How serious is Sudan’s post-coup situation?
The stakes for Sudan’s future could not be higher. Pro-democracy demonstrators and civil society leaders are committed to resisting the military’s takeover, which was led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan late last month, and they have used strikes and mass demonstrations to signal their support for a civilian-led government. On November 21, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who for weeks had refused to acquiesce to the military’s plans despite being placed under house arrest, signed an agreement to rejoin the government, saying he was acting to prevent further bloodshed. But popular demands for a purely civilian-led transition persist.
Burhan will continue to try to project a sense of normalcy and convince the world that the transition is on track, despite the military making it plain that it reserves the right to seize power whenever it feels threatened. He and his allies have restricted internet access and used mass arrests—and sometimes deadly force —to intimidate the population. But the anti-democratic forces are not a monolith; in addition to senior military officers, they include Islamists, former rebel leaders, and members of the irregular forces that committed genocide in Darfur during the rule of Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP). The self-serving agendas of this group are often contradictory, and there is no guarantee of its continued cohesion.
Continued military dominance is not only a tremendously unpopular idea in Sudan, it is also an impediment to critical economic reforms. Only a combination of popular resistance and continued international pressure can salvage the revolution that Sudanese citizens began in 2018, and the path to genuine democracy and accountability will be difficult even in the best of circumstances. Developments in Sudan will also reverberate throughout the fragile region, where democracy is under threat and civil conflict—as well as interstate tensions—is testing the capacity of regional, rules-based institutions to maintain order.
What sparked the coup?
The coup in Sudan is best understood as the latest dramatic development in an ongoing struggle to shape the country’s future in the wake of Bashir’s ouster. In 2019, the Sudanese military joined forces with the popular, pro-democracy movement that made NCP rule untenable, forming an uneasy partnership intended to guide the country toward elections in 2023. But the military never had the same objectives as the civilian leaders: its leaders sought to maintain their impunity for past crimes and their exclusive access to lucrative economic opportunities. Over the course of the democratic transition, they balked at the planned transfer of leadership from military to civilian hands while resisting efforts to retrieve stolen assets and unwind extractive resource deals. They certainly have nothing to gain by allowing an election to occur unless they have complete control of the playing field.
Meanwhile, the civilian-led Forces of Freedom and Change coalition, which is vast and diverse, has struggled with internal fissures. This not only undermined popular confidence but also created a pretext for an authoritarian power grab. Those conditions were exacerbated by the slow pace of quality-of-life improvements for a population exhausted by economic hardship.
How should foreign partners respond?
The United States and other Western powers released a joint statement welcoming Hamdok’s reinstatement and suggesting they are “encouraged” by the renewed commitment to the transition. But this reception is premature. To be constructive, the United States and others should continue to insist on the release of political detainees taken into custody by the military when it seized power in October and maintain freezes on financial assistance. They should make clear that the economic relief Sudan stood to gain by transitioning away from Bashir and the NCP can only be delivered to a credible transitional government, and, ultimately, a genuinely democratic one. Targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals most responsible for derailing Sudan’s transition could also help influence thinking in Khartoum.
Of course, some countries stand to gain from the coup. Russia is seeking naval access to Port Sudan, which the military has been far more eager to provide than civilian leadership has. Egypt’s own governance model makes it more sympathetic to military dominance and authoritarianism than to a democratic transition led by the street, and Cairo has been supportive of Burhan and his argument that the coup was necessary for Sudan’s stability. Burhan and his allies hope for sustained support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; but, although those countries share Egypt’s philosophical preferences, they are wary of being too closely associated with an international pariah. Both signed onto statements urging military leaders to find their way back to a transitional arrangement, and they are likely to welcome the November 21 agreement.
What are the prospects for returning to a democratic transition?
Sudan’s pro-democracy movement proved itself both resilient and persistent in 2018–19, and popular anger at the prospect of continued military dominance is manifest in the streets. It’s clear that the military felt pressure in the weeks since it seized power to at least gesture toward some concessions. Yet, it’s equally true that Sudan’s history is full of military coups and hopelessly fractured politics. Today, much of the pro-democracy movement is unwilling to accept a continued role for the military in transitional arrangements, pointing to its evident bad faith. But it is difficult to see how any negotiation could convince the coup plotters to simply walk away from their interests.
Ultimately, the price of a successful transition, which will have to include structural economic reforms, will likely entail some distasteful compromises on issues such as accountability and retention of Bashir-era assets. But a genuine transition should also prevent the military from continuing to act as the country’s ultimate authority, able to reset timetables and remove governing officials at will. Reforming Sudan so that the government serves all of its citizens is a mammoth undertaking. Because of the courage of the Sudanese people, hope is not lost, but the road ahead is a difficult one.