Sudan: Months of Tension Culminate in Military Coup

The writing had been on the wall in Sudan and the events of Monday may confirm the expectations of many. But the conclusion that everybody stands to lose from the coup in Sudan is too simple. The numerous groups that are destined to benefit from the coup makes a return to civilian rule all the harder to achieve.

Waking up to the news of an ongoing coup in Khartoum was chilling in many ways. Those of us who have been following the democratic awakening of Sudan since the revolution of 2019 had been aware that all was not well in Khartoum recently. In September, the army claimed it had stopped a coup attempt by officers loyal to the old regime of Omar al-Bashir and his followers that had kept their jobs in the armed forces. Talk was of disagreements among the civilian components of the government, among the diverse groups that had kicked out the old regime, between the military and civilian members of the sovereign council and, last but not least, even among the armed forces themselves. Tension was rising, with demonstrations against and in favor of a coup.

It would go too far to discuss all these disagreements in detail at this point, but clearly the democratic transition had reached a critical point. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economists of considerable high international standing, together (!) with army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had met with U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman over the weekend. The U.S. administration today said it had not been given a heads-up on the military’s intentions and suspended the $700 million aid package for the time being. The U.N. Security Council will convene to discuss the events after strong condemnations from many countries.

It’s the Money that Counts

In reality, the Sudanese transition has become an increasingly complicated story. And, as is so often the case, it is the money that has an important bearing on events. The Sudanese armed forces, which includes the Rapid Support Forces militia, owns and runs a large part of the country’s economy. The al-Bashir regime wasn’t simply an islamist dictatorship, it also, or maybe even mainly, consisted of a very strong military-industrial complex. It was this powerful element that eventually had turned its back on the al-Bashir regime and toppled the islamist government, following the street protests. It evidently expected that a collaboration with a new civilian government would be more beneficial than maintaining a status quo that had run its course and that had crumbled under the force of tough international sanctions.

The most important point of conflict between the military representatives in the sovereign council (the committee that had taken over after the revolution) – General al-Burhan and RSF General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – and the civilian government of PM Hamdok was the transfer of economic assets from the armed forces to the civilian administration. For the army, such a transfer threatens its economic prowess. For Sudan as a nation though, the democratic transition hinges on an improvement of the economic performance. Hamdok and his ministers had chosen the path of bringing the country back into the global fold and international economic framework. Sudan is undergoing very tough economic reforms that include a freeing of the exchange rate, the end of fuel subsidies and more transparency in public accounting. In return for the reforms, Sudan was admitted to the status of a country worthy of loans.

The reforms implemented by the team of PM Hamdok however meant that the population was feeling the pinch, with the government unable to compensate the people adequately. Under these conditions, the civilian administration urged the military rulers to forgo their assets and to put these under the control of the government, helping it to raise more taxes.

A Different International Perspective

The second crucial point in the conflict between the military and the civilian components of the shaky coalition concerned their respective international sponsors. While the civilian component had received the backing of Western democracies, including the U.S., Germany, France and other nations organized in Friends of Sudan, the army still enjoyed strong ties to Gulf states and Egypt. The latter, a neighbor with a difficult ten years behind it, is keen on stable conditions across the Arab world and in particular wants any remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood removed from the levers of power.

The Sudanese armed forces and its allied militias have been widely used to fight proxy wars across the regions, with the civil wars in Yemen and Libya prominent examples. Those wars were the second provider of resources to the armed forces and militias in Sudan. It isn’t surprising then that Generals al-Burhan and Dagalo wanted to retain not only their economic assets within Sudan but also their strong and lucrative ties abroad. And those foreign allies tend not to be particularly fond of a Western-style democracy, despite their own allegiance to the U.S. and other big powers.

It’s Complicated

When al-Burhan in his speech to the nation suggested that the army would retain power until a civilian government had been installed in 2023 following a general election, the logic wasn’t that straightforward. The logic behind taking power from the civilians and to hand it over after elections can only really mean that the army wants a civilian government elected that is to its liking – otherwise why would it remove the current civilian administration? In other words, no free and fair elections and no real handover of power but a democratic figleaf for military rule. The generals obviously feel safe enough with the backing they enjoy abroad to pursue a political course that resembles those of their friends abroad. However, the weak point in this analysis seems to be their relative lack of strategic importance compared with say Egypt and Saudi Arabia, or the UAE. It is fairly difficult for the governments in Washington, Paris or Berlin to simply abandon the politicians they have been supporting and for whom they have organized international donor conferences.

It will be really interesting to see whether the West is planning to apply more pressure on the generals. The governments in the West know full well that the population will suffer most from economic sanctions and a return to full international sanctions isn’t really an option. Getting the democratic transition back on track won’t be an easy task. It never was easy to begin with, but the army’s coup has made things very complicated indeed.

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