At dawn on 25 October 2021, the military leadership in Sudan, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized control of the government and ended the partnership agreement with civilian forces, dissolving the Sovereignty Council, dismissing the civilian government, and initiating a broad arrest campaign.
From the outset, the military was not happy with the power-sharing arrangement and only grudgingly accepted it following regional and international pressure. But military-civilian relations began to deteriorate markedly at the beginning of year, as military leaders became increasingly exasperated by what they viewed as the incompetence of the civilian government and an overriding concern with purging opponents and cementing control of key state levers at the expense of preparing for elections and building durable state institutions. Military leaders likely began considering ending the partnership agreement several months ago, but were finally moved to act by developing conditions.
Sudan’s economic straits did not help matters. Although the government of Abdalla Hamdok made some progress on improving economic indicators, its efforts were undercut by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, the heavy legacy of the Bashir regime, and the failure of Western and Arab governments to extend promised assistance. The massive protests that erupted in September in eastern Sudan further exacerbated the economic crisis by shutting down Port Sudan—vital for foreign trade—and highlighted popular discontent with the Hamdok government and its exclusionary style of governance. The military was also likely motivated by internal rumblings of dissatisfaction with proposed measures that would trim the armed forces’ autonomy and economic privileges, particularly after the attempted coup in September.
Al-Burhan’s move drew immediate, harsh condemnation from Western powers – particularly the United States, which is heavily invested in Sudan’s transition process – as well as Turkey and Qatar. But the response of Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel was muted. Indeed, Russia lobbied the UN Security Council to tone down its language in a statement on Sudan.
In addition to these regional allies, al-Burhan has the support of important domestic constituencies, most importantly the Islamist forces most affected by the purges in state institutions, as well as the wing of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) that split with the main movement. The military may also be betting that the civilian government’s poor economic performance will lead ordinary Sudanese, particularly outside Khartoum, to support its action. The question is whether this base of domestic and foreign support will be enough to allow al-Burhan to weather the storm and carry out his plan.
The huge opposition demonstrations that turned out on 30 October show that the FFC and other civilian forces can still mobilise the public, suggesting that military leaders’ assessment of the weakness of the opposition was overly optimistic. The civilians’ stance is also bolstered by the strong support of Western powers, whose assistance is needed to get the Sudanese economy back on track. This limits the military’s room to manoeuvre, but is likely not sufficient to force a complete reversal of al-Burhan’s position. On a positive note, Western mediation efforts are reportedly underway, suggesting that the civilian and military parties are both open to a compromise.
Given this, the most likely outcome is the restoration of the partnership agreement in a new framework that takes account of the schism within the FFC and the difficulties this poses for civilian-military partnership. A truly technocratic government may be formed, and the Sovereignty Council may be reconstituted to provide for better regional rather than partisan representation. But this will not bring lasting stability unless there are guarantees for all partners’ interests and the continuation of the political transition, paving the way for free elections to establish a government that draws its legitimacy from the will of voters.
By the same token, there may be a change of personnel in the military leadership. General Mohamed Dagalo, known as “Hemeti,” has been noticeably absent from the scene since al-Burhan assumed full control and there are reports that he is waiting to see how things shake out, as he did after al-Bashir’s ouster, before making his allegiances clear.
In any case, the failure of mediation efforts would spell long-term destabilisation in Sudan, hastening economic deterioration and social fragmentation and perhaps setting off communal conflict between supporters of the military and the FFC.
Another possible outcome is the Egyptian scenario, whereby army leaders take unilateral control and forcefully suppress the domestic opposition, with the diplomatic and economic backing of its foreign allies. But there are several factors militating against this scenario. For one, unlike the Egyptian army, the Sudanese armed forces are not homogenous or united; secondly, the United States is exerting great pressure on al-Burhan’s regional allies to withhold their support until he accepts a partnership with civilians.
*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic, available here.