Sudanese coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has stepped into the dark.
It endangered Sudan’s international position as a nascent democracy, jeopardized essential debt relief and international aid, and compromised peace with rebels in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.
He was the head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council and the face of the military in the country’s civil-military cohabitation – until Monday, when he took absolute power.
He dissolved the country’s civilian cabinet, arresting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other prominent civilians with whom the military had agreed to share power until elections are held next year.
The general’s autocratic ambitions were no secret.
In recent months, he has shown impatience with Mr. Hamdok’s leadership, signaling that a strong leader is needed to save the nation.
In a recent military-backed protest in the capital, Khartoum, protesters blamed Hamdok for deteriorating living conditions – not helped by a blockade in the main eastern port that resulted in shortages .
Sudanese Democrats were on the alert for the army’s ploys, which appeared to be copied from the manual that led to Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s military takeover of Egypt in 2013.
The Association of Sudanese Professionals and the multitude of neighborhood committees that orchestrated the non-violent protests that toppled President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year reign in 2019 prepared for a new round of street protests.
Foreign diplomats were also worried. US special envoy Jeffrey Feldman traveled to Khartoum over the weekend to push for a deal between generals and civilians. He left town on Sunday with – he thought – a pact made.
The coup was staged hours later, leaving Americans not only appalled but outraged.
Making it clear that they had been deceived, the US administration “suspended” a $ 700 million (£ 508 million) financial aid program.
Even more important is the status of Sudan’s debt relief program, recently negotiated by Mr. Hamdok.
After two years of painful delays, international aid to save the Sudanese economy was finally on the horizon – and is now under threat.
The African Union (AU), the United Nations, the East African regional body Igad and all Western donors to Sudan condemned the coup and called for a return to civilian rule.
The Arab League also called for respect for the constitutional formula. The group is generally in tune with the Egyptian government, which raises the question of how far General Burhan can count on Cairo’s support.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which provided crucial financial assistance to General Burhan in 2019, have remained silent so far.
Their sympathies are likely with the strongman in the military, but they will also know that they cannot cover the costs of rescuing Sudan.
General Burhan was already the most powerful man in the country, his role legitimized by the August 2019 power-sharing agreement between the military and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a loose coalition of civilian groups.
So why would he risk everything with a blatant takeover?
According to the agreement, General Burhan was to step down as president of the Sovereign Council next month.
At this point, a civilian chosen by the FFC would become the head of state, and government civilians would be in a better position to advance the implementation of key items on their agenda.
One is accountability for human rights violations. The government has pledged in principle to hand over former President Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
His former lieutenants – including General Burhan and the head of the paramilitary rapid support forces, General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo – wanted him to be tried in Sudan and not in The Hague.
They have good reason to fear that Bashir will point them out as guilty of the alleged atrocities committed during the Darfur war.
General Burhan and his fellow officers have even more reason to fear that the investigation into the Khartoum massacre in June 2019 is also pointing the finger in their direction.
It took place two months after Bashir’s withdrawal by the army, as peaceful protesters called for civilian rule.
The fight against corruption and the implementation of security sector reform were other items on the agenda that worried the generals.
Take the heavily named “Commission for the Dismantling of the Regime of June 30, 1989, the Suppression of Empowerment and Corruption, and the Recovery of Public Funds”.
This was not only to expose and uproot the network of companies owned by Islamists ousted from power in 2019, but also the tentacles of business empires owned by senior generals.
Mr. Hamdok had become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the military entanglement in the economy.
Not only did the military command a large – and ever-growing – share of the national budget, but military-owned businesses operate with tax exemptions and often allegedly corrupt contracting procedures.
Placing the military under appropriate civilian control was also a priority for the next stage of the transition period.
Risk of rebellious action
General Burhan says he keeps the transition to democracy on track – and has promised a technocratic civilian government and elections in two years.
Most Sudanese see it as an unconvincing facade.
The repression dissolved the main unions and professional groups that had organized the previous street protests. The internet and social media are largely closed. The troops fired at demonstrators, killing 10 people.
Street activists have already overcome such repressions and forced the army to back down, especially following the murders of June 2019.
The generals also have to face the reality that the civil war in some parts of the country is not over.
A peace deal last year brought several armed opposition groups to government – but no deal has yet been reached with the two largest rebel forces.
In Darfur, there is the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur, and in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, there is the North Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu.
Both enjoy popular support and have demonstrated military resilience. Both were in peace talks with the government and trusted Mr. Hamdok. The coup threatens a resumption of the conflict.
With his unconstitutional takeover, General Burhan took a huge gamble.
He offers no answer to Sudan’s most pressing problems – the economy, democratization and peace – and risks unrest and bloodshed at home and pariah status abroad.
In July 2019, following the violent crackdown by the military on the democracy movement, the “quartet” of the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, working hand in hand hand with the AU, stepped in to push for a negotiated solution – which followed the following month.
A similar process may be needed to bring Sudan back from the brink. The problem is, after Monday, who can trust General Burhan to keep his word?
Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the United States.
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