Sudan’s military coup: lessons from Egypt and the wider region

In February 2021, CSW warned that slow progress in ushering a new era for Sudan risked derailing the inclusive national vision that had united so many of its citizens in protest, and which led to the fall of the al-Bashir regime and the creation of a transitional government. Our blog post pointed to the need to learn from neighbouring Egypt’s experiences.

On 25 October 2021, the transitional council was overthrown, and the military seized power in a coup. Once again there are lessons to be drawn from Egypt, and the wider region, in understanding the challenges to democracy in Sudan today.

Both Sudan and Egypt have a complicated history of the involvement of the military in politics. One of the key differences in the two nations’ relationship with the military, however, is one of ideology.

In the immediate post-Mubarak era, the military effectively paved the way for a Muslim Brotherhood electoral victory.  However, when the army intervened in political affairs for the second time, it set out to control the excesses of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, positioning itself as the guardian of the Revolution and assisting in the overthrow of the government following mass protests.  

After being declared a terrorist group, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned by a joint military-civilian interim government. At the time the party was deeply unpopular and therefore its removal from office was welcomed by many, as was the role of the military.

In Sudan on the other hand, the fall of al-Bashir was also preceded by mass pro-democracy demonstrations.  However, those that were organised after the military coup received a cynical response in some quarters, amid questions regarding whether it was the military or civilians who were restoring democracy. After all, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood in its many incarnations was effective at organising what it called pro-democratic demonstrations.

However, an assessment of events ahead of the 25 October coup and since gives a clear indication that the military does not enjoy wide support among the population.

Ahead of the coup, parties who aligned themselves with the military organised demonstrations calling for the military to remove the civilian-led government, with many of those participating informing journalists that they were being paid to attend. On the other hand, counter-protestors supportive of the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok illustrated by the strong opposition to a military takeover in Sudanese politics.

It was in this context that the military orchestrated a coup that has been roundly condemned, with resistance committees across the country organising peaceful acts of civil disobedience. The military, conversely, has shown its hand by aligning itself with prominent Islamists from former President Omar al Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).

Unlike in Egypt, where decades of suppression had limited the access to political power of the Muslim Brotherhood, those in power in Sudan had pre-eminence in influencing every area of life in the country. When al Bashir took power and joined forces with al Turabi’s National Islamic Front (NIF), the process to systematically alter institutions to serve their goals began. Civil servants, journalists and university lecturers were detained in a systematic removal of those not aligned to their ideology.

The criminal code, the educational curriculum, the status of women, and the marginalisation of communities outside of Khartoum, particularly those of non-Arab ethnicity, all reinforced the Arabisation and Islamisation policies of Bashir’s rule and the privileged position of members of the subsequent political party, the National Congress Party (NCP). All this took place against a backdrop of compliance with the military and state support for militias like the Janjaweed (meaning ‘devils on horseback’), later renamed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in many of the country’s conflicts, including Darfur.

The role of the RSF and potential threat to regional stability and security is worth noting. The group’s leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo known as “Hemeti” and current deputy to General al Burhan wields significant political power. Immediately after former President al Bashir was ousted, Hemeti refused to join the first Transitional Military Council, but eventually joined as deputy to Burhan in the recently suspended civilian led transition and more recently in the 25 October coup.

The RSF, which is a large, well organised, and well-resourced militia, has also participated in conflicts outside of Sudan, including in Yemen. The group is responsible for significant human rights violations including attacks on the 3 June sit in, and it has reportedly also attacked protestors during the current peaceful demonstrations against the coup. The group and its leader could potentially threaten peace and security in Sudan, and potentially the wider region.

On 25 October, when the military took unilateral steps to dissolve institutions of the transition and arrest politicians – including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – the view from Cairo was not as hostile.

Initially there was evidence that President al Sisi supported the military action. At the African Union Peace and Security Committee, Egypt had attempted to slow the regional bloc’s near-automatic process of suspending any member state where there has been an unconstitutional transfer of power. At the UN Human Rights Council, Egypt, together with some Arab and African states, attempted to prevent action, stating that the involvement of another institution would undermine efforts for a peaceful resolution in Khartoum.

Some other commentators, also in Egypt, remarked that it is too easy to interpret the military’s role as one that is thwarting democracy rather than supporting it as General al Burhan has stated he was doing. However, it is clear that in the two weeks after the coup the alliances forming around al Burhan are not primarily concerned with advancing democracy.

The general has reportedly issued over 400 decrees relieving political appointments of the civilian-led government of their positions and replacing them with known members of the former NCP. These changes are largely of senior civil servants in key ministries, including education, justice, and religious affairs, meaning that if a political resolution can be found ministers will return to find bulwarks of the previous regime in prominent positions of the administration.

Alarmingly, several members of the committee designed to investigate, document, and expose the corrupt practices of the NCP have been arrested, and at least one has been targeted with attempted assassination. Outside of Khartoum, the picture is even more bleak, with reports of committee members in the state being systematically removed and replaced as all of the records that they collected are confiscated.

The political situation in Khartoum is fast becoming entrenched; civilians continue to participate in mass demonstrations against the coup and military leader al Burhan has started the process of forming new institutions of state. But questions loom large over how much will remain intact from the period of joint civilian-led transition.

In terms of human rights there have been severe restrictions on the internet preventing an accurate assessment of the situation nationwide. But mass arrests and detentions of those participating in civil disobedience are concerning.

Like Egypt, there are questions and concerns over the military’s protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Early assessment of the role of former NCP members in the civil administration is that they may undermine the positive steps that had been taken prior to the coup. Although al Burhan had given assurances that the military action was not supported by any one religious ideology, the clear alliance with the NCP is an indicator of concern.

Moreover, FoRB does not exist in a vacuum; the treatment of minorities and women; and the upholding of freedom of assembly, association and expression are all vital for the protection of FoRB. One area of concern even during the civilian-led transition was the implementation of positive legal changes. The removal of punishments for apostasy was positive; however it would only be meaningful if and when the process of legal reform had been completed.

The lack of a constitutional court or senior legal oversight was a fundamental weakness of the transition. And like the situation in Egypt, there had been an increase in social hostilities, with attacks on churches rising and a confusing legal process in which churches were prevented from rebuilding places of worship after they were attacked, or building places of worship on their own land. Even in Egypt, where a complicated picture of high-level commitment to the protection of all Egyptians was welcome, security challenges, attacks on churches and discrimination against Christians in society remain prevalent.

For Sudan’s Islamists, the coup represents their last opportunity to return to a place of influence over the nation’s affairs. Failing that, it has opened the door to undoing meaningful accountability.

For Cairo, Burhan’s seeming alliance with the Islamists is problematic and does not represent the stability and security it had hoped for. While the two nations have much in common and face similar challenges with reconciling the role of the military in a democratic transition and the role and influence of Islamists domestically and within the region, there are key divergences. With further unilateral action taken by al Burhan by announcing a new Sovereign Council that he will head, the mood in Cairo has shifted. The military is no longer seen as a stabilising force, but as one that is forming a complex network of allies and initial benefactors who are members of the former regime.

There is also a valuable lesson that can be drawn on from Lebanon, where a protracted war was brought to an end, but the recent investigation of the Beirut Blast has exposed that tensions underneath the surface have yet been addressed. Kim Ghattas, author of the book Black Wave, said in a BBC interview on 18 October, ‘the years of compromise in favour of stability at the expense of justice and accountability have delivered neither stability nor justice.’

On 21 November, almost one month after the coup, the military leaders agreed to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to his role and reiterated their commitment to the transitional period. The release of Prime Minister Hamdok has been welcomed by all, but questions remain over whether the Forces for Freedom and Change, the political party that nominated him and the main party in the 2019 transitional agreements, can support the transitional partnership. The resistance committees that have organised mass peaceful protests are currently against any partnership with the military. The increasing death toll from the disproportionate use of force against unarmed civilians will weigh heavily in future negotiations, as will the slow steps the military have taken to release all those detained since 25 October.

With the situation in neighbouring Ethiopia already threatening regional stability, the temptation to find any form of stability in Sudan, no matter how imperfect, will be high, but the international community must not look to a short-term solution that will fundamentally undermine the desire of the Sudanese people for justice, freedom, and peace.

By CSW’s Sudan Desk

Featured Image: Anti-coup protesters in London. 30 October 2021.