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Sudan ousted two autocrats in three days. Here’s what’s next.

Protesters want a civilian transition government. That hasn’t happened.

- April 15, 2019

On April 11, 2019, the Sudanese military carried out a takeover against President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator for the past 30 years. The military takeover came after months of popular protests, with citizens demanding a democratic transition.

General Awad Ibn Auf, an ally of Bashir’s, became president — but just for a day. On April 12, Ibn Auf bowed out as the protests continued. Lt. General Abdel-Fattah Burhan then assumed power.

Despite ousting two autocrats in two days, it’s unclear whether Sudan will transition to democracy in the near term. Here are four things to know about the political situation:

1. Popular mobilization against Bashir intensified over the past four months

Last week’s sudden shifts came amid widespread popular dissatisfaction with Bashir — some of it long-standing. The International Criminal Court accused Bashir of overseeing a genocide in Darfur, in Western Sudan, beginning in 2003. He oversaw a war against what is now South Sudan; this ultimately led to South Sudan’s secession in 2011. More recently, the regime has been fighting conflicts in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

These internal wars have had consequences for the country’s economy, including for citizens living outside conflict zones. Fighting wars is expensive. And with South Sudan’s secession, Sudan lost much of its oil revenue and its steady source of foreign reserves. The regime was endemically corrupt as Bashir tried to co-opt rival elites through state resources.

Sudan’s economy seriously worsened over the past year. Without the foreign reserves to pay for food and fuel imports, the regime cut subsidies. On Dec. 19, residents in the provincial town of Atbara protested and burned down the local branch of the ruling party headquarters.

The protests quickly spread to other urban areas, including Khartoum, the capital city. And the protests turned political: Protesters linked the country’s poor economic situation with the government’s poor governance, corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella group for numerous professional unions, began organizing protests in December 2018 over social media. By January, civil society, including two large political coalitions of civil society groups and opposition parties — the Sudan Call Forces and the Alliance of the National Consensus Forces — signed the Freedom and Change Charter, which demanded the resignation of the regime and a civilian transition government to usher in a new democratic era.

The protests were consistent, but fairly small in scale, from December through early April. But protests intensified on April 6 — the 34th anniversary of the popular movement that removed Sudan’s last autocrat, Jaafar Nimeri. Since then, Khartoum alone has seen hundreds of thousands of protesters each day.

2. One takeover; two transitions

On April 11, the armed forces announced the dissolution of the constitution and Bashir’s arrest over state TV. The takeover leaders also arrested the upper echelons of the regime.

Bashir’s former defense minister, Ibn Auf, appointed himself as interim leader for a two-year (military) transition period to civilian rule. The SPA and the signatories of the Freedom and Change Charter rejected these terms, instead demanding a civilian transition government as specified in the charter.

One day later, Ibn Auf stepped down and Burhan took power. Burhan was an army officer under Bashir but unlike Ibn Auf, Burhan is purportedly popular among rank-and-file army soldiers.

3. International response has been mixed

The reaction from Sudan’s neighbors has varied, largely along regional lines. Some Middle Eastern powers — the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — cautiously welcomed the initial takeover.

Each of these countries is trying to stem the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and regionally. They have an interest in the continuation of military rule in Sudan at the expense of Sudan’s Islamist movement, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood regionally.

Burhan has ties to these countries — he led Sudan’s troops in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, at the behest of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The ascension of Burhan, then, suggests the consolidation of power by the military faction aligned with this Middle Eastern bloc and the further strengthening of Sudan’s alliance with them. The takeover is thus a rebuke to Qatar and Turkey, whose governments each have links with the Muslim Brotherhood in the region and who have an interest in the Sudanese Islamist Movement reasserting itself in politics.

The reaction from the African Union (A.U.) could not be more different. The A.U. called Thursday’s takeover an “[inappropriate] response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people” and called for dialogue between Sudan’s new leader and the opposition.

The condemnation is in line with the A.U.’s anti-takeover norms. Since the 2000 Lome Declaration, the A.U. has rejected extra-constitutional transfers of power on the continent.

That said, the A.U. has recognized takeover plotters after they legalized their rule through a new constitution, as was the case in Zimbabwe in 2018. And with Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as chairman of the A.U., the organization may legitimize Burhan’s presidency, too.

4. What’s next?

The SPA and signatories of the Freedom and Change Charter have rejected both of Bashir’s military replacements, calling these transitions simple “facelifts” of Bashir’s regime. They urged civilians to continue protests until there is a real transition to a civilian government.

The demand for a civilian transition, in part, reflects the lessons learned from Egypt’s failed popular uprising during the Arab Spring. There, the military’s control over the transition hampered the ability of Mohamed Morsi — Egypt’s democratically elected president after the Arab Spring — to consolidate democracy and curtail the military’s strength, which eventually led to Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s coup in 2013.

On April 13, the SPA and signatories of the Freedom and Change Charter announced their representatives are in dialogue with the current Burhan government about shaping the transition.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that the initial protests broke out on Dec. 19, 2018, not Dec. 18.

Mai Hassan is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Ahmed Kodouda is a PhD student in political science at George Washington University.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.