• Dora Betts

Military Coup Rolls Back Years of Shaky Democratic Progress in Sudan

On October 25, the Sudanese military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, initiated a successful coup d’état against the Sudanese government. The military detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and five other key civilian leaders, dissolved the government, and declared a state of emergency. Considering that the new shift in power could threaten Sudan’s fragile progress toward democracy, doubt about the security of the nation's democratic future has gripped the international community.

Photo Courtesy: Mohammed Abu Obaid/EPA

The takeover comes more than two years after longtime military dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power by protesters, and a slow democratic shift in government had begun to unfold. After the military coup in 1989, the reconstruction of the government established al-Bashir’s new autocratic militaristic government. Political parties were suspended, and independent newspapers were banned among other intensive measures. When al-Bashir and his government were overthrown in a military coup in 2019, Abdalla Hamdok was appointed as prime minister. The Sudan’s Sovereign Council was implemented, which is the military-civilian body that is the highest power in government. The creation of this council was part of a larger plan to transition Sudan into a democracy. This transition, however, came to a halt when General al-Burhan took control of the government in a military coup.


Following the coup, al-Burhan stated that the new government would lead the country until the next elections in July 2023. A day later, he stated that his actions to overthrow the government were taken to avoid a civil war in Sudan. Al-Burhan denied that he had carried out a coup d’état against the government; rather, he was “trying to rectify the path of the transition.”


Protests from both “pro-democracy” Sudanese civilians and “pro-security” Sudanese civilians immediately unfolded in Khartoum. Troops open fired on the pro-democracy protesters, killing three and wounding eighty. Protesters chanted “the people are stronger,” “retreat [to military rule] is impossible,” and “we are revolutionaries. We are free. We will complete the journey.” A mass protest called “Marches of the Millions” took place throughout Sudan, where it is estimated that thousands of people were in attendance.


The United Nations immediately condemned the coup. On October 27, al-Burhan met with Volker Perthes, UN Special Representative and head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS). Following the meeting, al-Burhan stated that Hamdok could be allowed to return as Prime Minister with a cabinet of Hamdok’s choosing. However, Hamdok declined this offer, stating that he would only return if the previous governmental system would be restored.


The United States also condemned the coup. Because Sudan is in a strategically important location of the Horn of Africa region, U.S. officials fear that the failed democratic shift could encourage coups in the African region that exist under U.S. hegemony. Since the military takeover, the Biden administration has suspended $700 million in aid, and the U.S. State Department has called on the military to release Hamdok and restore the government.


“We were very explicit that a military takeover of the civilian institutions would trigger a reevaluation of the types of commitments we have,” said Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Feltman was originally appointed to the project by President Biden to bring peace to the region.


Many other foreign leaders have also called for the military to release all detained officials. Robert Besseling, CEO of political risk consultancy Pangea-Risk, states that France may also pull back its offer of a bridge loan to Sudan. He notes that “the instability may disturb oil exports from neighboring South Sudan and will have repercussions for the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, as well as other regional conflicts and broader geopolitics.”


As for what is next, experts state that al-Burhan may have to engage in a power sharing agreement with civilians in the transitional government. The intensity of the civilian resistance has shocked Sudanese officials, straining relations within their military infrastructure. Reports have suggested that Hamdok was given full executive powers, the ability to appoint a cabinet of experts, and a three-member honorary transitional council to replace the Sovereign Council, of which the chair is al-Burhan. The military could instead lead a security and defense council. It has also been suggested that Parliament could represent different political parties, including the military and various rebel groups.


However, some experts suggest that a power sharing agreement may be unlikely due to the legacy of distrust in Sudan. Al-Burhan’s takeover was in part to protect his military’s power and economic privileges. Repercussions by the international community will also add more pressure to come to a power sharing agreement, as Sudan’s debt relief and international aid are reliant on their assistance.


Alex de Waal, a British researcher on African elite politics, notes that “the military is not fooling anyone, neither the domestic population nor the international community. Everyone is well aware of the games they are playing, and they will resist. In fact, they already are.” Whether this resistance is enough to end such games however, will depend on how al-Burhan responds to protests from the domestic and international communities.