On Monday, the U.N. mission in Sudan initiated consultations aimed at helping resurrect the country’s democratic transition, amid a growing political crisis after Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned Jan. 2. His resignation followed months of turmoil after a military coup on Oct. 25 derailed Sudan’s two-year effort to transition toward democracy. Hamdok had agreed to return as prime minister after being placed under house arrest in October, but he quit after the military interfered in his governance.

Hamdok’s resignation leaves only Sudan’s military leaders in control, complicating U.S. and international efforts to facilitate the return to a civil-military power-sharing agreement. His return had failed to persuade a highly mobilized grass-roots movement that Sudan is back on track toward full civilian rule. Sudan’s coup leaders have yet to come to terms with the widespread protests, which have continued despite dozens of demonstrators killed and hundreds injured.

What just happened — and what’s ahead for Sudan? The country at the Horn of Africa is in a pivotal phase.

Why did the military seize power in the first place?

In the early hours of Oct. 25, military and security forces arrested Hamdok, along with several cabinet ministers and other government officials. By noon, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces, dissolved the cabinet and the Sovereign Council, the joint military and civilian leadership body created in 2019 to oversee key reforms during a transition toward democratic elections. He said he aimed to “rectify the revolution’s course” and pledged to hold elections by 2023.

Hamdok had led a transitional government since August 2019. That government was based on a carefully negotiated constitutional declaration that military and civilian political forces had agreed on after deposing longtime ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir earlier that year, amid large-scale demonstrations against the regime.

The military takeover in 2021 did not come as a complete surprise. Had the transitional government’s program succeeded, military and security forces would have had to cede their control of large sections of the economy to enable inclusive growth. And the military leaders could have faced accountability for their involvement in past human rights violations.

The coup faced early roadblocks

But Sudan’s military appeared poorly prepared to rule, despite having reportedly considered such a coup several times.

Burhan first promised the creation of a “technocratic” government without representatives of political parties by the end of the following week. By mid-November, he had appointed new members to the Sovereign Council, keeping himself as head of this collective leadership body, which he endowed with executive powers. The military authorities also appointed officials from the former Bashir regime to sub-cabinet positions as arrests continued.

The search for nonpartisan cabinet members has remained elusive, however. Only two former rebel movements that had joined the government — together with other armed movements involved in the implementation of the October 2020 Juba peace agreement — have remained allied to the coup plotters. No other notable civilian leaders joined the coup.

Burhan has also failed to attract international support, even from governments that tend to maintain close relations with Sudan’s military and security forces. Under U.S. and British pressure, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia co-signed a statement calling “for the full and immediate restoration of [Sudan’s] civilian-led transitional government and institutions.” Only Egypt, itself ruled by a military leader, and Russia, which has expressed interest in building a naval base along Sudan’s Red Sea coast, were more supportive of the coup. The African Union suspended Sudan from regional activities.

Coup leaders hoped to co-opt civilian stakeholders

Sudan’s generals have been trying to produce a government that at least appears to be civilian-led and that can prepare elections at the end of the transition period. It’s likely the coup leaders are well aware that a government with military officers in top leadership roles would never be acceptable to the public or to Sudan’s international partners.

On Nov. 21, after international and Sudanese mediation, the generals released Hamdok from his house arrest. Hamdok then signed an agreement with Burhan, reinstating himself as prime minister and tasking him with forming a technocratic government.

Hamdok justified his decision, for which there was no legal basis, by citing his desire to avoid further bloodshed and salvage the economic and international gains of the transitional government. He said he planned to negotiate a new political agreement between all Sudanese stakeholders to put the transition on a more stable footing.

Sudan’s military maintains a tight hold

Hamdok’s hopes did not pan out. The military and security forces have reportedly continued to shoot, tear-gas, rape and detain peaceful demonstrators who have thronged to Sudan’s cities in the hundreds of thousands at frequent intervals since the October coup. In the western region of Darfur, security forces have failed to protect hundreds from being killed in a fresh wave of mass violence.

In Khartoum, Hamdok was unable to get political parties to settle on a new power-sharing agreement. The Nov. 21 agreement appears to have effectively destroyed Hamdok’s popularity among the activists who had demanded his release — many see his deal with Burhan as a betrayal.

With Hamdok out of the political picture, Sudan has no other civilian leader who could command similar legitimacy. This void may redirect attention to the neighborhood “resistance committees” at the heart of the protest movement. Protest organizers have mobilized despite Internet and phone shutdowns, and have adopted innovative tactics against military repression. They reportedly are preparing a political manifesto of their own, reaching out to established political parties to gain broad acceptance.

With the military in sole control of Sudan’s government, international efforts to help resolve the political crisis and salvage the democratic transition process have received a renewed sense of urgency.

Gerrit Kurtz is a nonresident fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin. Follow him @gerritkurtz.