Photo: Yahya Aitabi via shutterstock.com
Is Sudan heading to another dictatorship?

Pro-democracy protests have been brutally suppressed amid calls for the international community to engage.

Security forces in Sudan killed at least 14 demonstrators and wounded dozens more on Wednesday as protests continued across the country against the recent military coup there.

On November 13, the Sudanese military killed seven demonstrators and three children, and injured hundreds more with live bullets during the protests. Reports from across the country indicate excessive use of force by the military, including live ammunition and tear gas. Many protesters were also arbitrarily arrested and even attacked in hospitals where doctors and medical staff were beaten and detained. In addition, the military closed roads and all major bridges leading to Khartoum ahead of the protest, which posed a challenge in transporting injured protestors. Internet access has been shut down across Sudan since the coup despite the court order to restore it.

Meanwhile, despite the casualties and adversity, civil disobedience across Sudan in support for democracy is growing stronger.

Sudan’s long history of coups and its rocky path to democracy

From 1956 until 2021, Sudan experienced a coup d’état 35 times (including plots), out of which six were successful.

In 1989, Omar Al-Bashir led the military overthrow of the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi. During Bashir’s 30 years of dictatorship from 1989 to 2019, Sudan rapidly became the center of Islamist radicalism when it hosted Osama bin Laden, which resulted in U.S. and international sanctions against Sudan for almost a decade.

The imposition of Islamic law across the country at that time intensified a nationalist movement in the south. The movement, which initially promoted southern aspirations in a united Sudan, changed course after the death of First Vice President John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005. That led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011 and the loss of Sudan’s primary source of revenue — oil — which shrunk by about 75 percent. Furthermore, the turmoil and atrocities in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile States, and corruption across Sudan, including unemployment and poverty continuously deteriorated Sudan’s economy resulting in almost 70 percent inflation in 2018.

To avert total economic collapse, in 2018, President Bashir and Prime Minister Hassan Saleh imposed emergency austerity measures and cut fuel and bread subsidies which led to wide protests across Sudan, leading the military to arrest President Bashir and overthrow the government. Then, in April 2019, the military suspended the constitution, imposed a state of emergency, and established the military-led transitional government called Transitional Military Council.

Widespread protests demanding a civilian government then led to the Transitional Sovereign Council comprised of the TMC led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the civilian-led Forces for Declaration of Freedom and Change, or FFC. According to the agreement, both TMC and FFC agreed to share power for 39 months with an election at the end of that period. A general would lead for the first 21 months and civilians would take over for the remaining 18 months.

This tense honeymoon didn’t last long. Since the establishment of the Sovern Council in 2019, there have been several failed coups and the shaky military-civilian alliance finally ended on October 25, 2021, when Gen. al-Burhan dissolved the TSC, suspended several constitutional Articles, and arrested civilian leader Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and FFC members. The coup happened weeks before the deadline to hand over the TSC to the civilian leader on November 17.

On November 11, General al-Burhan announced the new 14-member Sovereign Council, named himself the council head, and re-appointed Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo as his deputy, the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces leader. The RSF is accused of widespread abuses in Sudan, including crimes against humanity in Darfur and other atrocities, including rape, against protestors.

The newly appointed council consists of civilian representatives but it has worried pro-democracy advocates as it excludes council members from the previous coalition sharing power with the military during the transition period after 2019. The newly appointed council also consists of affiliates from the supposedly banned National Congress Party, which dominated Sudanese politics during the Bashir era before the 2019 revolution.

On top of the political tensions, Sudan’s economy has been in a deep crisis. The inflation rate had skyrocketed from 70 percent in 2018 to 422.7 percent in July 2019 and 365.8 percent in September 2021. The crisis has led to food, fuel, and essential medicine shortages.

To pull Sudan out from the economic malaise, the IMF and World Bank in September committed about $2 billion in grants to support Sudan’s efforts to reduce poverty and boost growth. Washington also promised $700 million in aid but, along with the World Bank, suspended all financial support after the military coup. The African Union has also suspended Sudan from the block over the military coup.

The regional and international impact and reaction

The instability also affects refugees and asylum seekers as Sudan hosts one of the largest refugee populations in Africa with over 1.1 million from South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Chad, Syria, and Yemen.

Regional powers like Egypt, Saudi, the UAE, and Israel all have an interest in Sudan and have good ties with Gen. al-Burhan because of the geopolitics in the region, including the disagreement with Ethiopia on the Grand Renaissance Dam, control of the Red Sea, and mercenaries from Sudan who support the UAE and Saudi war in Yemen. However, because of the U.S. influence, Gulf countries openly condemned the coup and urged the restoration of the transition government.

In the past week, Washington has been leveraging its relationships with regional leaders like Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia to influence Gen. al-Burhan and the military leadership to restore civilian rule and a path to democracy. The Biden administration should continue to engage at all levels to get al-Burhan to release detainees and hand over the leadership of the Sovereign Council to the civilian component.

The United Nations Security Council should also send a strong, unified message against the military takeover, especially because Russia refused to call it a military coup. Sudan is one of Russia’s largest weapons markets in Africa. Khartoum and Moscow are renegotiating an agreement signed in December 2020 to establish a Russian naval logistics base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast.

The U.N.’s new political mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) and U.N. agencies should also work to ensure continued human rights reporting and monitoring and protect civilians from military brutality and violence.

Despite the challenges and military atrocities, including sexual violence, the Sudanese people continue their brave effort to establish democracy. However, to succeed in finding a solution to Sudan’s crisis, the United Nations, the United States, the AU, and the international community should extend their support.