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Sudan’s leader says the military will step aside. That’s not likely.

Eight months after Sudan’s military coup, what happens now?

A protest in the Barari area of Sudan's capital, Khartoum, on July 4. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced that the military would withdraw from the U.N.-mediated tripartite talks — and pull out of Sudan’s political process more generally.

The announcement came eight months after Burhan and the military toppled the government of former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, in October 2021. Hamdok’s government, working alongside the military, had been navigating the country’s democratic transition following the exit of longtime strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019.

Since the 2021 coup, Sudanese citizens have participated in widespread protests against its leaders, who have responded with brutal force. In addition to international condemnation and severe foreign-aid cuts, Sudan has seen a crippling political crisis develop over the past eight months. The recent U.N.-led talks reportedly aimed to build a political agreement between civilian leaders and the military. Now the coup leaders appear to be exiting the political stage — a surprising move that Burhan claims will allow the formation of a civilian government.

My ongoing research suggests the military isn’t likely to step away from politics entirely. A closer look at the civilian factions involved in the political process — many of which are known military allies — suggests that the military’s influence will probably continue.

When civilians participate in coup politics

Civilian collaboration in military coup politics around the world is actually quite common, if perhaps less studied. Sudan’s coups, for example, have seen frequent civilian involvement, including the country’s first successful coup in 1958, when Prime Minister Abdalla Khalil ordered the military to topple his own government. In October, I explained here in TMC how former rebel leaders who once opposed Bashir’s regime organized protests days before the coup to demand the military’s intervention against Sudan’s transitional government. But as recent developments show, civilian collaboration can extend well beyond the initial power grab and become part of post-coup politics.

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

Since the coup, Burhan and the military have reintegrated civilian remnants of Bashir’s fallen regime into the government, including members of the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its affiliates. These measures include appointing party members to ministerial positions, unfreezing their financial assets and stacking the civil service with NCP loyalists.

This happened after the military’s reinstatement of Hamdok in November failed to quell unrest in the streets, and the former premier then resigned in January. The United Nations, the African Union and the United States put considerable pressure on Sudan to return to civilian governance. To that end, the military’s civilian allies — including the former rebels who demanded the coup — continue to participate in the tripartite talks. That didn’t sit well with pro-democracy groups like the Forces of Freedom and Change and the Resistance Committees, who boycotted the talks.

Why civilians take up the military’s interests

Beyond publicly legitimizing coup leaders, civilian collaborators can advance core interests of those who orchestrated the coup. And they can help neutralize anti-military opposition within the government by blocking legislation aimed at meaningful reform or barring the opposition from power altogether.

In other words, civilians can serve as proxies for the military itself. It’s a tactic politically dominant militaries often use — even in non-coup situations. For example, some analysts point out that Myanmar’s military relied on a political party to advance and secure its interests even in the face of a democratic transition. However, once that party saw a crippling electoral defeat, the military re-intervened in 2021, as political scientists Megan Ryan and Darin Self explain here in TMC.

Myanmar’s military distrusts its ruling party. That’s why it staged a coup and detained leaders and activists.

In Sudan, pro-military civilians like NCP loyalists and their affiliates can ensure that the military’s economic enterprises and resource exploitation in the periphery — key points of contention for the pro-democracy movement — continue even if a civilian government emerges. In addition, the reintroduction of NCP loyalists into government and financial institutions puts party leaders in a powerful position against the opposition.

As the military reportedly intends to form a “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” with unspecified powers after its exit, these developments give little indication that the coup leaders’ political role will evaporate. And the NCP and its offshoots, along with the former rebel leaders, have much to gain by continuing to support Sudan’s coup leaders. The NCP, for example, was outlawed after Bashir’s removal in 2019, and pro-democracy groups targeted its extensive patronage networks. In recent months, the military leadership has reversed many of these measures, though the party remains legally banned.

Similarly, former rebel leaders Minni Minnawi and Jibril Ibrahim faced little hope of electoral success with a democratic transition. But tying their fates to the armed forces and its affiliates may ensure them some political power regardless of electoral politics. Just as civilian support helps entrench the military’s influence, the military’s support can entrench its civilian allies.

What do Sudan’s pro-democracy groups think?

Pro-democracy civilian groups aren’t buying Burhan’s claim that he’ll step back from politics. In fact, the Forces of Freedom and Change denounced the move as “a tactical retreat and transparent maneuver” and have called for greater demonstrations for a genuine civilian government.

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Some observers have noted that the announcement was also designed to divide the opposition. However, the refusal of pro-democracy groups to acquiesce could undermine the military’s gambit to divide its opponents and rely on its civilian proxies.

Since the announcement, Burhan has dismissed members of the ruling Sovereignty Council in preparation for the military’s exit from power, while anti-military protests continue to fill the streets. With the tripartite talks now canceled, it’s not clear whether these developments will prompt a further international response.

Are there takeaways here, for observers and academics — as well as policymakers? In the complicated politics of military coups, assuming a simple binary divide between “civilians” and “soldiers” obscures important details. And these assumptions may also miss the complex ways in which coup leaders retain political power — even as they claim to be stepping back.

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Salah Ben Hammou is a PhD student in security studies at the University of Central Florida.