The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sudan’s revolutionaries vow to resist military’s power grab

A protest takes place Oct. 25 in southern Khartoum over the military coup that hours earlier halted the transition to civilian rule in Sudan. (AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

NAIROBI — As dawn broke Monday, countless young men and women who for nearly three years have routinely flooded Sudan’s streets to call for a civilian government woke up to the sound of their phones incessantly buzzing with messages carrying gut-wrenching news.

The civilian leader of the government, Abdalla Hamdok, had been detained by the military along with his wife. So had almost his entire cabinet. Security forces had already spread out across the capital, Khartoum, and the Internet that the citizens were using for messaging was about to be throttled.

“It was a mind-boggling moment to process,” said Elbashir Idris, 26, a community organizer. “I looked out my window at 5 a.m. and could already see the first tires being burnt in protest — those big black fumes.”

Sudan’s military detains prime minister and dissolves government in coup

Despite a vast and well-coordinated protest movement in favor of a transition to democracy, and an aggressive push by Western governments to support Sudan’s emergence from authoritarianism after the ousting of longtime dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019, years of progress seemingly were swept away before most Sudanese had wiped the sleep from their eyes.

Complex dynamics were at play: Sudan’s military and civilian leaders had been sharing power in a shaky arrangement weakened by mutual suspicion and disagreements on fundamental questions such as whom to hold to account for decades of atrocities committed under Bashir and whether the military should be able to control parts of the economy. Players both old and new are vying for power in a Sudan that seems up for grabs.

When the fragile house of cards collapsed Monday, all pretense of power-sharing was put to rest. All state governors were dismissed; a state of emergency gave Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s top military official, near total power.

In a speech Tuesday, Burhan said that Hamdok had not been arrested and that a new, civilian, technocratic government would be put in place that was not “crippled by disagreement and differences,” as he claimed Hamdok’s had been. He also said there had been threats to the prime minister’s life, but provided no evidence.

“Simply to protect him, he is in my residence,” Burhan said, according to a simultaneous translation provided by Al Jazeera news channel. “Once the threat is over, he can go back to his residence, and you can visit him. There were true threats to him, and that’s why we kept him in safe custody. No one can deny he has offered great contributions to our country.”

As for the fates of at least a dozen other civilian officials, Burhan said: “Certain individuals have been put in custody — those individuals believed to undermine national unity and national security. We are not muzzling mouths, we are blocking any voice [that] directly undermines our national harmony.”

Burhan did not address allegations that the military had fatally shot at least seven protesters, according to a doctors association, and injured more than 100 in clamping down on Monday’s anti-coup demonstrations. He did, however, say Internet facilities would be restored Tuesday. Sudanese activists and analysts alike said the attacks on protesters spoke much louder about the military’s resolve to retain power rather than restore stability.

“We understand this is a marathon,” Idris said. “The Sudanese people have been through multiple revolutions. But now we are ready to resist. We’ve learned how to barricade, how to empty the roads, and then come out in numbers.”

Idris and others spoke of mass protests already planned for Saturday that would echo the “march of millions” that pro-civilian-rule groups organized after past bouts of repression. On Tuesday, a general strike against the coup had already taken root, and most shops in Khartoum were closed, with streets empty.

Western governments tried to intensify pressure on Burhan, using what leverage they had to persuade him to reverse the power grab. The U.S. State Department announced the suspension of aid that had been earmarked for smoothing Sudan’s transition to civilian rule — $700 million that could provide a steadying influence on the country’s inflation-battered economy.

On Wednesday, the World Bank followed suit, pausing disbursements of its operations and stopping the processing of new operations in Sudan, as the organization assesses the situation. World Bank Group President David Malpass in a statement said he “fear[s] the dramatic impact [recent events] can have on the nation’s social and economic recovery and development.”

The African Union also suspended Sudan from all its activities until the civilian-led transitional authority was restored.

But the ease with which Burhan was able to sweep aside his civilian counterparts underlined how strong his hand is, said Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst at the Rift Valley Institute.

“Burhan might be able to pull this off with the support of other allies, namely Egypt, the Saudis and the Emiratis,” he said. “He is not a pariah like Bashir became, nor is he an Islamist. He will find a new, more pliant civilian face, he will maintain formalities, and the West will simply end up dealing with that person.”

While rumors abounded among those in the protest movement about Burhan’s Arab allies and their role in the coup, a senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to relay sensitive discussions, said that Egyptian officials at least were caught off guard by Burhan’s move.

“The Egyptians seemed to be as surprised by the military’s recklessness as a number of Western governments,” the diplomat said.

Instead of international support, however, Burhan may lean more heavily on new domestic partners now that his relationship with Hamdok and the anti-Bashir protest movement has been definitively severed, Gizouli said.

Through a peace process driven mostly by the military, Burhan has cultivated close ties with the leaders of Sudan’s disparate rebel groups — many of which Burhan fought as a commander under Bashir.

Under the umbrella of an accord signed in Juba, South Sudan, last year, “Burhan has convened a viable set of alternatives to civilian leaders in the country’s peripheries where most of the resources that fuel Sudan’s economy come from,” Gizouli said.

Controlling those resources is the clearest way to understand the military’s desire to prevent civilian leaders from gaining an upper hand in the government, which they were slated to do next month under the original terms of the transitional government. It would have been the first time in decades that Sudan had a civilian government.

“The military had much to fear from passing this key milestone in the transition,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a post-coup update. “Under Bashir, the generals came to enjoy unchecked control of key economic sectors, running a web of companies with billions of dollars in assets. The Hamdok administration had sought to roll back these privileges by bringing many of the military’s companies under civilian management.”

The question of whether the military can withstand another wave of massive protests will soon be put to the test. In 2019, after Bashir’s downfall, military and paramilitary groups were accused of massacring more than 100 protesters. Only weeks later, hundreds of thousands took to the streets again.

In his speech Tuesday, Burhan referred to the mostly young protesters, saying, “We know that many of the youth have been misled if not radicalized.”

“No one should fool themselves. Burhan [is] not going anywhere soon,” Gizouli said. “But how can he govern the cities — they are bristling, full of unemployed people, a full-on urban crisis, students looking for work, living on hustling trades, hunting for bread and fuel, in desperation. How will Burhan get them to accept this?”

Protesters like Idris say accepting defeat is not an option.

“It’s a waiting game now, which side has the stamina,” he said. “I believe in the people, not the military.”

Siobhán O’Grady in Cairo and Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.

Read more:

Sudan’s military has taken over. Here’s what to know about who’s in charge.

Sudanese authorities say military coup by remnants of past regime thwarted

Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir is ousted by military after 30 years in power