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The coup in Sudan, explained

A takeover by military leaders is threatening the country’s democratic transition. But protests are erupting in response.

Supporters of the Umma Party, Sudan’s largest political party, chant slogans during a protest against a military coup, on October 29, in the city of Omdurman.
Ebrahim Hamid/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Sudan’s move toward democracy is in peril, after the military seized control of the country’s transitional government in a coup.

The country’s democratic project began just two years ago, after Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted amid mass protests in 2019. Civil society and protest leaders and the military ultimately reached a power-sharing arrangement that put both in charge of the country with the commitment of transitioning to full civilian rule, which would lead to a new constitution and elections in 2023.

Monday’s coup has upended that entire endeavor, fracturing what was already a tenuous arrangement between the military and civilian factions and jeopardizing any gains made. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s top general, orchestrated the power grab, detaining the civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian leaders, and firing ambassadors who resisted the takeover.

But the coup also reignited resistance, as protesters returned to the streets in cities and towns across Sudan to denounce the military takeover. The Sudanese military shut down the internet, making it difficult to fully understand the scope of the resistance — and the security forces’ response to it — especially outside major cities like Khartoum. At least 170 people have been injured, and at least seven people killed in Monday’s protests, according to data compiled by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Some pro-democracy leaders have reportedly been detained.

All of this makes for a very volatile, and unpredictable, situation. Despite international and regional pressure on the Sudanese military to restore the transitional government, experts said it is difficult to see a way forward under the same framework. “The trust has been broken,” said Michael Woldemariam, director of the African Studies Center at Boston University. “The military has really bared its teeth here — and the more that we see violence deployed by the security forces, the more difficult it’s going to be to go back to this old arrangement.”

That offers a bleak outlook for Sudan’s democratic experiment. But Sudan’s civil society, which helped bring about the revolution that ousted al-Bashir in 2019, remains well-organized and strong. Civil society groups are calling for large-scale protests on October 30 in the latest act of defiance against the coup. From the beginning, protesters did not trust the military to usher in democracy, and they’ve continued to distrust the armed forces and push for civilian control, even before the takeover this week.

The coup proved the pro-democracy camp right, which is strengthening their demand for a civilian-led government. How they can achieve that is uncertain, but the ongoing protests are a sign the military cannot fully undo the democratic project Sudan started.

“What’s being spread around now is that ‘we’ve done this before, and we can do it again,” said Sarah O. Nugdalla, a Sudanese researcher currently based in Washington, DC. “That is the spirit right now. It’s again ‘we have nothing to lose.’”

Sudan’s transition was already pretty shaky before the coup

There were plenty of warnings that Sudan’s democratic transition was in danger. The transition process was always a bit unstable. “This entire time, it’s been a very uneasy marriage,” said Akshaya Kumar, director of crisis advocacy for Human Rights Watch.

The core of this uneasy marriage was a pact between the Transitional Military Council, led by al-Burhan, and the Forces of Freedom and Change, the coalition of civilian opposition groups, led by now-deposed Prime Minister Hamdok. The ultimate goal of the transitional government was to ease into a fully (and eventually democratically elected) civilian-led government, with the military exiting from ruling powers.

A 2020 peace deal also brought rebel groups into the transition — a vital part of the process, but one that added new factions with competing interests. All of these tensions had been rising in recent months, as pressure grew on the military to keep to its commitment to hand over its powers to the civilian-led government. It also came amid calls for more government accountability, especially over abuses by security forces, including those related to a 2019 massacre of peaceful protesters. The military likely felt that it needed to protect its interests — political ones and, just as importantly, economic ones that come from being entrenched in power for decades. “They just didn’t want to give that up,” Woldemariam said. “They felt like this is going to be their last shot to hold on.”

And military leaders may have assumed that the rest of the region wouldn’t really care at all about a coup, including Egypt, and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries have grown close with Sudan, and also aren’t exactly known for embracing democracy. The Sudanese military “perhaps had confidence — or an assumption — that the region would turn a blind eye to this,” said Joseph Tucker, senior expert for the Greater Horn of Africa at the US Institute of Peace (USIP). “I think that’s a key part of this, just we don’t know the particulars of what messaging, if any, the military got.”

The full unraveling began in September, after authorities thwarted a coup attempt allegedly staged by al-Bashir loyalists. That thrust the divisions into open view, with the military leaders accusing civilian politicians of creating the conditions for a coup by ignoring the needs of the people, specifically Sudan’s dire economic situation. Civilian leaders criticized the military for threatening the democratic transition. An alliance of rebel leaders and some civilian leaders joined with the military to call for the government to be dissolved. Protests broke out across Sudan in October, including one big pro-democracy, pro-civilian government-led protest in Khartoum last week.

And then, on Monday, the military stepped in for real. The military detained Hamdok and other civilian leaders. Al-Burhan declared a state of emergency and claimed he was dissolving the transitional government because the divisions within it were so intense that it risked possible civil war. “The experience during the past two years has proven that the participation of political forces in the transitional period is flawed and stirs up strife,” he said.

Al-Burhan said the military would instead appoint a technocratic government — read, the people they like — and they would plan for the elections in July 2023. He also, bizarrely, claimed that Hamdok was taken to al-Burhan’s home for his safety, though the prime minister has since returned to his own residence but under security.

This is obviously pretty standard coup stuff — claim that the government is in crisis, say that you’re still into democracy, you just want to get there on a totally different path than originally agreed to, and only if you can call the shots, oh, and we’re just going to shut the internet down in the process. But a big portion of the public seems unlikely to buy this self-serving justification. “I don’t think that holds water among the public that are out there protesting,” Tucker, of USIP, said.

Democracy in peril, or another revolution?

Sudan’s transition was imperfect, but it also was a remarkable achievement for a country that had seen military coup after military coup. The military interceded in al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019, but a revolution led by civil society actors and professionals and grassroots organizations ushered in the dictator’s downfall and this current transition.

These are still powerful forces in Sudan, and they are already mobilizing against the military takeover. Pro-democracy groups called on their supporters to protest, and the Communist Party directed workers to go on a mass strike, according to Al Jazeera. Nugdalla, who has been in contact with friends and activists on the ground in Sudan, said, at first, there was a sense of depletion. “My friend told me women in the streets were holding each other and crying just in disbelief that they were back in the same place, again, fighting for their democracy again, something that they had just done.”

After depletion, there was action. Activists connected on social media and email, and if the internet was out, they found ways around it — handing out papers in smaller neighborhoods or getting local mosques to announce civil disobedience actions. “They know what to do; now, they know what not to do,” Nugdalla said.

In Sudan, now that the democratization process has started, the military is unlikely to be able to undo all of the gains. It can, and did, usurp the transition process, but the transition itself was transformative, even if incomplete. It made peace with rebel groups, it expanded religious freedoms, it put al-Bashir on trial. “These are all changes that I don’t think a military transitional government can overcome,” said Alden Young, an assistant professor of African American studies at UCLA. “I think we’ve seen a broad democratization of where people come from to participate in civil protests and the depth of that participation.”

Sudan is also facing real crises, beyond one of governance. The country is in deep economic disarray. There is the Covid-19 pandemic and one of the world’s lowest vaccination rates, plus increasing tensions with Ethiopia, which is in the middle of its own catastrophe. The military bet that it could blame civilian leadership — “the politicians” — for failing to solve these problems and try to exploit disillusionment with the transition process. But so far, the backlash on the streets suggests a lot of the population is still putting the blame on the people doing the coups, and the military that’s been in power for decades. “What can be said is that the civilians have shown within the last few years that they are not willing to just accept things as they come,” said Christopher Tounsel, assistant professor of history and African studies at Pennsylvania State University.

The resistance from the Sudanese public doesn’t make the military coup any less troubling and threatening to Sudan’s democratic experiment. Few experts thought that the transitional process could be salvaged in its current form; many said Sudan’s best hopes, even with an active public, will be for progress down the road. “We’ve seen many times in Sudanese history where it’s never too late to pull things back from the brink or to negotiate a new dispensation that creates a broad enough coalition to move things forward,” Tucker said. “That’ll be very hard to do in the near term; I think we’re looking at a medium- to long-term situation unfolding here.”

That medium- to long-term situation still may be pretty tense for the region. Sudan was a bright spot in a region otherwise in distress: dictators in neighboring Chad, South Sudan, and Eritrea, and Ethiopia — once a success storynow engulfed in conflict. This coup could destabilize the region even more.

The international community is also trying to put pressure on Sudan. Its democratic transition helped it reestablish ties with the US and other Western allies, and this coup may undo all that. The US has said it is suspending $700 million in aid to Sudan. The “troika,” the team of the US, United Kingdom, and Norway that has traditionally engaged with Sudan, has condemned the coup, and has continued to recognize Prime Minister Hamdok. The African Union has suspended Sudan.

The US is trying to put some pressure on the Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, to get them to use their influence to avert a deeper crisis. Whether such international pressure will work is an open question — especially since the US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa met with Sudanese officials in early October to tell them to stick to the democratic transition or risk losing US support. (And then, yeah, they went ahead and did the coup a few weeks later.)

But for now, the Sudanese pro-democracy and civil society groups are mobilizing to preserve the democratic experiment they’ve started. Nugdalla said now there is no other option but to fight for full civilian rule. “People are tired, they’re angry, and they’re ready to die, unfortunately, if that’s what it takes,” she said.