Coup Attempt in Sudan Serves as a Reminder of the Country’s Fragility

When the news about the attempt coup d’état in Sudan broke, all fingers automatically pointed toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, frustrated islamists seem a likely source of taking to such drastic steps, but they are not the only ones.

From what has emerged so far about the military coup attempt in Khartoum on Tuesday it seems to have been a comparatively low-key event, with no bloodshed being reported and few arrests made. Business was swiftly resumed and people seemed not too impressed. The fact that no harm was done is the good news about the event that rattled nerves of observers. From what was said in the local media, the intelligence about the impending coup had been made available in good time for other parts of the army to step in and stop the tanks from rolling over the bridge into downtown Khartoum.

According to a report by Reuters, the commander of the armored corps, Major General Abdalbagi Alhassan Othman Bakrawi, had worked with some 22 other officers in a bid to overthrow the government. Elements from different regiments, and mainly from the armored troops, had planned to move into Khartoum from Omdurman and had been prevented by other security forces from doing so. The armed forces controlled by army chiefs Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his colleague at the Rapid Support Forces, General Hemeti, have made several arrests and are looking for more perpetrators.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces, after the coup had failed told his troops that the army was there to turn the country over into the hands of the public, to free and fair elections.

A Government Under Pressure

So, what should the international community make of it, and, more specifically, what does it mean for the democratic transition in Sudan? For the government it was clear that the remnants of the old regime of Omar al-Bashir had tried to fight their way back into power.

According to this narrative, the old foes of the current military-civilian government have tried to exploit a sense of growing unease with the achievements of the government. The implementation of tough economic measures in the earlier parts of the new government’s tenure had left many people worse off. A cut in subsidies and the currency reform pushed an impoverished populace to raise their voices again, even if in a fairly muted fashion.

The civilian part of the sovereign council, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is under intense pressure from several corners. It urgently needs to increase its revenues from taxes to pay for its reforms and thus remain true to its commitment to the people. But, inherited from the decades spent under Al-Bashir, the military is holding many of the country assets and has not been forthcoming in handing over control over those companies to the government, local observers have said. Other vital sources of income, such as from the production of gold, is going straight into the pockets of companies that are less than eager to pay their taxes. The name of General Hemeti is often mentioned in this context, as his brother is head of a known gold company (see: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/exposing-rsfs-secret-financial-network/)

But, to his credit, Hemeti had eventually sided with the revolution and helped getting rid of Al-Bashir. Hemeti is an important member of the sovereign council running the country and, through his RSF troops, he is a key component in Sudan’s military setup. While Hemeti and Al-Burhan have their disputes with the civilian part of the government and seem reticent about handing over economic assets, they also are firmly opposed to the islamist groups that still feature strongly in the country – and in the army. The army chiefs are said to have strong affiliations to Egypt and the gulf states. Experts are saying that Egypt, the old colonial power, is strongly in favor of a powerful army in Sudan and has urged the generals to evict members of the Muslim Brotherhood from its ranks.

A Fragile Situation

In a way of speaking, the armed forces face similar struggles as the civilian part of the government. They both have huge challenges to tackle and – one is tempted to say – both need the occasional success story. A coup that the army has foiled certainly seems to fit the bill, and foiling an islamist coup d’état is certainly a top priority for both army and government.

Some observers therefore went as far as to suggest that the coup, unbloody as it was, may have been fabricated, not least as it has helped the reputation of the army. There is no proof available to back up this theory of course.

What does the coup attempt mean for the transition though? From a very basic point of view, the events of Tuesday past suggest that the situation in Khartoum is relatively fragile still. Through the swift action by the armed forces, the country was kept on its transitionary course, while strengthening the hand of the army as guardian of the state. It also reemphasized the importance of reforms to help the populace economically and prevent them from turning their backs on the government. For that, PM Hamdok needs help from abroad and help from the army.

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