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Protests in Sudan are escalating. Here’s what you need to know.

As the country marks 100 days of the protest movement, members of Sudan’s armed and security forces face a critical choice: Rebel against their government or stay loyal to the president.

- April 10, 2019

A tide of demonstrators marched onto the headquarters of the Sudanese military in Khartoum on Saturday, to celebrate the 100th day of the protest movement and demand an end to the regime of President Omar al-Bashir. From a high floor of the ground forces’ building, a soldier filmed a dense crowd of people along the airport road as far as the eye could see. After months of scattered demonstrations, the large turnout marked a sharp escalation of the mobilization.

News that a few soldiers had joined demonstrators enthused activists, while one colonel, Hamid Othman Hamid, chanted, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” After protesters began a sit-in, loyalist forces pushed in with tear gas and live ammunition, but soldiers intervened to protect demonstrators, opening the gates of their compound to provide shelter and exchanging heavy fire with assailants. By Wednesday, the sit-in showed no sign of abating, and insubordinate soldiers were calling on colleagues to join them.

The Sudanese uprising has entered a critical stage for determining whether the military and security apparatus will split. The sit-in has progressed to the point at which soldiers and police officers understand demonstrations to be an unambiguous vote of no confidence in the government, begin to doubt that the regime will survive and consider putting their obedience in abeyance. From now on, dynamics internal to the regime’s armed forces will prove crucial to the fate of the uprising. Will the rest of the military and security apparatus join the protests or protect Bashir?

Critical stages for the armed and security forces.

Why do soldiers or police officers rebel in some uprisings while others stay loyal? Dominant explanations focus on the cohesion, autonomy and organizational interests of the armed and security forces. Though these factors are important, they don’t properly account for defection.

My research, which draws from a detailed analysis of the police mutiny which overthrew Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and from a comparison with the Russian Revolution of 1917, found that most soldiers and police officers facing mass protests defect primarily as a response to the dilemma of repression. They can afford to remain loyal only so long as their job does not require them to kill large numbers of people. When obedience to the regime demands unconscionable acts, rebellion is often the easiest way forward, particularly for reserve units who are rarely deployed for repression.

This dynamic has been plainly visible in the events in Sudan during the past few days. The soldiers who on Tuesday were calling for their colleagues to join them in their mutiny probably did not set out to rebel. On Saturday night, they used their weapons to defend demonstrators, but only in reaction to a loyalist onslaught. Because they could now face death the penalty, their slide to outright mutiny flowed logically from that initial bout of disobedience.

Who remains loyal?

Against these mutineers stand the military leadership (which on Monday reaffirmed its support to Bashir), the police, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), as well as Popular Security. All of these forces remain nominally loyal.

A common-sense view suggests that they will not go down without a fight. Agents of NISS, the country’s secret police, would become pariahs if the regime falls. Any post-revolutionary democratic government would have a compelling interest in disbanding the RSF, a paramilitary organization that Bashir built out of Darfur militias to hedge against the risk of a coup from NISS or the army, and which has a track record of predatory behavior.

Popular Security’s committed regime supporters, who are embedded in all sectors of society, joined this clandestine militia for the express purpose of defending the regime in last-resort scenarios. If some of these forces fight tooth and nail while others defect, the situation could well degenerate into a violent struggle for power, a civil war and the collapse of the state.

Yet whether these loyalists will actively defend Bashir in the face of enormous crowds and well-armed mutineers remains to be seen. My research and Naunihal Singh’s work on coup dynamics suggest that the catastrophic prospect of fratricidal violence weighs heavily on the calculations of both would-be rebels and loyalists in any situation that challenges the integrity of the armed forces.

Counterintuitively, this fear, in many cases, precipitates authoritarian breakdown. Once a mutiny begins, it can spread rapidly as potential loyalists tag along to avoid a bloodbath. Situational logic prevails, not corporate interests. Loyalists also have the option of walking away, abandoning their uniform, staying home or generally shirking duty. On Monday morning, this concern was on display in a tense standoff at the protest site between the mutineers and loyalists from the Rapid Support Forces. The two sides gauged each other from a distance but did not engage in hostilities. On Tuesday, Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo, head of the RSF, who is also known as Hemedti, made a speech saying his forces will not take action against peaceful demonstrators.

This situation is, in the language of game theory, a coordination game. Armed regime actors face a compelling individual interest in aligning their behavior with one another to avoid isolation, and a compelling collective interest in avoiding divisions. Expectations will drive their behavior. In the contest between mutineers and committed loyalists, the tide will turn toward those who can create the impression that victory is on their side. This is why symbolic events that signify strength — such as the arrival of a mutinous army company at the protest Wednesday morning, under the acclaim of demonstrators — play a crucial role.

What should we expect?

Loyalists could still crush the uprising if they decisively coordinate a counteroffensive, in the process persuading undecided soldiers and police officers to stay put rather than join the ranks of the mutineers. This is what happened in China in 1989, when, after many incidents of fraternization, the authorities crushed the Tiananmen protests with units sent into Beijing from the neighboring countryside.

But this will not be easy. With tens of thousands of demonstrators on the street, there is safety in numbers. The sit-in offers an accessible safe haven to soldiers and policemen ready to switch sides, and mutineers who are safe from retribution are a constant reminder of the possibility of disobedience.

Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is a PhD candidate in sociology at Yale University, where his dissertation examines collective dynamics in the Tunisian revolution. He has worked as Sudan researcher for Amnesty International and as a political analyst in the private sector.