How Sudan’s Military Overcame the Revolution

Sudan’s protesters wanted to overthrow their president and his regime. They were only half-successful.

From left, Ethiopian mediator Mahmoud Drir, protest leader Ahmed al-Rabie, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, celebrate after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on Aug. 4.
From left, Ethiopian mediator Mahmoud Drir, protest leader Ahmed al-Rabie, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Sudan's deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, celebrate after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on Aug. 4. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

KHARTOUM, Sudan—It is little surprise that the celebrations for Sudan’s new transitional constitution, which was initialed on Sunday, were somewhat muted in the streets of Khartoum.

Many protest leaders say they knew they had been outmaneuvered from the start—that Sudan’s security establishment had actually defeated the country’s revolution back on April 11, the same day that the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was officially removed from office in the face of massive demonstrations. As more than a million people marched and waved Sudanese flags in Khartoum’s dusty streets to celebrate Bashir’s departure, the country’s military was in the midst of a plan that had been in the works for at least a year. Sudan’s security establishment, led by the country’s elusive former intelligence chief Salah Gosh, ousted Bashir and quickly reached out to sympathetic opposition leaders to negotiate a transition. But by steering the talks, the army preserved its status—and, for now, its dominance. 

Slaughter, diplomacy, and deception were the junta’s tactics of choice as it cajoled civilian leaders over the ensuing four months. Now, after a planned official signing on Aug. 17 at a ceremony in Khartoum, the new government is set to begin on Sept. 1, and organizers of the revolution say the deal falls far short of their hopes. The agreement calls for a joint civilian and military council to lead the country for more than three years until elections in 2022. The military holds veto power over decisions in the country’s top body, and the junta remains free of civilian oversight. 

“We still have not achieved what we are fighting for,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that organized the protests. “Omar al-Bashir is not there, but the regime itself is still there. Objective one has not been achieved. Objective two has not been achieved, which is a civilian government. It’s like having a diversion in the middle of your journey.”

According to Alex de Waal, the head of the World Peace Foundation, the military takeover in April was the restoration of politics during Bashir’s era, except with a new political business manager in the person of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti. Although Sudan has received an injection of cash from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Hemeti’s leadership makes Sudan more unstable than it was under Bashir’s regime, de Waal says.

It is not surprising that Sudan’s military was able to outlast the country’s revolution. In fact, the way in which Sudan’s junta suffocated the country’s democratic movement is ripped from the playbook of intransigent militaries that have endured and overcome revolutions the world over.

Sudan’s new authority was evident at the signing ceremony. Hemeti, the head of the country’s feared Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, which is accused of a slew of atrocities, hinted at his commitment to rule of law as he showcased the final document. (Hemeti held the new constitution upside down.) However the story of how Sudan’s military kept power began at least a year and a half earlier, when Gosh was already considering a change in power.

Before Gosh was even reappointed as Sudan’s spy chief by Bashir in early 2018, he told a top opposition official that there was a need to “inherit” his future boss’s legacy, as if the dictator was about to die and his possessions would be passed down. After the country’s democratic movement began in December 2018, Gosh met with top civilian officials when they were jailed, as first reported by Reuters. The officials included Omar el-Digeir, the head of the Sudanese Congress Party and a top member of the democratic coalition, who confirmed the meeting to Foreign Policy. “He was basically selling himself as an alternative to Bashir,” said a protest leader. 

Millions of people joined months-long protests to oust Bashir and his regime, but it was a coup that finally did the trick on April 11. Although the exact circumstances of the coup are unclear, Gosh admitted his involvement to Foreign Policy. Gosh said that the UAE backed the plot but that they were not the driving force. Gosh’s account is confirmed by politicians close to the military and civilian officials who were briefed by Hemeti. Shortly after, the civilians agreed to negotiate the transition with the junta. “We asked them to enter into a negotiation with us to agree on a power handover arrangement,” Digeir said.

The military’s influence was preserved. 

“There is huge reason to be skeptical that the people who kept killing up to the moment this deal was initialed are going to change their behavior overnight because of words on a page,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The day after Bashir fell, Gosh resigned as the intelligence chief. “If I were still there, then [everyone] will see it [as] Bashir’s system,” Gosh told Foreign Policy

By their own accounts, politicians in the democratic movement bickered and were not prepared to negotiate with the junta. Representatives of the protest movement, called the Forces of Freedom and Change, were made up of political parties and civil society organizations. They rarely reached a consensus and had no negotiating strategy. As one negotiator recounted to Foreign Policy, the civilians began negotiations with their least acceptable offer rather than the typical bargaining tactic of beginning with an opening gambit. Trust in the coalition was low. The same negotiator accused another of secretly working with the military and passing sensitive information about internal tactics. “The challenge protesters faced is transitioning from a relatively flat movement to a governing force,” Hudson said.

All the while, the junta simply stalled during the negotiations and pushed to control the transitional government. Sudan’s junta was aided by the international community’s strategy. They wanted to negotiate a compromise between the military and protest leaders, instead of forcing the junta to hand over power entirely.

The American strategy was summarized by the top U.S. official in Khartoum, Steven Koutsis, during a meeting with government officials and experts at the Atlantic Council in Washington in late May. Koutsis said the United States should share the values of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, according to six people in the room. After Bashir fell, the three countries had backed the junta. The UAE and Saudi Arabia offered $3 billion to keep the country afloat. Both countries paid Hemeti and his soldiers to fight in Yemen. Egypt provided diplomatic cover for the junta at the African Union. Koutsis asked the audience if U.S. interests diverged from those of these three countries. Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and respected statesman on U.S. policy in Africa, responded to Koutsis: “Democracy. Human Rights. Good governance. The rule of law.” (The U.S. State Department declined repeated interview requests for this article.)

But the junta solidified its authority on June 3, when soldiers attacked the country’s protest site. A massacre ensued, and more than 100 people died, according to doctors. Most soldiers were from the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary unit headed by Hemeti. (Hemeti denies he ordered the June 3 attacks.) “On June 3 everything really changed,” said Ahmed el-Gaili, a lawyer who advised civilians on the transitional constitution. “This naive optimism that we were operating under really ended with the horrific scenes we saw.”

But even after the June 3 massacre, the international community pushed for a compromise between the civilians and the junta. “They are putting pressure on us to be flexible and to be more accepting to compromise. But the military council is just an extension of Bashir’s regime,” said Mohamed Yousif, a top official in the Sudanese Professionals Association. The day before he spoke with Foreign Policy in late June, Yousif met with the United States’ new special envoy for Sudan, Donald Booth, and came away with the impression that the Americans are most interested in stability and counterterrorism. “They are not very helpful,” Yousif said.

Even after the June 3 massacre, Washington, London, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi worked together to press for a compromise between both sides in order to form a transitional government. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pressed Hemeti to sign the agreement, because as his main backers, the Gulf nations were held in part responsible for the slaughter, a Western diplomat told Foreign Policy.

The country’s protest movement had different opinions about a transitional government with the military in power. Leaders of the Sudanese Professionals Association were in favor of compromise, arguing that being part of government was a better way to initiate change.

The deal “does not satisfy all of the objectives the Sudanese people wanted to realize in their revolution, but it is a premise for their goals to be recognized though a process,” Amjad Farid, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association, told Foreign Policy in late July after an outline of the agreement was reached. Another senior civilian negotiator summarized why he was in favor of the agreement: “This is the best deal we could get.” 

But other leaders believed that the civilian negotiators were desperate to get political power and were pressured by the international community to compromise with the junta. Their apprehension about working with the junta solidified as the military gunned down more and more protestors during marches, including four children who were killed right before the final deal was signed. The Sudanese Professionals Association representative “is not listening to his team, thus not linked to what is going [on] at the ground,” a top official from the organization told Foreign Policy.

During the final negotiations over the final constitution, lawyers from civil society organizations told Foreign Policy they were surprised by the democratic coalition’s unwillingness to correct measures that undermine the transitional government’s civilian nature. The items include undefined powers the military could take advantage of, the army’s ability to reject items in the sovereign council, and immunity granted to government officials.

“There is no logical explanation for very cogent arguments to be rejected in the way they have,” said Gaili, the lawyer advising civilians. “They argued that we need to get to the transitional period and we can damage control later, we just need them to cede power, which is a highly problematic approach because you’re simply kicking the can down the road.”

Correction, Aug. 5, 2019: A previous version of this article misstated the month in which Mohamed Yousif met with Donald Booth. The two met in late June. 

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch