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Why Burhan's Sudan coup might fail

If his government is to survive, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan must deal with successionist threats, make an alliance with Hemeti and face the prospect of new western sanctions
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum on 26 October 2021 (AFP)

On 25 October, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, announced he was dissolving the transitional government and declared a state of emergency in Sudan. Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok and other government leaders were detained, and tens of thousands of unarmed civilians took to the streets of Khartoum and other cities to protest the military takeover, braving live fire from the security services.

The United States, which had warned the Sudanese military against such a move only hours earlier, joined the European Union, the United Nations and other international bodies such as the African Union and the League of Arab States in demanding a full restoration of the civilian government under Hamdok.

Sudan was on a precarious path toward democratic transition that may now be completely derailed

Otherwise, the US State Department spokesperson Ned Price warned, “our entire relationship [with Sudan] will be evaluated”. Until Monday, Burhan also headed the Sovereignty Council, which was established in 2019 to assume the powers of former dictator Omar al-Bashir, in agreement with Sudanese opposition parties and associations. 

But Burhan’s suspension of key articles of the 2019 Interim Constitutional Declaration effectively dissolved the council along with the transitional government, and nullified the entire political agreement on which the declaration was based. 

The Transitional Military Council, through which the SAF has intervened in politics off and on since April 1985, now rules Sudan once again.

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Huge importance 

Sudan was on a precarious path toward democratic transition that may now be completely derailed. This matters hugely for a country that has been governed by elected civilians for a mere 10 years since its independence in 1956, and in which all politics have, arguably, been military politics.

There were those who questioned the military’s abandonment of Bashir in 2019, seeing it as only tactical, and doubted it would actually relinquish power. As important was whether the SAF would follow the trajectory of its Egyptian counterpart, which went from acquiescing in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 to seizing power in 2013.

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This is why Sudanese protesters calling for a full democratic transition in 2019 chanted: “Imma al-nasr aw Masr" (“Either victory or Egypt”). Public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance is genuine and understandable, but has clearly been exploited by remnants of the Bashir regime. Government supporters moreover see the hand of the military and allied security services in fomenting dissent in East Sudan

Tribal elements there recently blocked roads to the country’s main seaport, exacerbating shortages of basic supplies and taking the political crisis to a boiling point in a manner reminiscent of the build-up to the Egyptian coup in 2013.

They also suspect Burhan of collusion with Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, deputy chairman of the Sovereignty Council and commander of the SAF’s main military rival, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both have blamed disunity among the civilian political factions for the crisis.

The analogy with Egypt is helpful up to a point, but a military-led government in Sudan will face three very different challenges.

Alliance with Hemeti

The first is to preserve a highly fragile peace with several armed liberation movements in parts of the Darfur region, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. At the same time, it will have to keep the lid on other potential secessionist threats, including in East Sudan, where there have been demands for full autonomy since Sudan became independent, and where the arrival of large numbers of refugees from other parts of the country over the past decade has exacerbated tensions.

General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo 'Hemeti'
General Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemeti' Dagalo. Burhan 'needs the alliance with Hemeti to help keep the armed movements on the fence, if not on board' (AFP)

Burhan will surely do everything he can to keep the peace with the armed movements, and for this he needs the alliance with Hemeti to help keep them on the fence, if not on board.

Burhan’s second principal challenge is the absence of a unified military and of a state monopoly over the means of violence. This probably makes Burhan more dependent on his rival than he would like. Although their alliance is tactical for the moment and will be difficult to maintain, it is vital if a military government is to survive for long.

The prospects are not encouraging. The two men have struggled for control over various paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies since 2019, and have different, and often contradictory, alliances in the conflict-ridden parts of Sudan.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have always been uncomfortable with the democratic transition and favoured the military, may inject cash

The third challenge is to restore an economy that remains devastated by decades of sanctions, war-profiteering and predation by various armed actors - the military, RSF and various armed rebels. After all, this is what generated the popular mood for a return to military rule.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have always been uncomfortable with the democratic transition and favoured the military, may inject cash in the immediate term and promise investment and support for infrastructure projects over the medium term. This may get the military off the hook of transferring its civilian businesses to government control as it promised in March 2021.

It may also encourage renewed predation by both the SAF and RSF, which is heavily involved in the gold trade and in black-market activities, but leaves fundamental economic problems unresolved. 

Implications for the future

Faced with the threat of new US and western sanctions, Burhan may back down.

Or he may, instead, seek allies among the bickering political parties to form a facade civilian government so as to shore up his purported commitment to democratic transition and thus deflect international pressure. This is where the SAF may again emulate the Egyptian armed forces, who followed their takeover of power by forming a multiparty civilian government.

Reports that Hamdok was being pressed to accept the coup lend weight to the notion that Burhan may want him to resume his role under military tutelage, helping to legitimise the military takeover internationally. 

Exactly how far Burhan will have to bend to achieve such a scenario will depend on how enduring are protests inside Sudan and how tough a front is maintained by the United States, the EU, the UN and other bodies, such as the African Union, in demanding a full restoration of civilian government under Hamdok.

This article was first published on Carnegie Middle East Centre website.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the programme on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States. His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces and non-state actors, the impact of war on states and societies, and the politics of post-conflict reconstruction in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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