The Counterrevolution Begins in Sudan
Omar al-Bashir is gone, but his system is fighting back. The result is total stalemate—for now.
KHARTOUM, Sudan—It was 1 o’clock Tuesday morning, and thousands of protesters were still waving flags outside Sudan’s army headquarters and listening to speeches when word came. Inside the building, the ruling junta had just rebuffed an offer by their civilian representatives, called the Declaration of Freedom and Change, to share power.
“The military council wanted to keep control,” Haider Elsafi Shapo, a civilian negotiator, told Foreign Policy. Even the civilians’ offer to create a council with an even number of civilians and military figures was rejected.
Afterward, the lights on a stage were unceremoniously cut, the bridge went silent, and many protesters simply trudged away. But the despair did not last. Within minutes, a crowd of young men came back and began stomping loudly on the metal bridge. Sudanese flags returned to full staff. Chants of “freedom” grew to a roar.
Yet the military doesn’t appear to be listening. The counterrevolution is digging in. What began in December 2018 as spontaneous protests across Sudan because of the turgid economy and ended with the removal of military dictator Omar al-Bashir last month has run into a major obstacle: Bashir is gone, but his system is fighting back. Although the junta promised to hand over authority to civilians when they removed Bashir, the country’s fractious military appears to be reneging on that pledge.
“The junta learned under Bashir how to spend a long time arguing over minute details and keep people spinning their wheels, letting the opposition weaken itself,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
That strategy, however, could cut both ways. There is also evidence of a split inside the junta, and Western officials fear the rift could spill over into more mass violence. On Thursday, Sudan’s public prosecutor said it attempted to arrest the powerful former intelligence chief Salah Gosh but was thwarted by his guards, according to Reuters. It is a sign that the country’s intelligence service, accused of torture and atrocities during Bashir’s time, marches to its own beat. Gosh previously denied claims that he was under house arrest to Foreign Policy and did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Gosh had a close relationship with the CIA and was part of a coup plot in 2012 against Bashir that was discussed with U.S. officials.
There is also evidence of a broader rift inside the country’s military. Last week, Foreign Policy saw men wearing the uniform of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary unit controlled by the junta, whipping civilians and attacking the sit-in. It was evidence that someone from the military wanted to undermine the negotiations. One by one, gunshot victims were hauled deeper into the sit-in site, and protesters formed a protective ring around them as doctors worked to treat them.
“We are not afraid,” Deen al-Fatah, a protester, said amid the gunfire. “We want our freedom by peaceful ways, but we get no help.”
Doctors treating the wounded told Foreign Policy they caught an intelligence officer wearing the Rapid Support Forces uniform. The soldiers fired on civilians with live ammunition, killing six and wounding 77. Some Western nations said the violence was an attempt to provoke the protesters. Sudan’s government also warned foreign ambassadors not to visit the sit-in days before the violence, which some believe is an indication the fighting was pre-planned.
There are also significant splits inside the Declaration of Freedom and Change, the alliance of civilian groups. During a meeting after Tuesday morning’s negotiation, some members expressed frustration that the negotiators offered to split power with the military. Some were grateful the junta rejected the offer and speculated it would not have been accepted by demonstrators.
Meanwhile plenty of disagreement about Sudan’s future persists outside the country. Three Arab countries are seen as backing the junta, but for different reasons.
Western officials say that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia support the military to protect their financial and military interests. Sudan supplies soldiers that fight for the Arab alliance in Yemen. Both countries have backed the military by providing $500 million to Sudan’s Central Bank, but there is speculation the money could be used for buying support inside the military. “The outside money is more interesting,” said Naunihal Singh, the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. “Perhaps the money is all going to buy off members of the [military] coalition, which would indicate they are internally weak.”
Egypt is seen as backing the junta to hedge both the spread of democracy and the rise of political Islam. Military ties between the two countries are tight. Many senior officials in Sudan’s military were educated in Egypt. “The Egyptians are driving a very hard line with the military council, pushing them to keep control of government,” Hudson said.
At the center of Sudan’s military is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, the head of the feared Rapid Support Forces that terrorized Darfur. He is nominally second-in-command of Sudan’s government right now, but he tells foreign diplomats it was his idea to oust Bashir. Hemeti has taken center stage in negotiating with civilians. Different intelligence estimates exist regarding the size of his forces. Some countries say Hemeti has 20,000 troops in total with a few thousand in the capital, Khartoum. Some say Hemeti has 20,000 stationed in Khartoum alone, with tens of thousands more that in Darfur and fighting in Yemen on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Whatever the real number, Hemeti’s soldiers are well armed throughout Khartoum, with bunches of rocket-propelled grenades stored on the back of trucks. He also may be getting help from Moscow: Some of Hemeti’s troops spoke to Foreign Policy in crude Russian. Sudan’s military has received supplies from Moscow-backed companies, and residents of one village in Darfur, Um Dafuq, said Russian flags fly on the back of convoys in town.
However, Sudan’s military is not the only counterrevolutionary force seeking to influence the country’s post-Bashir period. Two recent marches allegedly orchestrated by a pro-Islamic State sympathizer, Mohamed al-Gizouli, and an ultraconservative cleric, Abdulhay Yousif, are a warning sign of an extreme religious undercurrent in Sudan that, while a minority, have radical intentions. In one march, hundreds of men in white galabias, and some women in colorful shawls strolled through the streets of Khartoum chanting, “Sharia, sharia, or death.” Gizouli did not respond to an interview request, and Yousif was unable to be reached.
Awadallah Hassan, the general secretary of the more moderate Muslim Brothers in Sudan, told Foreign Policy that Sudan’s Constitution should include a sharia legal system, which the military has also demanded. He said the brotherhood would not run as an independent political party in future elections but would support existing Islamic parties in Sudan. The brotherhood receives no support from outside Sudan, he said, and he declined to say how many members are in the organization.
So with Sudan’s counterrevolution growing more powerful, the alliance of civilian officials who organized protests have responded in the only way they know how. Next is “escalation of the nonviolent movement toward complete democratic change,” Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, told Foreign Policy.
For weeks, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which originally planned the protests, was quietly recruiting workers’ groups, like transportation and electricity associations, to join a nationwide strike if talks with the military broke down. That plan was activated after Tuesday morning’s collapse. The goal of the strike is to “paralyze and bring the country to a standstill against any austerity measures including the Transitional Military Council’s reluctance to accept a civilian government,” Abdelgalil said.
But others say the effectiveness of the nationwide strike may be limited, for now. It is Ramadan, and the country is protesting—nobody is working during the day anyway, said Siddiq Youssef, one of the civilian negotiators and the head of Sudan’s Communist Party.
Western nations are split regarding what to do in Sudan. Some diplomats told Foreign Policy they will refuse to recognize the military if they keep power, while other nations are less steadfast. Little was decided at a coordination meeting held in Washington last week between Western nations and their regional partners (among the participants were representatives of the U.N., Germany, France, Britain, Norway, the African Union and Ethiopia), according to one source privy to the discussions.
U.S. policy in Sudan is frequently described by officials as fumbling or nonexistent. Some in the White House believe the Sudanese Professionals Association may be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, for which there is no evidence. U.S. relations with the civilian alliance are strained. Four members of the coalition of civilian groups described difficulties with the top U.S. official in the country, Steven Koutsis, saying he was dismissive and demanding during meetings. One called him “arrogant.” Koutsis declined an interview request. The State Department and the White House did not respond to questions.
But one opposition official said they would no longer attend meetings with the U.S. Embassy: “They are a waste of time.”