The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protests sweep across Sudan as international backlash against coup intensifies

Participants in a protest over the military coup in Sudan chant slogans in Khartoum on Oct. 30, 2021. (Marwan Ali/AP)

NAIROBI — Amid a near-total communications blackout, tens of thousands of protesters across Sudan took a well-coordinated protest movement back onto city streets Saturday after a military coup earlier this week.

The coup was the second in three years and was led by the same generals who ousted longtime dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019. A power-sharing arrangement with civilian leaders crumbled Monday as Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan dissolved the joint government, detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, suspended the constitution and gave himself control.

Saturday’s mass protests — which were mirrored by rallies in global cities with large Sudanese populations — were part of a sustained effort by Sudanese professional organizations, political parties and ordinary citizens to force Sudan’s military into ceding the reins of government to civilians in the lead-up to democratic elections expected two years from now.

Despite a disruption of Internet service, organizations leading the protests posted videos of mass marches in different parts of the capital, Khartoum. Protesters reprised chants from 2019 and added slogans such as, “We are revolutionaries, we are free, and we will go the distance.”

In protests earlier this week, doctors associations said at least 11 people had been killed and more than 100 injured. On Saturday, one of the associations said three protesters had died of gunshot injuries sustained earlier in the day.

Sudan’s international partners, including the United States, a major donor and creditor in the years since Bashir fell, had warned the military on Friday that further bloodshed would be “unacceptable.” No public investigation into the killings has been announced.

The United States, European nations and the World Bank all suspended aid to Sudan this week, and they worked behind the scenes to get Arab allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates to pressure their partners in Sudan’s military to exercise restraint during the protests Saturday, multiple diplomats familiar with the negotiations said. The African Union suspended Sudan’s membership.

Protesters across Sudan took a well-coordinated protest movement back onto city streets on Oct. 28 after a military coup earlier in the week. (Video: Reuters)

The protests are a bellwether for the military’s resolve to press ahead with a coup that has provoked stronger international pushback than expected, the diplomats said, echoing the assessments of analysts within and outside the country.

Civilian ministers and ambassadors have remained defiant, refusing to cooperate with the military, and dozens of officials — and their supporters in the streets — were detained throughout the week. Hamdok was released, but Burhan said others will be freed only if they have been found not to have committed crimes. Strikes have paralyzed the country and halted daily business.

“They’re failing coup d’etat 101,” said a former senior Western diplomat with years of experience in Sudan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “Civilian leaders are emerging as heroes for resisting, and even close allies in Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi are questioning whether the coup was reckless.”

The American special envoy to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, had been in Khartoum in the hours before the coup, warning military leaders that hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance would be withdrawn if they took power. Burhan went ahead with the coup as soon as Feltman departed.

The aid suspensions have not forced Burhan’s hand so far, and Feltman released a statement Friday echoing an earlier one from President Biden saying that “the Sudanese people must be allowed to protest peacefully this weekend, and the United States will be watching closely.”

A senior State Department official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that although Hamdok had been released, he was still under what amounted to “house arrest” and that there was broad consensus among Washington and Sudan’s Arab allies that detained civilian leaders should be released.

Hamdok and Burhan had worked together with Washington to have Sudan removed from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, paving the way for Sudan’s reintegration into the global economy. The transitional civilian-military government also had passed a number of liberalizing reforms affecting public life after decades of Islamic law under Bashir.

In this week’s protests, placards and chants have often denounced the alleged role of the military’s allies in the Arab world in approving the coup. While details of such assurances remained murky, analysts said each ally had its own reasons for wanting the military to consolidate control in Sudan.

“Among Arab powers, there’s an unease about the prospect of a successful civilian transition in Sudan,” said Jonas Horner, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who was in Khartoum in the days leading up to the coup. “In Egypt especially, they worry it would provide a clear demonstrative effect to disaffected Egyptians after their own revolution was derailed.”

Sudan also has provided those allies with easy access to agricultural land and gold mining — parts of the economy that are largely controlled by military figures. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, cultivated close ties with the UAE in recent years by providing soldiers from his paramilitary group, known as the Rapid Support Forces, to fight in wars in Yemen and Libya. Hemedti has supported Burhan’s power grab.

Sudanese protesters, in addition to demanding the restoration of a government that would eventually be civilian-led, have called for an end to military control of key economic sectors, creating a sort of “existential question” for military leaders, Horner said.

The senior former diplomat said that he was aware “as long as a month ago that the military was operating on the assurances of UAE, Egypt and the Saudis, each with varying degrees of certainty of giving a nod of support to a move to wrest power away from the civilian side.”

Since protests emerged in late 2018 over rising bread prices and morphed into a much larger movement against Bashir and the military, they have remained peaceful despite being met repeatedly with deadly violence from security forces.

Faced with public rage and the prospect of more damaging international sanctions, Burhan has pledged to create a new civilian government, although it is unclear who outside of the military will be keen to be the face of an isolated government with major legitimacy problems.

The State Department official said the Biden administration’s stance was that “the military cannot choose their civilian partners in the framework of a transitional government, and the civilians also cannot choose their military partner. Neither side can sideline the other.”

Even before the coup, the military had kept more than enough control to remain the country’s most powerful institution, Horner said. That control dates into the Bashir era, when Burhan and Hemedti were key commanders and the military focused on extracting Sudan’s natural resources and trading with Arab partners during decades of Western sanctions.

“The international community was working on an expectation of magnanimity — that the military would relinquish control — but what incentive do they have to just step away?” he said. “Burhan and Hemedti are thrashing out against the reality of their unpopularity, and, unfortunately, there are some regional actors protecting and even emboldening them to keep facing down the huge popular anger that just keeps growing.”

Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.