After a two-year experiment in civilian-military power-sharing, Sudan’s military took over on October 25, 2021 in another bid to govern the country alone. After a promising transition when the revolution that began in 2018 unseated long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is now experiencing a resurgence of the old Bashir regime. This time, the increasingly Islamist regime is run by a constellation of security actors under General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), and a loose coalition of former rebels.
This is not Sudan’s first coup nor—if the political economy that undergirds its governing calculus is not challenged and dismantled—will it be its last. Indeed, there is no guarantee even in the current political impasse, four months after the coup, that another putsch will not take place. This scenario is made more likely by the narrow avenues of political contestation that are available to the bevy of ambitious military leaders within the amalgamated coup regime and the divergent interests that drive them. There are, of course, several other scenarios as to how Sudan’s future may pan out, given the determination of pro-democracy groups to push for full civilian rule, the sharper economic decline that is around the corner, and the intractable conflict of competing interests between the generals.
Civilian Divisions Help Enable the Military
What characterizes the current moment in Sudan is the fact that for the first time, the country is undergoing a coup and a revolution, simultaneously, and the presence of pro-democracy groups that are uninterested in political positions may provide the opportunity to break this cycle. Until then, the two sides hewn by this cyclical political character—the civilian forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)—have followed a historically determined trajectory: divisions among assorted civilian groups are a driving force for the collapse of a political consensus that, in turn, becomes a pretext for the takeover by a unified military under the auspices of stability. However, since Bashir brought in the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under General Hemedti into the political and geographic center, there are now stark and consequential divisions within the security bloc that undermine this notion of stability and create various sites of division among the generals that the current head of SAF, General Burhan, must navigate. So far, he has done so with limited success.
There are now stark and consequential divisions within the security bloc that undermine the notion of stability and create various sites of division among the generals that Burhan, must navigate. So far, he has done so with limited success.
Sudan’s current impasse is broadly animated by two camps: pro-coup and anti-coup forces. Much interest from the international community rests on the divisions between anti-coup or civilian forces, chiefly between those that were part of the beleaguered power-sharing government that ended with the October coup and those that opposed it. These divisions center around the mistrust between neighborhood resistance committees, which have been the backbone of the pro-democracy movement since their inception in 2013, and the political party umbrella group, the Forces of Freedom and Change, which compromised and signed the power sharing deal with the generals in 2019.
Although these groups broadly have civilian rule as their objective, they differ on how to achieve it. These are the same dynamics that existed between civilian groups during the 2018 revolution and the negotiation period that followed Bashir’s ouster in 2019, but with an important difference. The case for power-sharing with the military, to which political parties have historically acquiesced, can no longer be made. The security sector’s perceived duplicity in the planning and staging of the October coup means that calling for a return to a pre-coup status quo is tantamount to political suicide for any party. Even the stronger parties like the National Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Sudan Congress Party that hope to compete in elections (when they take place) would now not dare suggest power-sharing as a way through the impasse (the Sudanese Communist Party opposed this in 2019 too).
The key divisions between the civilian groups about governance modalities can therefore be negotiated and managed. Once an opportunity arises for civilian government to take hold, there will certainly also be political contestations and ideological differences between these groups on how to create a transformative agenda that breaks the coup-revolution-transition cycle. Among the 14 or so civilian political initiatives, there are far more similarities than there are differences, even if the two largest groups—the political parties and the resistance committees—have different stakes and roles to play in the implementation of the political road maps developed by these initiatives. Such contestations, however, are part and parcel of the democratic prerogative that underpins healthy democracies; they do not necessarily pose a threat to achieving civilian, democratic governance. These divisions should therefore be separated from the more immediate concerns plaguing pro-democracy forces today.
The danger to Sudan’s future is less the divisions within the civilian bloc and more so the divisions among those in the military wing.
The danger to Sudan’s future is less the divisions within the civilian bloc, members of which share the same ultimate interest in a civilian democratic state, and more so the divisions among those in the military wing, whose ultimate interest is unilaterally governing Sudan. But a coup cannot have two masters. The October 25 coup serves an immediate purpose: it enables its senior-most generals to evade engaging on three key drivers of the military’s dominance of Sudan’s political and social landscape: economic accountability, transitional justice, and security sector reform. But in the medium to long run, the putschists will contest their share of the spoils of conquest—namely, access to resources to maintain their troops, a monopoly on violence and, ultimately, the presidency.
This leads to three key issues within Sudan’s pro-coup security alliance: the lack of central control of all security branches; the diverging consolidation projects of the two main generals, Burhan and Hemedti; and the complex influence of international patrons.
Mutually Assured Destruction, or Prelude to Civil War?
Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan—as coup leader, head of the SAF and the Sovereignty Council, and de facto prime minster and head of government—has been underestimated by the international community since he took control of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) after the fall of Bashir in April 2019. His deputy, General Hemedti, is his most dangerous long-term competitor, yet arguably one of his closest short-term enablers. In the runup to the coup, the SAF did not have the requisite personnel to cover the sprawling Sudanese capital, Khartoum, which required Burhan to rely on Hemedti’s RSF as the main enforcers of the coup. The RSF, as part of the regime’s joint forces, have been identified in visual documentation as perpetrators of much of the repression that has been taking place during the ongoing protests.
Bringing in Hemedti and other generals into the coup’s inner circle has enabled Burhan to better rein in the proliferated militia-paramilitary-military constellation that makes up the coup forces. At the same time, this allowed Burhan to share culpability for the violence that has been meted out under his orders, although to limited effect. Given the divisions between military leaders, the consolidation of security forces under the coup regime only raises the stakes and opens up narrower avenues for political contestation between the generals, essentially only through counter-coups.
Bringing in Hemedti and other generals into the coup’s inner circle has enabled Burhan to better rein in the proliferated militia-paramilitary-military constellation that makes up the coup forces.
The breakdown of this alliance between the generals looks likely to take place violently, as is already evident in Darfur, will almost certainly impact and be impacted by the economic decline, and turn the rebels who signed the now-precarious 2020 Juba Peace Agreement into king-makers.
These divisions among armed actors highlight a key difference between Burhan and Bashir. Bashir heeded the advice of Islamist ideologue Hassan al-Turabi and “coup-proofed” his regime by keeping all branches of security—the SAF, the police, the national Intelligence and Security Services (NISS, rebranded as the General Intelligence Services, GIS), and later the RSF—in competition with each other, but loyal to him. Burhan, on the other hand, seems unable to cultivate the same control over this constellation of forces or even, it is rumored, within his own SAF troops, recently culling mid-ranking officers to avoid mutiny. Part of the explanation is that Bashir had both the Islamists’ political project to bind the security sector to him and their financial project with the oil boom in 1999-2011. Burhan does not have much of either: the Islamists have been roundly rejected by the Sudanese public and there is precious little treasure to secure loyalties.
Concentric Consolidation Projects
To stave off the consequences of his current predicament and to recreate and recapture the assurances and fortune of Bashir’s security matrix, Burhan has attempted to consolidate the grasp of his regime through the only civilian constituency that he can muster: the Islamists. Since the coup, Burhan has replaced many officials in the justice ministry and the intelligence services and reinstituted the powers of the General Security Services. With the backing of the Islamists, Burhan is attempting to buy time to re-entrench Bashir’s old but expensive patronage network, both within the government and outside of it, precariously at a time when the economy cannot provide the resources to do so.
However, this consolidation project is helping Burhan to temporarily take power away from his ambitious and impatient deputy Hemedti. The two generals’ differing approaches run in concentric circles that can overlap on immediate issues of evading transitional justice, economic accountability, and security sector reform but ultimately work on different economic tangents. In order to recreate Bashir’s success, Burhan must expand and be able to afford Bashir’s expensive patronage network aided by the Islamists who animate it. For Hemedti, who is not one of the Islamists but has been patronized by them, a smaller, privatized state that enables a narrower base built on ethnic or commercial interests is more prudent. Both these vehicles are intended to provide its bearer with the tools to aim for the presidency.
For Hemedti, who is not one of the Islamists but has been patronized by them, a smaller, privatized state that enables a narrower base built on ethnic or commercial interests is more prudent.
These strategies also highlight another key difference between Burhan and Hemedti: the former must work in formal—albeit compromised—channels, and the latter has the freedom of existing within the liminality of formal and informal and illicit income streams. Hemedti’s interest in gold and its extraction and distribution are a main source of contention in Sudan because much of his revenue from the mineral is not reported to the central bank.
Extended Clientelist Networks
The centrifugal force of the central dynamic between Burhan and Hemedti has not only drawn in other members of the security sector (which now include pro-coup former rebels who have been perhaps ironically dubbed “peace partners”) but has also gathered the regional and international allies and patrons of the generals. Adding further complications to the fractious security sector is the active and direct engagement of international and regional actors, from Sudan’s immediate neighbors to the Gulf states, western powers, and eastern hegemons.
By far the most engaged international actors on Sudan—Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have almost unequivocally sided with the military, conferring legitimacy for the putschists by sending and receiving delegations, providing political cover, and lobbying support where possible. Much in the same way that Bashir traded Sudan’s assets for support and political favors, expanding the reach of his patronage network, today’s generals plan to do the same. The key complication today is that given the division within the security sector and the aforementioned divergence of trajectories, the ever-present international influence threatens to hasten a confrontation between the generals, and not just provide them with momentary support.
In recognizing the divergent long-term interests of Burhan and Hemedti and the spaces they currently occupy, the outside actors do not always support both generals.
All of these pro-coup international actors see Sudan through a security lens; however, in recognizing the divergent long-term interests of Burhan and Hemedti and the spaces they currently occupy, the outside actors do not always support both generals. For Egypt, the SAF are a historical guarantor of their southern border. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both previously burned by Bashir, the security lens with which they view Sudan encompasses a military general as the natural guarantor of their food security and Red Sea security interests and they support Burhan and Hemedti in different ways. That said, the UAE has close long-term economic interests with Hemedti, with whom they trade for both blood (mercenaries in Yemen) and treasure (smuggled Sudanese gold that is traded in the UAE). Israel, as a new openly engaged actor on Sudan, is able to engage with both Burhan and Hemedti, as they both want the security software and weaponry Israel’s defense industry can provide. Closer to home, Hemedti’s recent cozying up to Ethiopia’s beleaguered prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was the clearest divergence yet between the generals’ foreign policies. Due to Egypt’s sensitivity around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Hemedti’s visit signals a clear position in the Egypt-Ethiopia rift around the Nile’s waters, and to Egypt’s man in Sudan General Burhan, that he’s willing to pursue a divergent international, as well as domestic, agenda.
Further afield, the great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China has mixed impact on the escalating turf war between the generals. Russia and China’s approach to the impasse in Sudan varies from single issue interests—for example, Russia’s interest in opening its second international naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea—to more complex stated interests, exemplified by both having a major market share in gold. Overall, China, once a key financial and political ally of Bashir, has been quieter, waiting to see where the chips may fall, having had more recent experiences with dealing with robust pro-democracy movements closer to home. Russia, meanwhile, has both the Kremlin and the mercenary group, Wagner, wielding influence over the Sudanese security landscape.
The United States’ position is more discombobulated: rhetorically, Washington supports civilian calls for democracy, but divisions within its different institutions about which side may constitute stability in Sudan has seen the US position tacitly or overtly back the generals (it is noteworthy that the State department still refuses to call the military takeover a coup). So far, there have been few consequences for the coup, the ongoing repression, and the human rights abuses committed by the regime from any international actor, liberal or more autocratic. Following in the footsteps of its regional allies—Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—the United States is also committing to a securitized lens to its foreign policy as it plans to confirm its first ambassador to Sudan in decades, one who has a counter-terrorism background.
What Is Next for Sudan’s Military’s Divisions?
Burhan and Hemedti’s pro-coup regional allies may seek to mediate between the two generals in order to shore up their interests in Sudan as well as in the Horn of Africa/Sahel region by avoiding a civil war that would, at best, result in a pyrrhic victory for the victor. First, a deal may be pursued that allows the generals to take turns at the helm, through quick elections. This would be a short-sighted solution; indeed, these divisions, the conflicts between the generals’ different consolidation trajectories, the ideological fault lines, and the mistrust between them would be difficult to mitigate through elections. Second, the Sudanese economy is unable to withstand the economic style of both these generals, especially without first undergoing the type of reform that they themselves resist. Third, neither general has demonstrated any acumen for governing or any meaningful commitment to the realities of governing a complex and much-diminished state. Last and more importantly, the pro-democracy movement in Sudan has been clear that neither general would be accepted as head of state.
De-escalation of the threat posed by the divisions within the military is clearly necessary. But it must be based on meaningful engagement with the core issues of security sector reform, transitional justice, and economic accountability. It is also imperative that the security forces’ top brass understand and pursue these priorities; otherwise, and without such engagement, the intractability of the generals will continue, even in the face of mass opposition.
In Sudan, there must first be recognition that the transition, which started in August 2019, has ended and that a new transition toward a fresh civilian political dispensation must be sought by all sides.
In order to meaningfully approach these issues, there must first be recognition that the transition, which started in August 2019, has ended and that a new transition toward a fresh civilian political dispensation must be sought by all sides, and their allies, lest they, too, inherit these fraught divisions. This acknowledgment will lead to a different engagement on a more level playing field between the civilian and military blocs and may soften the impasse, but it must be done concurrently with the aforementioned engagement with the generals on the key drivers of the coup. There must also be recognition that despite—or rather, because of—the upcoming economic decline, the pro-democracy movement can far outlast the military compact between the generals and former rebels who rely so heavily on economic extraction and control.
One thing is sure, however: if the tensions between Burhan and Hemedti—having previously come to a head in the summer of 2021—are left unchecked, they will continue to undermine not just a transition, but the very viability of Sudan.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.