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It’s Not Too Late to Defeat the Coup in Sudan

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On Oct. 25, the Sudanese people woke up to a military coup following days of escalating tension and conflict between civilian and military figures on the interim Sovereign Council.

After the Dec. 19, 2018, uprising that ousted the country’s former military dictator, Omar al-Bashir, civilian and military authorities formed the council to oversee a Constitutional Charter for an interim period during which a democratic government would be built.

During the first few hours of Mondays coup, the army detained the most prominent interim civilian leaders, most notably Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his wife, along with other members of government and party leaders.

This campaign of arrests severely derailed Sudan from continuing on its journey toward a more pluralistic and representative form of government.

But there is still an opportunity to defeat Sudan’s military coup. This won’t be easy, however, given the military’s relentlessness and the support it has received from regional powers that have repeatedly resisted waves of democratization in the Arab world for fear of a domino effect. Still, strong and clear messages from the international community can isolate these anti-democratic powers, as well as the Sudanese junta that relies on its support.

Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, left Sudan on Monday just before the coup began, reportedly warning the military against seizing power. In response, the United States has suspended $700 million it had pledged to support a democratic transition. That is a start, but Washington and its democratic allies must do more.

Generals from the former regime pulled the trigger and launched the coup after receiving assurances that regional powers would support the restoration of a military dictatorship.

Over the past few months, Sudan’s top military general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his infamous second-in-command and leader of the violent janjaweed militia, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, have received open support from powerful governments in the region. Among them, Egypt’s military dictators—who also took power in a coup after a revolution in 2011 had yielded a brief experiment in competitive elections—refused to stay idle while their southern neighbor succeeded in opening up its system of government.

Sudan’s military has also received generous support from oil-rich monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which previously supported counterrevolutions after the first wave of the Arab Spring in 2011. The military was further emboldened when these two regional powers recruited janjaweed militias to fight in their war in Yemen.

Despite ongoing problems in such provinces as Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, many Sudanese citizens bet on the success of a transitional process that brought together the Forces of Freedom and Change—a civilian coalition that included the most prominent professional union in the country, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the 2018 revolution—with generals from the old regime.

They hoped this military-civilian alliance would succeed in building a democratic framework that could put an end to decades of oppression and dictatorship.

The pro-democracy camp had patiently waited for the civilian wing of this alliance to assume the leadership of the Sovereign Council, in accordance with the Constitutional Charter, following the end of the 21-month period of military rule in July of next year. However, Burhan, who has led the council since its establishment, abandoned his pledge to transfer power to civilians.

For decades, Sudan suffered tremendously under military rule, which fractured its sense of national unity and disrupted its stability.

Making matters worse, Bashir’s military government allied itself with Islamists and formed the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, which enforced a socially conservative vision upon the country. Their 30-year rule saw an unprecedented deterioration in economic conditions, partly as a result of international sanctions in the face of the government’s war crimes in Darfur and elsewhere.

According to the Constitutional Charter, the military was only supposed to lead the Sovereign Council for 21 months, after which civilians would take the helm for 18 months (a period that was initially supposed to start this May and was then delayed until July 2022). This period would be followed by general elections that would pave the way for a permanent, democratic, and peaceful transition of power by 2024.

The interim period was never expected to proceed smoothly. However, military leaders have made it worse by provoking a series of crises to avoid ceding control of the council to civilians. Nevertheless, many local and international voices remained cautiously optimistic and hoped the generals, having learned painful lessons from the past, would cease their power grab. Instead, the generals stuck to their old ways and launched another military coup, reminiscent of other military men who have destabilized the country since the 1950s.

Throughout Sudanese history, such military power grabs have always been met with resistance. In the 1960s, a popular revolution ousted Gen. Ibrahim Abboud six years after he took power by force. In 1985, a wave of protests and strikes led to the overthrow of Maj. Gen. Jaafar Nimeiry in a bloodless coup. Afterward, Field Marshal Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab handed power to an interim civilian presidential council, despite calls for him to remain in charge.

However, the military returned to power in a 1989 coup led by Bashir, which put an end to competitive elections that had been dominated by the National Umma Party. The Bashir dictatorship lasted for three decades (in alliance with extremist Islamists), and it oversaw discrimination, economic devastation, and violent forms of oppression—including massacres—against civilians.

Today’s military leaders kept no secrets about their intention to stage a coup. At the end of September, they stopped convening meetings in the Sovereign Council. Moreover, they harassed prominent civilian leaders, including Mohamed al-Faki Suleiman, who was expected to succeed Burhan in heading the council. Efforts at mediation, sponsored by the United States, did not stop the generals’ seizure of power.

Rich regional powers, particularly Gulf monarchies, have poured diplomatic and financial support into the Sudanese military junta. This is not for the benefit of the Sudanese people but to relieve economic stress and pull the country into their own economic and political orbit while quelling its experiment with democracy. In the past decade, there have been many examples of the destructive effects of the Saudi and Emirati vision to snuff out democracy in other countries. Such was their role in the 2013 coup in Egypt, as well.

This week’s events in Sudan are strikingly similar to those that have occurred elsewhere in the Middle East. Military generals ride the wave of a popular revolution after realizing they cannot repress it. They oust the head of a repressive state and present themselves as champions of democracy. In the interim period that follows, however, they work hard to stir up crises that breed popular disillusionment with the transitional road map. In the end, the transfer of power to civilians is thwarted.

Since July, inflation in Sudan has jumped to one of the highest rates in the world, exceeding 400 percent after a decision to devalue the local currency. Amid a severe economic situation, the popularity of civilian leaders plummeted, making it easier for the military to snatch power under the guise of restoring stability and prosperity. These promises are backed by generous financial support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Shortly after the overthrow of Bashir in April 2019, Saudi Arabia and UAE pledged an estimated $3 billion in loans and aid for the military regime. Notably, this pledge took place before the military agreed to split power with civilians during the transition period. In coming weeks, this aid could begin flowing again should the coup prevail.

The coup in Sudan is still in a fragile state, however. It lacks wide regional support, as well as internal support. Several Sudanese ambassadors abroad have already denounced the putsch. Coup leaders are betting on decreased support for protests over time. But there are several factors working against them.

First, opponents of the military government will not stay silent in the face of this latest coup. Protesters stood up to Bashir for several months before his fall. Second, the Sudanese army lacks the widespread popularity enjoyed by its counterpart in Egypt, which has successfully fashioned itself as the bedrock of a nation and uses this narrative to justify its domination over Egyptian politics.

The Sudanese people understand that coups do not bring about democracy. It was no surprise when thousands of people took to the streets from the first moments of the military takeover. Opposition forces called for a nationwide strike, hoping for a reprise of their campaign of civil disobedience in June 2019 that forced the army to share power with civilians after Bashir was ousted.

Other efforts can make a difference, too, including an urgent international summit to denounce the coup. International powers must send a clear message to Burhan’s regional supporters in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi to stop their pernicious involvement in Sudanese politics. These countries invested heavily in their ties with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who supported them unconditionally as cornerstones of authoritarian stability in the region. They maintain a tenuous relationship with the Biden administration—even if its record on promoting human rights has been more performative than substantial—and they are waiting to see its stance toward the latest coup, beyond verbal criticism.

There have been a plethora of international condemnations. However, converting criticism to concrete demands and an accountability timeline tied to sanctions would force military leaders in Sudan to reconsider their power grab. The U.S. decision to cut aid was a positive step, but it is insufficient. Washington must also exert pressure on the Arab governments that supported the counterrevolution in Sudan.

Moreover, an example must be made of military leaders who, together with regional peers, have destroyed civic movements in the Arab region over the past 10 years and indeed much of the second half of the 20th century. The threat to prosecute Burhan, Hemeti, and other leaders behind the coup in a domestic court should also be discussed by the international community.

Combined, such efforts could reverse the military takeover, given the hesitant support it has received from Egypt and Gulf states thus far, as they wait to see if the international community merely holds summits to talk about democracy or actually acts to defend it.

Since 2012, U.S. policymakers have missed numerous opportunities to support popular movements for democracy in the Arab world. They stood by as Gulf powers crushed uprisings in Bahrain and thwarted the transfer of power to civilians in Egypt. They allowed the course of the uprisings-turned-civil wars in Syria and Libya to be influenced and redirected by Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

This is a rare opportunity to reverse the military power grab and give hope for a future in which military coups are not destined to occur after popular uprisings struggle to make a democratic transition.

The Biden administration still has a chance to support the struggle for a civilian-led democracy in Sudan and to reject military rule. It should seize the opportunity before it’s too late.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.