Sudan’s top general AbdelFattah Burhan overthrew Abdalla Hamdok’s government in a military coup on October 25 and announced that the Sudanese government would be dissolved while claiming that he had acted in the interests of the “democratic transition.” The coup drew unusually strong condemnation from Washington and other Western capitals in comparison with previous coups in the region, with videos emerging of the UK ambassador to Sudan actively encouraging people to take to the streets to protest the overthrow.
Compared to reactions to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, or Haftar’s bombardment of Tripoli in 2019, or the Houthi overthrow of the consensus government in 2015, international condemnation of Burhan’s action has been particularly strident.
Yet, such condemnation is not central to what is unfolding in Sudan. The real story is why Burhan embarked on his coup just days after being warned against it by a US envoy, and why the narrative that the democratic transition is now in jeopardy is one that over-simplifies a far more complex situation.
When Omar Al-Bashir was brought down in 2019 by army factions that had become jittery over popular protests, an awkward reality became apparent. The loudest of those celebrating the “revolution” were the anti-democratic axis comprising the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The Saudi ambassador to Sudan stirred controversy when he reportedly claimed that Riyadh had enabled the revolution to succeed.
For all of the insistence of the Sudanese people that they alone had brought about change through their own “Arab Spring”, this stance was not necessarily shared by those who had become the new powers in charge. In response to criticism over the UAE’s role in Sudan’s internal affairs, Yaser Arman asserted that “there is nothing wrong with working with groups seeking to end Islamism” in Sudan.
This sense of a lack of agency was compounded when it became clear that Washington had its own set of conditions before it would ease the economic pressure on Sudan. It was not enough that Bashir had fallen. Financial assistance would be dependent upon reforms that Sudan’s new leaders knew would be unpopular. They were also aware that unless they could improve the economy, then it would not be long before the angry populace would turn on them.
The question that presents itself here is: why did these leaders not channel the anger of the streets into a legislative legitimacy that they could leverage internationally? Why did they not adopt a model similar to Tunisia in which a transitional parliament was elected that subsequently delivered a new constitution that would govern the country?
The simple answer is that the “civilian” parties that collectively formed the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) did not believe that they would win the support of the electorate in any elections. FFC is predominantly composed of the Communist Party, the Arab nationalist Baath party, the liberal Congress party (not to be confused with Bashir’s National Congress party), and the late Sadeq al-Mahdi’s Ummah party. Aside from the latter which led a government coalition between 1986-89, the rest have never been particularly popular in Sudanese society.
Moreover, there were genuine fears that any elections would restore Islamists to power. This does not mean there was a fear that Bashir would return. Rather, the fear was that Islamist parties, old and new, would dominate as they did in the elections following the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
It is in this context that a constitutional agreement mediated by the UAE was drawn up. The transition period would be just over three years. 67 percent of the seats in Parliament in the meantime would be appointed (not elected) by the FFC. A Supreme Council made up of military and civilian figures would preside over the transition phase. A military figure would lead the council for the first two years, and then hand over power to one of the civilian partners. In the entire process, civilian consultation was kept at a minimum as the much touted “civilian parties” of the FCC bartered with Burhan and the military to secure gains that they would never have secured democratically.
Just as the democratic transition began in the spirit of hampering and limiting democratic participation, so would Hamdok’s government subsequently govern.
Just as the democratic transition began in the spirit of hampering and limiting democratic participation, so would Hamdok’s government subsequently govern. Despite initially claiming that only an elected government could normalize relations with Israel, the unelected ruling coalition contradicted itself and normalized ties with Tel Aviv. Despite initially claiming that Islam could only be removed from the constitution via a popular referendum, the unelected ruling coalition unilaterally removed it as part of an agreement with armed rebel groups.
While these decisions were being taken unilaterally by an unelected body, they were nevertheless welcomed by Washington as progress, even as the “civilian” parties ignored the terms of the constitutional agreement that were actually relevant to a democratic transition.
The constitutional agreement stipulated the creation of an election committee, a constitutional court, and a government of technocrats. The civilian FFC ignored these terms that, if implemented, threatened to limit their tenure in power and relegate them democratically to the periphery of politics. Instead of nominating technocrats, they nominated partisan politicians to entrench themselves in the state.
The irony is that the willful ignorance of these specific terms of the constitutional agreement on the part of the civilian FFC is today being used by Burhan as evidence that his coup is part of a “rescue” of the democratic transition as opposed to a manifestation of his own ambition. This is also what has provided room today for Burhan to begin negotiating his way out of the fallout from his takeover.
Yet, Burhan’s coup has nothing to do with any desire on his part for a democratic transition. It is instead a revolt against the original constitutional agreement that requires him to hand over power to the unelected FFC this November, which would have threatened the position of the military as the most powerful institution and relegated him personally to the side-lines of Sudanese politics.
Yet, while Burhan is clearly driven by power grab and domination, the support for his coup by other influential leaders suggests that the indignation over power being exerted disproportionately by the unelected FFC is widespread among the political actors upon whom the transition relies.
Darfur’s heavyweights Minni Minnawi and Gibril Ibrahim, who once led the fight against Sudan’s army in a cause that was internationally celebrated for more than a decade, have thrown their weight behind Burhan’s coup. Gibril Ibrahim in particular, who once marched his rebel group all the way to the gates of Khartoum in what ultimately culminated in a failed assault on the capital in 2008, encouraged protests against the civilian FFC prior to the coup as he called on them to expand political participation.
While the support of the Darfur leaders is not for Burhan himself, it is reflective of a growing sense among political actors that Sudan is not undergoing a democratic transition, but rather a soft coup by an FFC that enjoys international sympathy on the basis of its commitment against a particular ideology. The question for these political actors is not whether a democratic transition is in their interests, but rather why should the FFC be the prime beneficiary of an undemocratic transition sanctioned by the international community.
No democratic transition was under way for Burhan to overthrow.
Again, this is not to suggest that Burhan’s coup is justified. Rather, it is to emphasize that the coup is not against a democratic transition. No democratic transition was under way for Burhan to overthrow. Instead, Burhan’s coup is a revolt against an agreement brokered between unelected parties vying for power between themselves. It is a fall-out between political actors who collectively came together to deny democratic agency to the Sudanese people to pursue individual aims and ambitions. It is a fall-out between political actors that competed for Washington’s favor by offering policies that they knew would be unpopular with the Sudanese electorate and sought an extended transition period to avoid democratic accountability for those policies. This is why the narrative is centered around Washington’s reaction, and not Sudanese outrage.
This is also why Israel and the UAE are somewhat uneasy with what is unfolding in Sudan. Although Burhan has demonstrated an enthusiasm for normalization, he also leads an army that is deeply divided, and in which the Islamists that Burhan actively sought to repress remain influential. The factions in the military are united behind Burhan today solely on the basis that the FFC threatens their supremacy.
Israel’s concern is that Burhan’s coup inadvertently reinvigorates the Islamist elements that have been stubbornly antagonistic towards it for decades. This is also the concern of the UAE. In the FFC, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi found a collective political group committed wholeheartedly to the elimination of Islamist influences that both Israel and the UAE believe underpin the existential threats to their nations.
But in the military, these Islamist influences remain potent and prone to manifesting themselves as long as the army remains dominant in Sudanese politics.
However, this does not mean that Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi seek a democratic transition either. While the Islamists in the armed forces are considered a threat, the prospect of a democratic transition that might bring civilian Islamists to power is considered equally threatening.
In the FFC, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi found a collective political group committed wholeheartedly to the elimination of Islamist influences.
The allure of the FFC in the eyes of Israel and the UAE is that the FFC believes explicitly that the army should be ousted from politics, and implicitly that a true democratic transition is not desirable any time soon. It is also the reason why the UAE is keen to mediate between Burhan and Hamdok to restore the undemocratic partnership in order to contain any bid by antagonistic elements in the armed forces to seize the momentum and assert themselves.
Burhan wants to rule. So does the FFC. For the time being, neither is devoted to a democratic transition nor able to secure a popular mandate. Neither believes a popular mandate is necessary either. Neither does Washington, which is partial to the institution of structural and ideological reforms to the state first, irrespective of how unpopular they might be to the Sudanese. Washington prefers the FFC leads the process instead of a military that has historically antagonized US policy for decades.
Yet, Generals Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally referred to as Hemedti, refuse to play second-fiddle and consider that they have just as much right to be part of the process, and bid for power, as the unelected FFC. Burhan and Hemedti believe that they are the ones who brought down Bashir, not a popular revolution. Therefore, they expect to be rewarded rather than ignominiously discarded via an agreement made by parties that they know full well will be rejected by the Sudanese people in the elections.
Burhan and Hemedti believe that they are the ones who brought down Bashir, not a popular revolution.
In 2019, Sudan had hardly begun a wobbly democratic transition before it was derailed by an undemocratic pact between Burhan, Hemedti, and the FFC.
The challenge for Washington today is to determine what is the best course for Sudan in the context of what it seeks to achieve. If it presses a desperate Burhan too hard, then it is possible he will turn to the undesirable Islamist elements in the army that are currently under immense pressure. Burhan already appears to have the buy-in of some of the most powerful rebel groups, including those of Darfur.
Moreover, any threat of US sanctions has been undermined by the persistent reneging of promises of financial assistance by the US which has frustrated the Sudanese leadership by continuing to add to its list of conditions.
However, Washington appears increasingly concerned at the impact of the coup on its international reputation as a bastion of democratic values.
Washington seeks a transition that ousts the military from politics and ideologically transforms the state. A democratic transition is only relevant in so far as it serves the latter purpose. Currently, it does not.
The UAE is now seeking to rescue the undemocratic partnership between Burhan and the so-called civilian parties that he has overthrown, while pleading with Washington not to inadvertently undo the gains against the Islamists in Sudan by throwing a tantrum at Burhan’s desperate lashing out.
Burhan has released four ministers as a gesture of goodwill and reimprisoned the Islamist army officials that he had released to help facilitate his coup. Moreover, political parties that resented the FFC’s attempted power grab via a subversion of the terms of the transition are believed to be considering a proposal for a new framework with Burhan.
Burhan’s message appears to have been heard in Washington. The general is ready to help facilitate US interests, but on the basis that he remains an important political player. A new negotiation is taking place as the Sudanese strongman and the unelected parties barter once more for gains they are sure the Sudanese people will never willingly give them.