrest. In the end, the FFC, comprising a broad range of political parties, is likely to seek a workable compromise with military leaders, whose participation in transitional government they recognised in the August 2019 constitutional charter.

The Resistance Committees, entities more representative of sentiments on the barricades, are furious at the generals’ usurpation of power. Committees from throughout Khartoum are calling for nothing less than total civilian control of the transition going forward and are stridently hostile to the prospect of a continued military role. They are likely to call more protests if the FFC accedes to a compromise deal with the generals.

A large number of protesters have also denounced meddling from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, which they accuse of collaboration with the coup makers. Cairo, which argued against the AU’s suspension of Sudan, appears to believe that military dominance in Khartoum is key to its interests. Abu Dhabi, which has publicly stated it would like to see the civilian-military transition restored, has nevertheless maintained especially close relations with military factions which it sees as the ultimate locus of power in Sudan. Both countries want a pliant partner in Khartoum, one with whom they can do business, including by investing in military-run companies that offer lucrative returns. Egypt also seeks an ally in Khartoum who will take its side in its tussle with Ethiopia over the future of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Israel, which normalised diplomatic and security relations with Khartoum in 2020, also sees the military as an essential partner.

What negotiations are under way and how are they going?

Negotiations between the FFC and Burhan are under way. While the civilian negotiators are publicly pushing for the return of Hamdok and his full former cabinet, it is unclear if they can achieve this goal given how much power the military now wields. Crisis Group contacts indicate that an agreement between Hamdok and Burhan may be close to completion, but the civilians may have to make concessions to the military. The talks, hamstrung by the fact that several key ministers whom the street would like to see represented at the negotiating table have been arrested, are meanwhile drawing heavy fire from Resistance Committees, which are unmoved in their opposition to Burhan and Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, head of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Anything less than the restoration of Hamdok and his cabinet would be unacceptable, a prominent committee activist told Crisis Group.

Meanwhile, another negotiating track involving Hemedti threatens to widen a rift within the military itself. Abdel Rahim Dagalo, Hemedti’s brother, has been assembling with several former ministers the bones of an agreement that could be put in front of military and civilian factions for approval. Burhan has roundly rejected this initiative, aware of the risk to his own authority of a separate process involving Hemedti, whose profile as a formerly pro-Bashir paramilitary leader from the Darfur borderlands near Chad puts him at odds with the Nile riverine elite officer class. Already in June, tensions arose between the Rapid Support Forces and regular army over whether both entities should be integrated into a single chain of command under Burhan. Both forces then built up their garrisons in Khartoum.

International mediators, meanwhile, are pressing the civilian and military partners toward compromise. The UN is working with a set of respected national figures trusted by both civilians and the military to drive direct negotiations between Burhan and the secretary-general’s special representative in Sudan, Volker Perthes. AU representatives arrived in Khartoum on 3 November to open talks aimed at resolving the impasse. Some foreign governments, however, appear to be encouraging the military to stand fast to hardline positions. Israeli and South Sudanese delegations in Khartoum have aroused particular suspicion among civilian factions who believe they have quietly endorsed the coup.

How can Sudan’s transition get back on track?

The 25 October coup was a dangerous power grab that has derailed Sudan’s transition and could open the door to worsening deadlock and violence. The Resistance Committees and their constituents are exercised by the generals’ attempt to take over the transition and the country and are prepared for an extended standoff with the military. On the other hand, the military continues to believe it has little incentive to relinquish control. While the generals hope to win eventual public acceptance, through such actions as slashing commodity prices, they are likely to face considerable opposition on the street for the time being. Further instability could sow more division among the military, perhaps even with rank-and-file soldiers siding with protesters, injecting a newly destabilising dynamic into Sudan’s protracted crisis. If the situation degenerates, Western financial assistance to the country would also likely dry up, inflicting more damage upon a battered economy and aggravating tensions further.

Managing the expectations of the various Sudanese actors will require threading a needle.

Managing the expectations of the various Sudanese actors will require threading a needle. As a priority, the military should take steps to de-escalate tensions by pulling soldiers back into the barracks. They should immediately release civilian officials detained since the coup, not only because those detentions were manifestly unwarranted but also to enable relevant figures to join negotiations. They should also restore telephone and internet service to allow communication and free flow of information. While the coup represents a perilous overreach by the generals, civilians will have to concede ground, too. Their demands for a sharply diminished role for the military are entirely understandable and justified, given not just the coup but also the generals’ decades-long unaccountable dominance, which has left Sudan weaker politically and economically. But the reality, as some foreign officials including U.S. Horn of Africa Envoy Jeffrey Feltman have pointed out, is that some kind of role for the military at this stage is inescapable.

Parties should meanwhile pursue appointment of an FFC-selected government (aside from the interior and defence ministers, who are to be chosen by the military), as directed in the constitutional charter. At the same time, they should commit to keep seeking consensus on contentious issues that widened the gap between the civilian and military wings of the ousted transitional government. Priority issues to be dealt with include reform of the economy, the woes of which triggered the street protests that led to Bashir’s removal. To that end, control of military-run companies will also need to be reckoned with. Any government, in addition to the courts, will also have to weigh carefully to what degree and at what pace justice should be meted out against military officers responsible for abuses committed in the Bashir era and thereafter. The military will have to understand that there is an important place for them in a multiparty democracy, but one that involves coming under the command and control of a civilian government.

Key outside actors will be crucial to both arriving at and following through with any negotiated solution. The AU, which played an important role alongside Ethiopia in brokering the 2019 deal between the FFC and the military, should re-engage in Sudan much more robustly, with the particular goal of building confidence between the civilians and the military and steering all sides to take steps that put the transition back on track. To this end, the AU Peace and Security Council should appoint a dedicated envoy to be based in Khartoum. Meanwhile, the AU, backed by the European Union, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S., should continue to press home the message that a duly elected civilian government is the surest path to the shared goal of a stable Sudan. These parties should further be prepared to extend financial support to any government that comes into being as a result of a Sudanese political agreement. Ideally, too, the military’s foreign allies in Egypt and the Gulf should maintain pressure on the generals to work with the civilians.

The alternative is almost certainly more angry protests on the street, coupled with the risk of brutal crackdowns that could trigger more widespread opposition and conflict across the country as well as open further divisions in the military itself. None of those developments would serve any outside power’s interests.