Analysis

Sudan’s Coup Is a Gamble That Nobody Will Care

The Sudanese military seized power expecting not to face resistance at home or abroad. That’s wishful thinking.

By , an associate professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan holds a press conference.
Sudan’s top army general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, holds a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 26. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, the Sudanese military seized power from Sudan’s transitional government. Announcing the coup on state television, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s commander in chief, dissolved the civilian-military power-sharing arrangement in place since the Sudanese people overthrew Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship in 2019.

Burhan claimed military action was necessary to avert a civil war and that the military plans to take the country through to democratic elections in July 2023. As Sudanese civil society well knows, these are lies. The future of Sudan, the region, and hope for democratic movements worldwide depend, in part, on the ability of those outside of Sudan to reject the false narrative Burhan is peddling.

In 2019, for an article for Foreign Policy, I interviewed Burhan at the Sudanese presidential palace. In his pressed uniform, surrounded by the trappings of statehood, he spoke in a manner that exuded reasonableness. Burhan likes to see himself as a steward of the people. He would like to frame his power grab as a palatable alternative to democracy or—at the very least—as staving off chaos in a tough neighborhood.

On Monday, the Sudanese military seized power from Sudan’s transitional government. Announcing the coup on state television, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s commander in chief, dissolved the civilian-military power-sharing arrangement in place since the Sudanese people overthrew Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship in 2019.

Burhan claimed military action was necessary to avert a civil war and that the military plans to take the country through to democratic elections in July 2023. As Sudanese civil society well knows, these are lies. The future of Sudan, the region, and hope for democratic movements worldwide depend, in part, on the ability of those outside of Sudan to reject the false narrative Burhan is peddling.

In 2019, for an article for Foreign Policy, I interviewed Burhan at the Sudanese presidential palace. In his pressed uniform, surrounded by the trappings of statehood, he spoke in a manner that exuded reasonableness. Burhan likes to see himself as a steward of the people. He would like to frame his power grab as a palatable alternative to democracy or—at the very least—as staving off chaos in a tough neighborhood.

Burhan’s gamble is that through self-interest, indifference, or fatigue, powerful states will acquiesce. But he may be underestimating the passion and resilience of the Sudanese streets and those who stand in solidarity with their democratic aspirations.

A decentralized and youth-driven democratic movement has the Sudanese people’s trust and support. Burhan does not. In the neighborhoods of Khartoum this week, young people have been preparing barricades for a mass protest on Saturday. Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, military officers, and even traffic police have been shooting these young people, attacking them with batons, spraying them with tear gas, and dismantling their barricades. Yet within an hour of those barricades being torn down, civil society activists have rebuilt them. Even in the midst of an internet blackout, they have found ways to get documentation of this violence out to the wider world.

The quest for Sudanese democracy spans decades. The way in which the British ruled colonial Sudan left governance pathologies that have played into the hands of Sudanese strongmen ever since. Yet, each new Sudanese generation has continued the struggle for democracy.

In the months after Bashir’s ousting, Sudanese civil society was jubilant, but no one doubted the enormity of the challenge ahead. Bashir’s reign had institutionalized corruption, normalized state violence against civilians, and entrenched a brutal internal intelligence apparatus that routinely tortured dissidents. Sudanese had protested to achieve a civilian government and instead got a power-sharing arrangement between civilians and the military. This second-best outcome was as much as the balance of power could bear, with neither Sudanese civil society nor the military comfortable with the result.

The power-sharing arrangement meant civilian leaders had to work for the democratic transition with one hand tied behind their backs. Yet, they persisted. For Sudanese protesters, including those who lost family and friends in the struggle to overthrow Bashir, reform was too slow, and accountability—for both corruption and past atrocities—felt too distant. For those implicated in past crimes though, the pace was too fast. And many expected this week’s events to have happened much sooner.

At this point, most pundits will be betting against democracy. Burhan has already worked hard to sell himself to leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates as a non-ideologue who will keep regional Islamist fervor in check and maintain tight control over the population. For the Persian Gulf states, such benefits are sufficiently attractive that they would prop up the flailing Sudanese economy to secure the deal. Their assurances, along with Russian support already flowing to the Sudanese security sector through the paramilitary Wagner Group, laid the groundwork for Burhan’s gamble.

Against this backdrop, U.S. leverage is diminished from what it would otherwise be. Well aware of the transition’s fragility, the United States has worked with European allies to deliver diplomatic and financial incentives in support of civilian rule. Having removed Sudan from sanctions lists and promised significant financial aid, Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, carried a credible threat with him when he traveled to Khartoum, Sudan, last week. When Feltman warned Burhan not to meddle with the transition, Burhan knew that removal of these sought-after rewards was a genuine possibility. Evidently, that threat was not enough.

Still, the United States needs to stay the course on supporting the Sudanese people’s will. The Biden administration’s decision on Monday to suspend $700 million in aid to Sudan was a good start. Targeted sanctions on Burhan and his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, leader of the notorious RSF militia, must follow. But broader support is needed.

The Biden administration’s outreach to Gulf states, pressuring them not to further enable the coup, is critical. And thankfully, the African Union (AU) has already stepped up, suspending “with immediate effect, the participation of the Republic of Sudan in all AU activities until the effective restoration of the civilian-led Transitional Authority.” On Wednesday, the World Bank added financial weight in favor of democracy by halting its operations in the country.

These efforts must be bolstered by consistent international messaging to deny the legitimacy of Burhan’s new government. A closed-door United Nations Security Council meeting on Tuesday is yet to yield results, but this is the moment for democratic states on the Council to go to the mat in countering Russian efforts to mirror Burhan’s version of reality. The worst outcome here is also the most likely: Unable to muster necessary political will, the U.N. Security Council will settle on a plea for restraint and dialogue. Sudanese military leaders, who risk dissent in their ranks if they order mass violence against peaceful protesters, may welcome this result. And Burhan would welcome endless dialogue—provided the military stays in control of Sudan’s assets and continues to evade accountability for its many past atrocities.

This is not, however, an outcome the Sudanese people are likely to accept. The Sudanese are justifiably proud to point out that Bashir was the third dictator they have toppled. And in the two years since they did so, their confidence and organizational abilities have continued to grow. As they prepare for a mass protest on Saturday, their struggle continues.

Rebecca Hamilton is an associate professor at American Universitys Washington College of Law. She is the author of Fighting for Darfur.

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