The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

The military has now dissolved the joint civilian-military government.

Pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to condemn a takeover by military officials, in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 25. (Ashraf Idris/AP)

The Sudanese military staged a coup on Monday and arrested members of the ruling Sovereignty Council, a joint civilian-military government charged with navigating Sudan’s transition to democratic rule. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s military, announced on Monday afternoon that he was dissolving the government and the Sovereignty Council. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist, was among those arrested.

The coup comes amid recent widespread and highly polarized protests. Pro-military demonstrators marched in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on Oct. 16. Marchers reportedly implored the Sudanese armed forces to stage a coup. Days later, on Oct. 21, thousands of counterprotesters turned out in Khartoum and other cities in Sudan, calling for a fully civilian government.

What’s the background?

Sudan’s Sovereignty Council emerged after months-long protests sparked a successful 2019 military coup against 30-year strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who took power in a coup in 1989. Civilian political parties and activists formed a political coalition called the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and joined with Sudan’s top military officers to form the transitional government.

From its inception, Sudan’s democratic transition has faced significant challenges. Just last month, authorities thwarted a coup attempt by pro-Bashir military and civilian loyalists. Why did some protesters demand military rule?

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There’s more to this story

To be sure, the war of words between Hamdok and the council’s prime military members — Burhan and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo — indicated a toxic relationship between civilian and military council members.

A deeper dive into the crisis reveals a more complex story. A civilian splinter faction within the Sovereign Council reportedly financed and facilitated the Oct. 16 pro-coup protests. This faction, known as the Charter of the National Accord, allegedly sought to supplant Hamdok and the other civilian leaders with potential allies within the military. The Charter represents various ex-rebel organizations and other civilian parties from the FFC coalition.

Harsh economic reforms and issues over transitional justice prompted the faction’s emergence — the group claims that Sudan’s other civilian leaders in the FFC have “monopolized power” in the sovereign council. Further, the Charter fashioned itself as the military’s ally, moving closer to officers such as Burhan and Dagalo. The faction organized their supporters to march in demand for a military government — supposedly to be headed by its military allies. The Oct. 16 protesters chanted slogans like “One army, one people” and called on Burhan to overthrow the government’s civilian leaders. Critics alleged the military’s involvement in the protests, given its supposed alliance with the splinter civilian faction.

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Why would civilian politicians promote military rule?

Bitterly fragmented civilian leaders are not an uncommon feature of civil-military rule. A growing body of research shows that civilian politicians and elites advocate for coups, and even plot them jointly with military officers, typically in highly polarized contexts. The Middle East’s post-colonial development saw rival civil-military cliques dominate political life as coups racked countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Similarly, this research also shows that civilian elites often form alliances with military officers to preserve their varied economic privileges during periods of uncertainty — such as a democratic transition. For instance, Egyptian oligarchs and party leaders allegedly colluded with the armed forces to remove President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

These tactics are not without consequences. My ongoing research on coups shows that once in power, a fragile civil-military government faces a high risk of failure when deep divisions emerge among its civilian members. These divisions can lead to the government’s failure through several ways. As civilians fail to agree on core policy issues, rival groups often turn to the government’s military wing, seeking an ally to resolve bitter disputes.

Military officers can thus become entrenched in the internal conflict and eventually stage a coup on the behalf of their preferred faction. Similarly, a divided civilian leadership is vulnerable to predatory officers, providing an opening for their own consolidation of power at the expense of the government’s civilians. Just as bitter polarization can lead to civil-military rule, chronic divisions among the government’s civilians can similarly lead to its collapse.

This has happened before

These conditions are not foreign to Sudan. Though Bashir emerged as the face of the 1989 coup, the civilian National Islamic Front led by Hassan al-Turabi helped orchestrate the plot. Initially, a civil-military government between Bashir and Turabi presided over Sudan. However, a crisis later emerged within the government when civilian leaders split over Turabi’s extremism in domestic and international affairs. Ultimately Turabi’s rivals aligned with Bashir to sack the party’s civilian leader, allowing Bashir to monopolize political power.

This pattern has emerged elsewhere, as well. When civilian and military members of the Syrian Baath Party took power via coup in March 1963, chronic struggles developed between the Baath civilian leadership and a radical civilian faction known as the Regionalists. In February 1966, the Regionalists and like-minded Baathist soldiers staged a coup and expelled the party leaders from the party, the government and Syria.

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Similarly, Iraqi Baathists took power in a February 1963 military coup, but long-standing disputes between the civilian leaders drew the Baathist officers to back different sides within the government. Nine months later, the civilian leaders lost power at the hands of their own military allies.

Sudan’s path forward is plagued with uncertainty

Though Sudan’s generals remained mostly silent during the recent protests, the coup answered the calls of the pro-military demonstrators. Burhan justified the move under the pretext of infighting between civilians and vowed to “rectify the revolution’s course.” However, demonstrators who want a civilian government have rejected this narrative and have taken to Khartoum’s streets once again.

The leaders of the FFC’s splinter faction are notably not among the arrested Council members, but it’s unclear what role they may now play. Will these civilians have a place in the new government, or did they simply trade their seats to see their rivals removed? In any case, Sudan’s military has once again toppled its government.

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Salah Ben Hammou (@poliscisbh) is a security studies PhD student at the University of Central Florida and co-founder of Jam3a: a Virtual MENA Workspace for Early Career Researchers. His research examines civil-military relations, authoritarian politics and democratization with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

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