Report

Sudanese General Blew Off Final U.S. Effort to Avert Power Grab

Military junta faces widespread international backlash for upending Sudan’s shaky democratic transition.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Top Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks at a press conference.
Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference after the military arrested civilian leaders and seized power in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 26. Ashraf Shazly / AFP via Getty Images

Jeffrey Feltman’s plane took off in the early hours of Monday morning after a frantic weekend of high-stakes diplomatic meetings in Sudan. Feltman, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, was in Khartoum meeting with top Sudanese power brokers to try to shore up the country’s shaky transitional government and try to salvage its uneven path to democracy.

During his time in Khartoum, Feltman met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok—the country’s top civilian leader—as well as Sudan’s top military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the vice president of the country’s Transitional Military Council, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo.

During one meeting, the two military leaders told Feltman that they wanted Hamdok to dissolve the cabinet and appoint new ministers, citing a litany of failings by Sudan’s civilian leadership, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the exchange.

Jeffrey Feltman’s plane took off in the early hours of Monday morning after a frantic weekend of high-stakes diplomatic meetings in Sudan. Feltman, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, was in Khartoum meeting with top Sudanese power brokers to try to shore up the country’s shaky transitional government and try to salvage its uneven path to democracy.

During his time in Khartoum, Feltman met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok—the country’s top civilian leader—as well as Sudan’s top military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the vice president of the country’s Transitional Military Council, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo.

During one meeting, the two military leaders told Feltman that they wanted Hamdok to dissolve the cabinet and appoint new ministers, citing a litany of failings by Sudan’s civilian leadership, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the exchange.

In the meeting, Feltman warned the leaders against causing any interruptions in the democratic transition. “I said that our assistance and the normalization of our relationship [shorthand for things like sanctions lifting] derived from forward momentum on the transition. If the transition is interrupted or the constitutional documents violated, that would call into serious question our commitments,” Feltman told Foreign Policy by email. “That’s diplo-speak but surely even the generals understand it.”

His messages sent and his mission seemingly complete, Feltman headed to the airport to depart the country, with no indication from the Sudanese military leaders of what would come next. Despite rumblings of a power grab, he felt he had fended off the worst for now.

Yet only an hour after Feltman’s flight took off, Burhan made his move, according to officials familiar with the matter. He ordered the sweeping arrest of civilian leaders, including Hamdok, the prime minister, and announced he was dissolving the transitional government to take power.

The sudden move caught U.S. officials totally off guard—at no point during their meetings with Feltman did the military leaders indicate they wanted to forcibly seize power or arrest the prime minister, the diplomatic sources said. “We did not receive any sort of heads-up from the military that they would be undertaking these anti-democratic actions,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters during a press briefing on Monday.

The military seizure of power in Sudan upended two years of a fragile power-sharing arrangement and dealt a body blow to U.S.-backed efforts to bring a democratic transition to Sudan after decades of autocratic rule. Feltman’s final diplomatic efforts to avert a military seizure failed to convince Burhan to change course, leading to a sharp international backlash against his power grab and sparking one of the largest waves of protests in Khartoum since a popular revolution ousted longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Burhan insisted his actions did not constitute a coup, and he argued the military was forced to take action to avert a civil war. Burhan said he was temporarily holding Hamdok at his own residence for the prime minister’s own safety, and he asserted the transition to democracy would continue.

Back in Washington, U.S. diplomats and other experts had been warily eyeing Sudan’s shaky democratic transition for months, fearful that Sudan’s powerful military faction could make a move against its civilian counterparts, current and former officials said.

They had also been worried about Hemeti, the vice president of the country’s transitional council, who heads a powerful militia group called the Rapid Support Forces that was previously responsible for widespread atrocities against civilians during the Darfur genocide. Hemeti and Burhan, several U.S. officials said, are believed to have had both a tenuous alliance and simmering rivalry on the council, and it’s believed that Hemeti backed Burhan’s move against the civilian government leaders.

Burhan has close ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while Hemeti is considered to have closer ties with officials in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—all countries with vested interests in Sudan. Two U.S. officials said they expect the State Department to closely engage with those regional powers in response to Burhan’s seizure of power.

Burhan was scheduled to hand over the reins of power to civilians next month, though tensions between the civilian and military factions of the transitional council had been roiling for months amid gridlock over government reforms and mounting dissatisfaction with the progress of the transition.

Burhan, and particularly Hemeti, were also closely associated with atrocities committed by Sudanese security forces against civilians during the mass protests that ousted Bashir in 2019. This, according to U.S. officials and sources in Khartoum, made both figures wary to hand over power for fear they could face reprisals or arrests over those actions—particularly the massacre of nearly 130 civilians protesting Bashir’s rule in June 2019.

“For the past five months there’s been a more palpable sense that things were coming to a head, that the military was feeling it was being backed into a corner,” said Joseph Tucker, an expert on Sudan with the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. diplomat and aid official.

“There were increasing divisions between the armed movements, increasing signals [that some of] the armed movements were getting close to the military, and increasing factionalization among the civilian political actors. There were also reports of lack of consensus within the military,” Tucker said. “All of these dynamics may have led military leadership to believe there would be an opening for this type of action.”

Burhan’s power grab early Monday sparked a flurry of international diplomacy and recriminations. The Biden administration swiftly condemned the takeover and announced it was pausing $700 million in direct assistance to Sudan—money that was meant to aid Sudan’s democratic transition.

The United States has not labeled Burhan’s move a “coup”—a legal determination that could trigger cuts in U.S. foreign aid—because it is still under military coup restrictions from 1989, when Bashir first seized power, Price told reporters on Monday.

Leading Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement calling the events “a stunning betrayal of the hard-fought gains of the Sudanese people and their steadfast commitment to a democratic, civilian-led Sudan” and said if the military junta didn’t reverse course, it will “result in dire consequences.”

The United States expedited the long and complicated process of rolling back sanctions on Sudan—including its label as a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism—after Bashir was ousted in 2019 and under U.S. pressure for Khartoum to normalize ties with Israel under former President Donald Trump. Now, both the Biden administration and Congress could start looking at ways to reimpose sanctions on Sudan’s military junta if Burhan doesn’t reverse course on his power grab, one U.S. official and one congressional aide said.

At the United Nations, diplomats are now scrambling for a response. The United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, and Estonia called for consultations on Sudan, which are scheduled to take place on Tuesday afternoon. But Russia and China stalled an effort to issue a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the overthrow of the civilian government. The Russian delegation said it needs more time to get instructions from Moscow, but the delay has raised concerns among diplomats in New York that Russia will block any U.N. efforts to ramp up pressure on the military regime.

In Khartoum, massive protests erupted as civilians took to the streets opposing the military’s moves and backing U.N. calls to restore the civilian-led government and release top civilian leaders, including Hamdok, from house arrest. The military responded with a deadly crackdown on protesters, killing seven and injuring over 140, members of the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, an organization that backs Sudan’s democracy movement, told Bloomberg. Larger protests against Burhan’s power grab are expected later this week, which several sources in Khartoum said could spark more violent backlash from his forces.

“We should be skeptical that Burhan’s plan here is going to work,” said one foreign aid worker based in Khartoum, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re likely going to see a significant reaction from protesters on Saturday, when there are more huge protests planned.”

Some of Sudan’s embassies abroad have condemned Burhan’s actions and sided with the protesters. Sudan’s ambassadors in Belgium, France, and Switzerland denounced the coup and distanced themselves from the military rulers by declaring that their missions were “embassies of the Sudanese people and their revolution.”

Sudan’s transitional council, composed of civilian and military leaders, was established after a revolution ousted the longtime dictator Bashir from power in 2019. Since then, the transitional council has struggled to enact democratic and economic reforms as it sought to bring the country back into the international system following decades of pariah status and international sanctions under Bashir’s rule. Sudan’s economy has struggled to get back on track, even with the lifting of many major U.S. sanctions in recent years.

It’s unclear whether Burhan’s power grab will permanently derail the country’s shaky transition to democracy, but the massive protests against his actions indicate he has little support from the country’s civilian population.

“The population still does not want a return to the previous dictatorship, it still does not want the military to be in control,” Tucker said. “But right now, the pathway forward for a democratic transition is just really unclear.”

Correction, Oct. 27, 2021: A previous version of this article mischaracterized a meeting between U.S. diplomats and two Sudanese military leaders. The military leaders did not indicate they wanted to forcibly seize power or arrest the prime minister during their meeting with Feltman, but instead wanted Hamdok to dissolve the cabinet, according to diplomatic sources.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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