Sudan’s coup is on shaky ground

There has never been a more apt time to push for the dismantling of military hegemony and the installing of fully civilian, democratic governance in Sudan.

Sudanese anti-coup protesters gather amid ongoing protests against last month's widely condemned military takeover, in the capital Khartoum on November 17, 2021 [AFP]

On October 30, millions of people took to the streets across Sudan to protest against the army’s October 25 coup. The massive protest was perhaps the largest the world has seen outside Hong Kong in recent years. Since then, successive anti-coup protests have drawn large crowds across the country, despite increasing violence from the coup regime. This Wednesday’s protest, where at least 17 protesters were killed, was only the latest chapter in a continuing battle for the political soul, and future, of the country.

On the one side, there are myriad civilian forces, including the neighbourhood resistance committees, pro-democracy activists, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. On the other, there are several paramilitary forces, some former rebel armed groups, the remnants of toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir’s patronage network, and most importantly, the military.

Since a failed coup attempt in late September, followed by a cavalcade of public conferences, mass protests, and an increasingly fluid political situation, Sudan’s previously highly heterogenous political scene became somewhat bipolar. The October 25 coup followed by consolidations in a newly set-up Sovereign Council has divided Sudan into two distinct camps: those who are anti-coup, and those who are supportive of it. And there is reason to believe, despite the events of the past few weeks, that the anti-coup side has the upper hand.

Military fatigue(s)

Last month’s coup was orchestrated by four unlikely allies – Head of the Sovereign Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, his deputy General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo known as “Hemedti”, Minister of Finance Gibreil Ibrahim, and Governor-General of Darfur Mini Minawi. And this “Coup Quartet” is unlikely to remain united, or gain the trust of the Sudanese public, for multiple reasons.

The tensions between Burhan and Hemedti are well known and have caused divisions within Burhan’s troops. While the generals are currently acting together, it is clear that they both supported the coup to pursue their own personal interests. The same is true for Ibrahim and Minawi, former rebels, whose insistence that they have not been included in transitional structures and processes despite holding positions within the transitional government provided the pretext for the coup. In this context, the coup appears to be a vehicle to allow its orchestrators to resist the growing pressures on them to cede power and/or financial interest, rather than a mechanism to, as its supporters claim, “correct past mistakes”.

In the aftermath of the October 25 coup, Burhan said he dissolved the government merely to avert civil war after civilian politicians “stoked hostility to the armed forces”. He claimed he will appoint a “technocrat” prime minister to rule alongside the military within days and put the country back on the path towards democracy. Burhan has since sworn himself in as the head of a new Sovereign Council and handpicked civilians loyal to him, and the Islamist movement, as civilian members.

He and his supporters, however, will have difficulty convincing the Sudanese public, and the international community, that they will deliver democratic gains – in the form of free and fair elections – through such anti-democratic methods. Indeed, there are several outstanding issues that signal the military may have overestimated its governing capabilities.

First, it is doubtful that General Burhan will be able to give his coup the necessary constitutional legitimacy to lure any technocrats into participating in the new civilian-military government he has promised to form.

Second, with almost all political parties vocally rejecting the coup, it is difficult to see which constituencies the new government can claim to represent, aside from the Islamists, sworn enemies of regional military allies Egypt and the UAE.

Third, it is not clear how a “coup government”, even if it includes technocrats, would be able to convince the public that it will meaningfully tackle the difficult issues of transitional justice, corruption, and human rights abuses when the military is largely seen as complicit in all three.

Fourth, the military’s regional allies Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who see their relations with Sudan mostly through a security lens, will find it difficult to continue to support the coup, politically and financially, in the face of mounting international condemnation.

To overcome these seemingly impossible to resolve issues, the Coup Quartet have been pressuring Prime Minister Hamdok, whose acquiescence they see as a gateway to legitimacy, to join their government. But the prime minister – still under house arrest and undoubtedly aware of the mass detentions and deaths following the coup – unsurprisingly continues to decline their offer.

The putschists have also embarked on a crackdown on pro-democracy voices in the Sudanese media and civil society, called for a return to subsidies, and strong-armed groups in the east of the country to comply with orders to open Sudan’s largest port, all to gain the support of the Sudanese public.

However, all their efforts appear to have been in vain. The Coup Quartet fails to see that after concerns over civilian autonomy in recent years, the Sudanese people would accept neither a new political dispensation where they have less, not more, power, nor the unconstitutional instalment of a new prime minister more palatable to the military.

Now, with the coup on shakier ground, there are some important questions facing Sudan: Should the country go back to the August 2019 agreement? Could it? What will Hamdok’s next move be? Will the positions of other members of the Coup Quartet change? How will different civilian groups be represented in future mediation efforts?

Change from below

The Sudanese street, an amorphous, but well-organised bloc, has shown in no uncertain terms that it will not readily accept a return to the previous status quo.

But it also learned from the 2018 Revolution how important it is to state not only what it stands against, but also what it stands for – and today it is doing just that. The civilians on the streets made their core demand clear: They want a fully civilian government to be set up immediately to take the country out of this crisis.

The reasons behind this stance are obvious.

First, history: the previous model, which represented a compromise between the military and civilians, has ultimately paved the way to the current crisis. Therefore, many believe alternatives, difficult though they may be to achieve, must be sought.

Second, pragmatism: the hybrid government model, and its less-than-perfect decision-making mechanisms, stilted the progress around big-ticket issues, such as transitional justice, the dismantling of al-Bashir’s networks, and the setting-up of important institutions like parliament and key commissions. As a result, many perceive the current crisis as an opportunity to abandon a governance model that was not working.

Third, leverage: The civilians have momentum and a fairly united position, so they believe making any compromise, or taking a step back at this point would be ill-advised and a betrayal of the sacrifices made to get to this position.

Moreover, the street, which is arguably the most astute political actor in the current Sudanese political scene, senses that the coup is on weak footing, and has been since the start. So far, no political parties bar Gibreil Ibrahim’s Justice and Equality Movement, have avowed the coup and many under consideration for the top job have publicly distanced themselves from the coup, sensing, rightly, that any association with such an unconstitutional move and with the unpopular Coup Quartet, would be a serious political and social misstep. In the face of all this, the only constituency that has backed the coup are deposed Islamists and their economic and security backers, most of whom are returning to the political stage after the coup.

Breaking the impasse

The generals behind the coup, realising they are on shaky ground, agreed to initial mediation so long as it does not include the FFC political umbrella. As a result, Prime Minister Hamdok emerged as the only visible, if restrained, civilian negotiator in the process. But he eventually engaged the FFC on an offer, effectively ending all mediation. The offer, which would have seen Hamdok installed into the Sovereign Council, would have been widely unpopular, and was refused. Burhan has since gone ahead and fashioned the Council out of military and civilian sympathisers and former rebels who say they were not consulted, but will retain their constitutional positions and push for a return to constitutional order.

Meanwhile, resistance committees have pledged to continue with protests and acts of civil disobedience until their demands are met. They acknowledged that the race towards democracy is a marathon, not a sprint – with some even seeing the current crisis as a continuation of the 2018 revolution, against the same actors: the military and the Islamists.

The street has shown it is ready and willing to play the long game and unwilling to agree to a compromise that would result in another coup down the line. While the crisis deepens, the international community, in trying to figure out which pressure points to press to reach a solution, should absolutely respect the street’s resolve.

Consultations by mediators with pro-democracy protesters seem fixated on yet another civilian compromise that sees the military retain enough power, without meaningfully reforming the very structures and pathways that enable them to hold Sudan’s future hostage.

International mediators acknowledge that young Sudanese protesters are critical political actors, who manage to mobilise millions of people without telecoms or internet connections. Nevertheless, many still consider them naive political operatives not realistic about what is possible.

Reconciling this disconnect requires international actors to overcome their profound crisis of consultation. Their discussions are often limited to those with political and urban elites whose views often diverge, sometimes radically, from the street. Popular consultations and renegotiations on modalities of power, made in collaboration with the street, may be messy, but this is not the time for political expediency that undermines popular will.

Despite the similarity in dynamics to 2019, supporters of democratic transition should be pushing for a new political dispensation, rather than a return to the 2019 agreement. This will require stakeholders and mediators to develop entirely new thinking around reaching solutions that are process, not result, oriented. That requires an approach that centres the locus of popular power where it clearly is: on the streets.

There has never been a more apt time to push for the dismantling of military hegemony and the installing of fully civilian, democratic governance in Sudan.

The Horn of Africa and Sahel regions, which Sudan straddles, could do with an example of democratic success, amid its current fragility. Ultimately, democratic processes require democratic custodians, and in Sudan, there is already one such custodian: the street.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.