On October 25, Sudan’s military detained the country’s prime minister and key civilian leaders, dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency. The coup, which has put in doubt Sudan’s transition to democracy, quickly prompted protests in the streets of the capital Khartoum and other cities. Some protesters were killed after being fired on by security forces and calls for mass protests on October 30 are growing. USIP’s Joseph Tucker and Manal Taha analyze what the latest developments in Sudan mean for the country and consider the options for the United States to respond to this crisis.

Protesters in front of Sudan’s military headquarters in Khartoum. April 20, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Protesters in front of Sudan’s military headquarters in Khartoum. April 20, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

The threat of a coup had been looming for months as relations between civilian and military leaders had grown more contentious. What is at the center of these tensions, and what may have prompted the military to act now?

Tucker: Disagreements over power wielded by civilian and military components of Sudan’s government led to this moment. On the surface, the planned leadership transfer of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council — the mixed military and civilian body led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan — to civilian control likely increased resistance within the military to cede power, as did calls for accountability and comprehensive security sector reform. However, the splintering of civilian political coalitions, increasing overtures to the military from signatories to the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) and tensions within the security sector all contributed to a volatile political situation ripe for such an action. The military appears to have seen a need to protect its interests, and more importantly, an opportunity to do so.

The relationship between the military, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) and the Sudanese public provides the sobering backdrop for the coup. The armed forces have often played an outsized role in Sudanese politics, and the litany of attempted and successful coups attests to this. The military often projects itself as the defender of the nation, and it appears to be reinforcing this narrative after the takeover.

Citizens’ frustration with political deadlock, impatience with the pace of economic recovery and perceived regional support may have led the military to think its action would at least be tolerated. During a press conference on October 26, al-Burhan bluntly noted that the military took action to get the transition back on track and avoid conflict. He expressed frustration that the military had been excluded from key discussions and unfairly targeted. These suggestions were met with derision and anger among many Sudanese, including those protesting on the streets and among the diaspora. While the military tries to recruit members of what will probably be a controversial new government, a central theme will remain: What role should the military have going forward and how can this be shaped given the coup?

Which actors appear to be aligning themselves with the military takeover, and which appear to remain in support of civilian participation in government?

Tucker: Choices among Sudanese are increasingly zero sum: One is either in support of a government run by civilians or one run by the military. Debates over whether to call the events of October 25 a coup may detract from the basic fact that Sudan’s hybrid civilian and military transition was unilaterally overturned by the latter in violation of the transition’s foundational document, the Constitutional Declaration, and the JPA.

Though there needs to be more understanding of Sudanese perceptions of the military, especially in rural areas, for some Sudanese the putsch may remove any remaining faith in the military’s commitment to the change it helped usher in after intervening to help depose Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship in 2019. For many, trust in the military was already weak due to a lack of accountability for the killing of protesters in June 2019 and its continued control of certain economic sectors. The sense of outrage on the streets and among the diaspora on social media indicates that the public — at least those vocally expressing themselves — remains in support of the deposed civilians. While many citizens expressed frustration with the lack of progress made by the government, the coup appears to trump these feelings. In line with their significant role during the revolution, Sudan’s professional associations are playing key roles in strikes that give confidence to those on the street. A group of political, civil society and citizen activists have also formed a coalition to peacefully oppose the coup.

In recent months, political groups, including from the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance, have played a role that, in hindsight, may have further destabilized the situation. The FFC’s split into two rival wings prior to the coup, with one purportedly in support of the military, complicates the country’s already complex political environment.

Lastly, while the focus has been on events in Khartoum, it is important to look at the wider national context. Some of the signatories to the JPA and other leaders from Sudan’s peripheries supported the FFC wing that is sympathetic to the military. It will be important to watch what such leaders say in the coming days and weeks and monitor the potential for conflict in areas outside of Khartoum. It is also possible that evolving dynamics within the military could result in defections, as happened at times in 2019. The sometimes-contentious relationship between the RSF and military may also be further strained.

What are the regional and international dynamics of the coup and what options do the United States and the international community have to support a potential return to a transitional government?

Tucker: The coup comes at a time of unprecedented conflict and political crisis in the greater Horn of Africa. Without civilian diplomacy, the military might take on more contentious stances on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the regional feud over Nile water access. The coup also cripples Sudan’s already limited ability to effectively chair the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the regional bloc tasked with confronting regional crises.

The interests of Egypt and Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have undoubtedly impacted the trajectory of the transition, and it is possible Sudan’s military thought that they would turn a blind eye to a takeover. Any financial and diplomatic support from these countries could have played into the military’s calculations and, in the wake of actions such as the U.S. government’s decision to suspend $700 million of assistance and the World Bank doing the same after the coup, may be critical to the country’s strained economy. Further punitive measures are likely being considered by international actors depending on how the situation evolves.

We hear from Sudanese that they have access to little information about how the interests of regional countries may have impacted the situation to date. More transparency is needed about how the region and international community engages with Sudan. So far, many statements by international actors have condemned the coup with boilerplate language and called for a return to the transition, but it is their use of leverage and actions behind the scenes that carry weight. The African Union (AU) is poised to play a significant role in both public and private efforts, and this should be supported by the United States. The AU has already suspended Sudan’s membership following the coup.

The crisis in Sudan presents a sliver of opportunity for the United States and others to reiterate the primacy of the Constitutional Declaration, and perhaps the JPA, as the foundation of the transition. In the case of the latter, it should create space to review the process and outcomes that many viewed as inadequate, divisive and reducing complex problems to elite power-sharing and committee formation. However, in the near term, there will likely be a need for international actors to support, as they did in some ways during al-Bashir’s dictatorship, the capacity of civil society activists, independent media and citizen leaders. Coordinated U.S. and international efforts to convince the military to release detainees are an important part of this process. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was returned to his home on October 26 but is under surveillance.

Protesters have taken to the streets in opposition to the coup and there are reports circulating that the military has begun cracking down on demonstrations. Given the military’s current position and apparent reticence to cede control to civilian leaders, where does the pro-democracy movement in Sudan go from here?

Taha: Many Sudanese citizens and political stakeholders, as well as the international community, are reeling from the military takeover. Key leaders have been detained and it is likely that other civil society activists have been as well. Countless others are probably in hiding. Telecommunications and internet blackouts make it hard to gather information.

However, nonviolent protests in the capital and other cities of Sudan make it clear that those citizens, especially youth, women and members of professional associations, are mobilized to protect their revolution. These stakeholders, as well as civilian political leaders viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the public, should indicate how there can be a return to a more democratic pathway. This may take time, and the anger among citizens is likely to continue. We hear from many inside Sudan that dialogue with the military is premature and would be rejected by most, and that considerable pressure needs to be placed on the military to reverse course. Calls to simply go back to the previous iteration of the transitional government are likely to be met with skepticism from many on the ground.

Burhan noted in his press conference that new transitional institutions will be formed in 10 days and claimed that the new government will not include politicians, presumably being composed of people identified as technocrats. This will be a key moment because it could widen the current divisions among civilian and political actors, pitting those who join against those deposed. Some ministers in the dissolved cabinet have been condemning the coup — for example, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mariam al-Sadig al-Mahdi — and their responses to a new cabinet will be telling. Importantly, on October 27, the European Union (EU) delegation in Sudan, along with the embassies of some EU and non-EU member states and the United States in Khartoum, issued a key statement noting they “continue to recognize the Prime Minister and his cabinet as the constitutional leaders of the transitional government.”

Talk of planned elections at the end of the transition is also likely to be controversial because the takeover disrupts the transition’s key benchmarks to be met to ensure that institutions, laws and political and civil liberties are in place for an inclusive and fair election. It is easy to say that the Sudanese public does not want a return to dictatorship or military rule. But it is harder to say where the transition goes from this point. Whatever the direction the country takes, it will continue to face decisions about the fundamental nature of the state and how its citizens, including those in the military, relate to its government, economy and society.

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