Sudan’s Military Coup Was No Surprise

It's still uncertain what Sudan will look like post-coup, which largely depends on U.S. sanctions. However, America might turn a blind eye to the takeover due to Sudan’s strategic importance in the Red Sea region

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Sudanese security forces keep watch over a military hospital and government offices during protests against a military coup overthrowing the transition to civilian rule in the capital's twin city of Omdurman, today.
Sudanese security forces keep watch over a military hospital and government offices during protests against a military coup overthrowing the transition to civilian rule in the capital's twin city of OCredit: - - AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Sudan’s military coup shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Armed groups loyal to the country’s former ruler, Omar al-Bashir, tried to take over the government building in Khartoum and seize power back on September 21, but at the last moment the attempted coup failed, due mainly to disagreements among the rebel forces.

One month later, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s temporary Sovereignty Council, urged Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to dissolve the government and replace it with a technocratic one, appoint a constitutional court with neutral judges and form a new parliament without the National Congress Party, which was the ruling party under Bashir. That was seen as a crude attempt by the army to take over the council and all other political power centers, in violation of the 2019 agreement that created the temporary government.

Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan speaks during a military-backed rally, in Khartoum, 2019.Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Under that agreement, the army was supposed to head the Sovereignty Council for 21 months, then pass the job to an elected civilian in preparation for the elections that were supposed to take place in 2023. Now it’s not clear when or even if they will take place.

This transfer of power was supposed to have taken place next month, thereby completing a temporary arrangement that was supposed to lay the groundwork for democracy in the country. But when Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the Sovereignty Council’s vice chairman, asserted that “we’ll never transfer intelligence and the police to civilian management,” it became clear that an orderly transfer of the council’s leadership wasn’t part of the military’s game plan.

Dagalo’s remarks also revealed a deep disagreement within the army’s ranks between those considered loyal to Bashir – including Dagalo himself – and those loyal to al-Burhan, who decided on Monday to dissolve the government and declare a state of emergency. Al-Burhan was primarily afraid of Dagalo’s forces, which are thought to total around 30,000 soldiers, but also of the independent militias, which waged violent battles until an agreement was reached in October 2020 on a cease-fire and division of the spoils.

That agreement, which was signed in and named after Juba, the capital of South Sudan, was supposed to calm the militias and the tribes that opposed the new government. But it also included the seeds of the civil unrest that broke out last month.

Tribes living in eastern Sudan, first and foremost the Al-Beja tribes, saw themselves as the agreement’s main victims. These tribes consider themselves a separate ethnic group and are seeking autonomy. They claim that the Juba agreement discriminates against them, reduces their income and was signed without their participation.

Last month, this unrest developed into violent confrontations that included closing the port of Khartoum and blocking roads leading from eastern Sudan to the capital. The economic damage to the country was enormous, since eastern Sudan is the country’s main commercial district, with $11 billion worth of goods passing through it every year. It’s also strategically important, since it controls 750 kilometers of coastline. Thus, residents of eastern Sudan could join with the military forces opposed to the Sovereignty Council and shut down the country.

Sudanese protesters use bricks and burning tyres to block streets in the capital Khartoum, to denounce overnight detentions by the army of members of Sudan's government, today. Credit: - - AFP

The council has 11 members – five from the army, five civilians and one chosen jointly by both sides. And it, too, is deeply divided. Hamdok, the prime minister, and the Sudanese Professionals Association, which represents several parties, labor unions and professional associations, are at odds over what kind of country Sudan should be.

Some of the leaders of these associations belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, are supported by countries and organizations outside Sudan and seek to return Sudan to the extremist religious rule that characterized Bashir’s reign. Others want to institute liberal principles, promote democracy and get the army out of politics.

But even within these blocs, there is no agreement on either the wording of the constitution or economic policy. Tribal disputes also contribute to the divisions.

The agreement to divide the government between military and civilians, which followed decades of Bashir’s dictatorship, also offered some hope that it could solve some of the impoverished country’s economic problems, finance its paralyzing external debt and attract foreign investment, especially after it signed a normalization agreement with Israel and former U.S. President Donald Trump removed it from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. After the Sovereignty Council was formed, Sudan got several billion dollars from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as recompense for participating in the war in Yemen, and international oil companies expressed interest in exploring for oil there.

But now, at least until the fate of the government becomes clear, those investors are unlikely to come. The United States, however, paused on Monday assistance from the 700 million dollars Sudan aid package following Sunday's coup attempt.

The U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Hamdok in Khartoum a day before the coup. Afterward, he warned that any attempt by the military to take over the government might lead to sanctions on Sudan being reinstated.

As of now, it seems the army isn’t merely attempting, but has already succeeded in taking over all the country’s political power centers. If this results in sanctions being reinstated, the army will have to cope with the angry protests, which in turn could lead to the reimposition of a brutal military dictatorship like the one under Bashir.

Another possibility is that the army, which understands the implications of the American threat quite well, will present a civilian action plan in which it promises to hold the elections on time but continues controlling the country until then. Indeed, that is exactly what Burhan said on Monday.

In that case, America might turn a blind eye to the military coup due to Sudan’s strategic importance in the Red Sea region, and because Washington, as it has in other countries in the region, might prefer a pro-American military government to internal power struggles that could give the Muslim Brotherhood vast political power and perhaps even grant Iran a direct path to influence. And this may well be the advice it gets from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, all of whom supported the military government that was set up immediately after Bashir’s ouster.

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