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Sudan’s military has seized control. Will pro-democracy protests continue?

The military disbanded the joint council that has been overseeing the transition to democracy.

- October 26, 2021

Just days ago, tens of thousands of Sudanese joined protests in memory of the October 1964 Revolution, a peaceful uprising that brought down a military regime and installed a democratic government. On Monday, many Sudanese were back out on the streets, this time in a desperate bid to keep democracy alive.

The origins of the current crisis go back to 2019, when the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad coalition of activists, opposition political parties and rebel groups, came together to topple the government of Omar al-Bashir. In the wake of Bashir’s fall, civilian and military leaders formed the Sovereignty Council, an 11-member body charged with scheduling elections and overseeing the transition to permanent democratic rule.

For the past two years, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who leads the Sovereignty Council’s military faction and serves as the council’s current chair, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who represents its civilian members, have shared power. Under the arrangement worked out by the two sides, Hamdok was scheduled to assume the council’s chair next month.

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But the two men have been at loggerheads on key issues like economic reforms, security sector oversight and the fate of Bashir, who is sought by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s presence on the Sovereignty Council further complicates the situation. Popularly known as Hemeti, he heads Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group responsible for atrocities in Darfur in the 2010s that has deep ties to Sudan’s security sector.

Hemeti also commands a vast business empire and may be the wealthiest person in Sudan. With control over some of the country’s largest industries, he represents an autonomous source of power and could be a potential rival to both Burhan and Hamdok.

Civilian divisions also run deep

As deep as the divisions between military and civilian leadership are, the rifts are equally severe within the civilian movement. Almost immediately after the 2019 revolution, the FFC began to splinter into warring factions at odds over the pace and nature of the democratic transition.

Sudan’s military coup seems to be supported by some civilian politicians. That’s happened before.

Popular anger has centered on Sudan’s continuing economic crisis. This year, the government began to roll back fuel subsidies, a move that the International Monetary Fund had insisted was necessary to address skyrocketing inflation. The government also sharply devalued the Sudanese pound in a bid to fight the rise of the black market and attract foreign investment.

There have been some real signs that the economy may be on the upswing. Inflation had dropped in recent months. And foreign currency is trickling in, especially after the U.S. government removed Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism list (a long-delayed reward for Sudan’s decision to normalize relations with Israel).

But the removal of subsidies has hit Sudan’s poor and middle class hard. Bread is in particularly short supply, causing widespread hunger and frustration. In the east, demonstrators angry with the government have blockaded Port Sudan, which has exacerbated the shortages of both wheat and fuel oil.

Other events threaten to undermine the transitional government as well. These include a worsening refugee crisis sparked by the Ethiopian government’s atrocities in the Tigray region, as well as the belief that Sudan’s leadership is favoring citizens of the central region around Khartoum over those who live elsewhere.

These tensions boiled over last month

In September a faction within the military attempted to overthrow the Hamdok government. This coup attempt failed — but it revealed how fragile Sudan’s transitional government had become. Another alarming sign was the growing number of groups within the FFC who seemed to welcome the coup attempt with relief, including supporters of Minni Minawi, the powerful governor of Darfur.

Then last week, an organization representing these groups, called the Charter of National Accord, staged a protest outside the presidential palace. Declaring Sudan’s transition a failure, the protesters called for the military to intervene and install a technocratic government instead. The organization’s numbers are not large, and some observers insist that Burhan is secretly supporting the call for a military government. Nevertheless, this call appears to resonate with many Sudanese who are frustrated by the lack of economic progress.

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Much larger, however, are the crowds opposed to military rule. This was the group that came out in force on Thursday, marching in the tens of thousands through the streets of the capital. Led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (an alliance of pro-democracy unions), the marchers demanded that Sudan’s military allow the transition to full civilian rule to proceed.

At this point, it appears that the military has refused to listen to the pro-democracy side. The military seized Hamdok and other ministers on Monday morning, placing them under house arrest. Burhan announced he had disbanded the Sovereignty Council and declared a state of emergency. In addition to military forces, members of the RSF roam the streets of Khartoum, suggesting that at least for now, Hemeti is working with Burhan.

Going forward, will foreign governments stand up for a civilian-led democracy? Burhan has cultivated close ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, all of which seem to view him as potential client in the region. The French and U.S. governments have publicly voiced support for Sudan’s civilian leadership, and the U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Sudan on Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, Sudan’s ultimate fate rests in the hands of its people. Again and again, everyday Sudanese have defied the confident predictions of experts and proven themselves capable of writing their own destiny. On three separate occasions since the end of colonial rule, popular uprisings have brought an end to military rule. Now, with democracy once more under threat, the people will have their say.

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Jeffrey Adam Sachs is an instructor in the departments of Politics and History & Classics at Acadia University.