The Sudanese are sending a clear “no” to the military coup. What will the security forces do next?
The Sudanese people offered the world a masterclass of nonviolent resistance this weekend. They flooded the streets on October 30 in a peaceful protest against the coup launched by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan less than a week earlier. âNo to military rule, yes to civilian rule,â read their banners during demonstrations across Sudan, notably in Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, Kassala to the east and Nyala to the west. Protesters carried placards supporting Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, currently under house arrest by the military.
As Burhan must now realize, he seriously misjudged the strength and resolve of the Sudanese people. Before the coup, part of civil society was frustrated with Hamdok’s government, believing it was too slow to respond to the demands of the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir for 30 years in 2019. Burhan’s takeover, however, reunited the street behind Hamdok.
The protests, which were staged despite an internet blackout, took place alongside a campaign of civil disobedience, deployed across Sudan in response to the coup. Over the past week, shops, schools and banks have all been closed and officials have stayed at home in support of the nationwide strike.
Immediately after the coup, I noted key short-term indicators of democratic survival. Two of these indicators were decisively resolved against the coup, and one remains in play for the period to come:
- Strength of Citizen Protest: With Saturday’s participation, Sudanese civil society demonstrated the enormous power they wield. If Burhan thought he could copy Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s playbook and sell his shares as fulfilling the will of the people, the Sudanese street clearly proved him wrong.
- Regional and international condemnation unit: Here, too, the events of the past week have been quite encouraging. The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the African Union all quickly aligned themselves against the coup. As expected, Russia has withdrawn the UN Security Council from outright condemnation. Other undemocratic states that Burhan relies on – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have attempted to make it through the week without committing to either condemnation or endorsement. In terms of the overall diplomatic landscape, however, it’s fair to say that Burhan ended the week more isolated than he had expected.
- Willingness of the army to use force and defections: During Saturday’s protests, joint security forces fired live ammunition at protesters in some areas. The Sudanese Central Medical Committee reported that three protesters were killed and more than 100 were injured (a senior American official estimated the death toll at 20-30 people). The losses so far, while unacceptable, are in no way comparable to what it might look like if all state force were unleashed against civilians. This result remains a possibility. The international insistence on the right to peaceful protest must remain firm.
Over the coming week, the following indicators will be important to watch:
Information flow from outside Khartoum
It is essential that the international community push for better information on what is going on outside Khartoum. Youth-led neighborhood resistance committees have done a remarkable job bypassing the internet shutdown to obtain documents on human rights violations around the world. But the content still weighs heavily in favor of the capital.
Civilians outside Khartoum, including in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, are extremely vulnerable both in terms of immediate humanitarian needs and direct violence. Burhan is intimately familiar with the tactic, well established under al-Bashir’s reign, of appointing citizens as scapegoats in these so-called peripheral regions to distract from political conflicts in Khartoum.
One point that has yet to be highlighted in the media is that the UN Security Council’s referral of the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no date. expiry. Crimes against humanity committed in the coming period in Darfur remain within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court. Burhan and his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, who heads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, should know that the ICC can hold them accountable for the atrocities committed in Darfur by their forces in the coming weeks, without any further action from the UN Security Council.
Arrests of activists / releases from prisons of Islamists
Reported arrests of civil society leaders are on the rise. Known organizer Nazim Sirag, who did vital work in organizing medical treatment for injured protesters, was stopped October 29, the day before the demonstrations. The pro-democracy movement has intentionally avoided a centralized structure so that the arrest of a single leader does not stop their work. Yet Sirag’s arrest indicates that Burhan and his allies are now ready to target even those who enjoy a high degree of visibility and international support.
Meanwhile, the day after the protests, reports spread that Burhan had ordered the release of prisoners closely linked to the old regime, including al-Bashir’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, and pure and hard Islamic religious Mohamed ali jazul. Presumably Burhan hopes these releases will bolster his support among members of the old regime, all of whom have a vested economic interest in the military regime. This complicates, however, his argument to his allies in the Gulf that he can keep a lid on Islamist forces in the region.
Willingness of the army to use force and defections
It stays high on the watch list. The strength of civil society opposition mocked Burhan’s efforts to portray the coup as a simple setback – the Sudanese have made it clear they do not believe him. The massacre of protesters on June 3, 2019 is a pervasive reminder of what is possible, and many fear it is only a matter of time. To date, reports of violence seem to point to RSF and police units as the perpetrators, more than the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). If this trend continues, it would indicate a growing rift between middle-level SAF soldiers and the RSF militia under Hemeti’s control.
In addition to the three indicators above, it will be important to monitor the impact of the internet blackout and the general strike on the Sudanese economy. Rumors were circulating in Khartoum on Sunday evening that Burhan would try to force the banks to open. The current state of affairs brings immense hardship to ordinary Sudanese, but it is also painful for the economic interests of the military leadership.
Finally, Hemeti was notably absent from Burhan’s press conferences last week.. However, this should not be interpreted as implying that Hemeti opposed the coup. Governing Sudan without significant civil interference is undoubtedly its ultimate goal. But staying behind the scenes until it is clear which direction events will take is an approach that Hemeti played with great personal advantage during the overthrow of al-Bashir, and is likely repeated here. With Burhan’s bet that he could remove civilian power without the resistance clearly failing, all eyes should be on Hemeti’s next move.