October 29, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 332

If Only, On Saturday, The Sudanese Generals Fall

October 29, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 332

Would that it were so easy – that less than a week after it was launched, the military takeover in Sudan would be reversed. On Saturday, October 30, Sudanese will come in their hundreds of thousands to protest against the naked power grab by Sudan's generals, led by Abdul Fatah Al-Burhan, which saw them overthrow the country's civilian government on October 25.

Popular rejection of the long-feared coup against the civilian government of Abdullah Hamdok began immediately, with demonstrations and civil disobedience. Resistance (and killing of civilians) continues.[1] Almost all of Sudan's political parties have condemned the military takeover, as have Western countries, the UN, the EU, and the African Union. Activists have been active online, and in the streets, with several killed the first day and dozens wounded. Hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance from the United States and other countries have been frozen, while the World Bank has paused its support programs. An American statement issued after a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and the Saudi Foreign Minister said that both ministers condemned the military takeover (the Saudi Ambassador in Khartoum subsequently met with General Al-Burhan).[2]

Other voices were more circumspect. Russia clearly welcomed the takeover, while China used vague open-ended language. Similarly vague language came from neighboring Egypt, seen as close to the generals, and from key Gulf states.

The "Million Man" march on October 30 represents the biggest challenge yet to the rule of the generals. It is only the latest chapter of a struggle going on since April 2019, when, after months of popular demonstrations and of bloody repression by the 30-year Islamist regime of Omar Al-Bashir, the generals acted to remove their old master. Although the people supplied the blood in opposition to the regime, the generals expected to rule. Indeed, one of the military's "red lines" at that time was that shari'a law should remain in Sudan.[3] Popular and international pressure after a massacre of demonstrators carried out by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) unit led to the uneasy power-sharing agreement, beginning in August 2019, that brought the well-respected Hamdok as prime minister, while Al-Burhan became de facto head of state. Lurking in the shadows was Al-Burhan's shrewd and power-hungry deputy General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (also known as "Hemeti"), a one-time camel trader turned Janjaweed and then RSF commander.

October 30 is unlikely to remove the regime, but also unlikely to break the back of popular resistance to the military regime. Every option that can be tried and that will be tried going forward has already been tried before, by the demonstrators and by the repressors. Both Al-Bashir and his military successors have used outright repression – slaughtering demonstrators, turning off the Internet, using fake pro-military mobs[4] as counter-demonstrators, making false promises of reform. All have been tried and none have succeeded in quieting discontent. They will be tried again, and efforts will be made to blunt the impact of a mass civilian uprising.

Demonstrators, students, young people, and professional organizations have demonstrated remarkable zeal, bravery, and steadfastness in confronting the ruling regime, and have done so with a commitment to peaceful disobedience. They will not stop.[5] But the people are unarmed; the military has almost all the firepower. It is one thing to bravely continue demonstrating despite the odds, to keep the pressure on and practice opposition to the regime in a myriad of practical ways. But it is hard to see the regime falling so easily unless there is a split within the ranks of those with the guns themselves. This sounds very much like a kind of stalemate, possibly even a bloody one, which would still seem to favor those holding physical power in Sudan – the military.

But a few factors do give us hope for change. If the generals do remain in power, they will have to rule. Having dismissed the civilian government, and having promised a new team of technocrats, the generals need to come up with at least semi-credible civilian puppets. This is not easy to do, given the – relatively good and mostly technocratic – cabinet that has already been dismissed and the rejection of Al-Burhan's actions by political parties and civil society. Al-Burhan has openly invited Hamdok to return under new conditions (more military control), but also has said that he has a list of other candidates.

Among these candidates may be Kamal Idris, a former head of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Idris ran in the flawed 2010 presidential elections, receiving 0.76% of the vote. Interestingly enough, the runner-up to Al-Bashir in that vote was the SPLM-North's Yassir Arman, who received 21.7% of the vote in 2010 and was serving as an advisor to Hamdok, and was arrested by the military on the day of the coup. One supposes that the generals can scrounge up bodies paid in dollars by the military's patrons or allowed to steal from the state to staff the government. But it won't be a very capable one that will be able to confront the country's myriad challenges amidst international skepticism. So, the generals' civilian "cover" promises to be painfully thin.

A second change factor is the Sudanese rebel factions, most of whom have signed peace deals with the government. The only former rebel arrested so far has been Arman. And Al-Burhan, in his post-coup address, specifically committed himself to the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement, and called on the two remaining rebel holdouts to join the peace process (both of those holdouts, the SPLM-N of Abdul Aziz Hilu and the SLM of Abdul Wahid Al-Nur, have now rejected the coup).

But how long will a very tentative peace, tied to a complicated peace accord, hold out in Sudan, with a likely incompetent civilian government serving as puppets to the military junta? War breaking out in Sudan will put even more stress on an already ramshackle regime. On the other hand, two other former rebels, SLM's Minni Minnawi (appointed Governor of Darfur earlier this year) and JEM's Gebreil Ibrahim (appointed Minister of Finance earlier this year), had in recent weeks welcomed military intervention against a government of which they were formally a part. Both also welcomed a greater role for Islamists in Sudan.[6]

The third volatile factor is ideological. Based on Al-Burhan's speech, the plan is to rule in the name of the popular revolution that overthrew Al-Bashir, on the basis of the Constitutional Document (parts of which the military suspended), and eventually to hand over power to an elected civilian government in a couple of years (all of this seems very tentative). It is unlikely that the military will actually remain committed to a process which could, eventually, see its near impunity end and economic power clipped. If it does not, will it seek to rebrand itself as a sort of nationalist military regime along the lines of Egypt's Al-Sisi? Or will generals who were vetted for loyalty by the likes of Omar Al-Bashir revert to type and use political Islam, as former dictators Al-Bashir and Nimeiry did, as a source of regime legitimacy? This would make the regimes surreptitiously supporting the coup more than a bit nervous.

The final wild card factor is the military itself. Does Al-Burhan speak for the entire military establishment firmly united behind him? He certainly must keep the military content. Is he the "moderate" among radicals, or merely one of several cynical competitors for supreme rule among the uniformed ranks? Is he Hemeti's partner, Hemeti's puppet, or Hemeti's rival? All three descriptions could be accurate based on changing circumstances. The 2019 removal of President Al-Bashir was heavily influenced by Sudanese intelligence chief Salah Ghosh, who was then swiftly pushed aside by other former regime leaders. Out of that military-political ferment emerged the current Al-Burhan/Hemeti duopoly, which has constantly chafed at the mere possibility of greater civilian oversight. Both men have benefited greatly from their arrangement since 2019.

Hemeti, Minnawi, and Ibrahim (all from Darfur, all of them rivals and, in the years of the Darfur conflict, sometime allies or adversaries) have been maintaining a low profile since the Al-Burhan coup. None of the three has tweeted once since it took place (as of this writing). Were they fully backing Al-Burhan, or did he literally jump the gun ahead of them before they could act on their own? Some might see this as hinting at division among the ruling military elite, with a more "nationalist" Al-Burhan faction facing a more Islamist faction. But the struggle is likely more about personal ambition than politics. In this scenario, they are waiting to see if this particular general hangs on to power and serves as a suitable figurehead, or if he can be replaced by another. But one also recalls General Al-Bashir's coup in 1989, which included the initial arrest of Islamists like Hassan Al-Turabi, only for it to be revealed later that Al-Turabi had been part of the plot all along.

The likeliest outcome is that nothing will end on Saturday – that it will only be the latest skirmish in the long struggle of the Sudanese people, repeatedly picking themselves up after being knocked down, to secure their freedom and human dignity.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], October 28, 2021.

[2], October 28, 2021.

[3], June 2020.

[4], October 16, 2021.

[5], October 28, 2021.

[6], October 21, 2021.

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