U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration’s response to the recent military takeover in Sudan was unambiguous. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price condemned it unequivocally and announced a pause in the entire $700 million in emergency assistance appropriations of U.S. economic support funds for Sudan. He added that other forms of bilateral aid would be reviewed, and he reiterated that Sudan would remain subject to restrictions that were imposed following the legal determination that a coup d’état had taken place in 1989 “until the Secretary [of State] determines that a democratically elected government has taken office.” The World Bank halted disbursement of $2 billion in financing for projects, the EU threatened to halt its own financial assistance, and the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership. Sudanese protesters calling for a restoration of the civilian government added to the pressure by turning out in large numbers in the capital Khartoum and several other cities on October 30.
Collectively, these responses offer some hope of compelling the coup leader, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to allow the peaceful restoration of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok’s civilian government. If Burhan does so, and assuming his various military and paramilitary allies concur, then the formation of a new “technocratic” government, as Burhan has proposed, is a likely outcome. But this kind of compromise would only restore an inherently unstable situation. Worse, it might merely delay the moment when the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and their allies see a more favorable opportunity to seize power again.
Supporters of Sudan’s democratic transition, both domestic and foreign, must therefore do more than ensure a return to the status quo ante. This requires addressing the economic and social malaise and regional grievances that underlie the country’s political crisis; but most immediately it means taking bold action to put its civil-military relations on a new path. Leading the way should be the pro-democracy parties and associations that will have to negotiate an exit for the coup leaders inside Sudan and the United States on the outside—backed by the African Union, the EU, and the UN. Wherever possible, regional neighbors like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) should also be engaged and ideally brought on board.
A Coup That Was Poorly Prepared
Swift action in line with a strategic vision will be crucial. Burhan and his fellow coup leaders may be better prepared politically next time. Not only did they badly handle discussions with U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman on the eve of their coup, deceiving him about their intentions, but nothing they have done or said since then shows that they anticipated such a hostile international backlash or were prepared to preempt or mitigate it.
It is equally obvious that the coup leaders also failed to realize that they would need to build an effective civilian coalition in advance, so as to legitimize and consolidate the coup in its immediate aftermath. There were obvious potential allies in the political parties that were already opposed to the Hamdok government, or ones that had recently broken away from the main government alliance, the Forces of Freedom and Change. However, the coup leaders seem to have relied exclusively on their own patronage networks so far, falling back on former supporters of ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir and assorted Islamists.
The very different course of the coup d’état–cum–popular revolution in Egypt in 2013 offers a striking contrast. There, the armed forces worked closely with civilian grassroots activists and allied parties over several months to be able to take power at the crest of the 2013 demonstrations by millions of Egyptians against then president Mohamed Morsi. That is why they had an interim president and a new government—all civilians—waiting in the wings. The SAF and its paramilitary and security allies behaved less carefully, doing little more than bussing supporters into the capital Khartoum a week ahead of the coup to call for a military intervention, where they were dwarfed by the much larger numbers of demonstrators who came out to support civilian rule.
Considerable obstacles stand in the way of a democratic transition. Most important of these are disunity within the pro-democracy camp and the presence of significant civilian constituencies that support the military. Various SAF factions have exploited these factors to mount seventeen coup attempts since 1956 by one count, of which five have been successful, and by some accounts Burhan may have been forced to act by military hardliners who might still push him aside if he compromises. Deep communal divisions across the country will impede every course of action, and not only for a civilian government. After all, the successive civil wars and internecine conflicts that are estimated to have left well upward of 2 million dead and led to the independence of South Sudan in July 2011 took place entirely on the watch of one military-backed regime in Khartoum or another. This alone should be a powerful argument for resetting civil-military relations.
The visible lack of preparedness of the coup leaders reveals their political ineptitude and suggests a sense of panic. More importantly, they have inadvertently provided the pro-democracy camp with an opportunity to retake the initiative and deepen the transition. The senior generals have demonstrated that they are very much a remnant of the Bashir regime, hence their fear of prosecution for war crimes committed during his time in power. The fact that one of Burhan’s first steps on taking power was to suspend the clause of the 2019 interim constitutional declaration establishing the so-called Nabil Adeeb Commission to investigate the violent disbanding of the civilian sit-in at the Army High Command in June 2019 directly speaks to this.
It is likely that Burhan and his deputy as chair of the Transitional Sovereign Council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, seek to protect themselves from prosecution after they leave office at the end of the transition in 2024. This fear is something that the civilian camp must address, and perhaps negotiate on, by (for example) leveraging an offer of protection to extract significant concessions on the transfer of military-owned businesses to civilian control and on the future status of the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which are commanded by Hemedti.
But in all cases, Burhan should be required to step down as chairperson of the Transitional Sovereign Council. The planned rotation of his post to a civilian, originally scheduled to take place in May 2021 and since delayed to an unconfirmed date between April and July 2022, should happen immediately. External actors should place this demand squarely on their agenda.
Just as importantly, Burhan should also step down as the SAF’s commander-in-chief, alongside a clean sweep of the SAF command, bringing in fresh blood. There is a real risk, however, that removal of the military’s old guard might simply pave the way for an ambitious younger general to take power, much like what happened with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. The dismissal of the entire leadership of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) and the appointment of Sisi as defense minister by Morsi in August 2012 positioned him to take power as the head of the EAF less than a year later. For this reason, Sudan should break with tradition and appoint a civilian as defense minister. Indeed, it might also revive the proposal made by an SAF general in the 1990s to eliminate the position of commander-in-chief—whose concentrated powers, he argued, facilitate coup attempts—in favor of a U.S.-style joint chiefs of staff.1
Civilian Rule as an Opportunity for the Military
Submitting to a civilian defense minister would go against the grain for the SAF. Indeed, the notion goes against the norm in many Arab countries, neighboring Egypt especially, where the constitution has gone so far as to reserve the post exclusively for EAF officers. To defuse opposition within the SAF, it is crucial to create different incentive structures to encourage a new generation of commanders—and the mid-level and junior officers below them—to see the benefits of working with, rather than against, civilian control. These may be summed up as increased professionalization, modernization, and addressing capability gaps. The goal is not to penalize the armed forces for the October 25 coup, as much as it is to show that the assertion of civilian control presents an opportunity for them as well and to give them a stake in the success of a democratic transition.
Replacement of the SAF command therefore needs to be accompanied by structural reforms designed to depoliticize the military, enhance its professionalism and esprit de corps, and address its capability gaps. Designing and implementing these broad aims will take time, and so an initial step could be to launch a defense white paper process that maps out policy options and specific measures. For some months, Hamdok’s office had been drafting a policy framework for security sector reform, and this process should be reinstated and expanded in scope and detail.
In the interim, preliminary reviews could be undertaken of select paths through which the SAF’s depoliticization, professionalization, and cohesion might be enhanced. These include entry to officer school (with an eye toward making the selection process more representative of Sudan’s demographics and geography), the composition of the ground forces’ brigades and their deployment rotations (with the purpose of diluting communitarian tensions among their personnel), the enlistment and training of noncommissioned officers (to encourage leadership), and pay and pensions as well as other conditions of service (to address equity issues and grievances, both internally and toward civilians). Together, these key ingredients of improved morale and motivation may help secure buy-in from the SAF officer corps and rank and file alike.
Demonstrating the benefits for the SAF of a different kind of civil-military relationship than Sudan has had without interruption since independence in 1956 will be slow and difficult. These efforts may be helped by dangling the extra carrot of forming a donor coordination body for international security assistance to help the SAF formulate and implement a multiyear capabilities development plan. This would also be an entry point to conducting a comprehensive review of defense spending, improving defense budget planning methodologies, and socializing the SAF into working with relevant government agencies such as the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the Cabinet Office.
The United States, the EU, the UK, and the UN could lead this effort in much the way they have done since 2013, with considerable success, for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Aside from holding out the promise of Western security assistance, this framework could be a vehicle for integrating the regional powers with the greatest stakes in Sudan’s stability—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All three countries are already invested in the Sudanese military, so inviting them to contribute training and funding through the proposed framework would not involve a major shift. Crucially, creating a tent and bringing them inside it may increase the chances that these countries will lend their weight to persuading the SAF to engage constructively.
Lastly, the March 2021 agreement between the SAF and the government on divesting the military’s numerous business interests in the civilian domain should be expedited. Military involvement in business is inimical to professionalism, so reinvigorating the divestment agreement benefits the SAF. Although the agreement was a positive first step, little progress has been made since then in terms of government access to data, let alone the actual transfer of military-owned commercial companies to its control. This process can be assisted, in part, by giving the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the Ministry of Trade and Industry immediate access to company books to assist their managers and accountants in inventorying, auditing, and market evaluation. Overcoming military resistance on this issue may also pave the way for the transitional government to assert control over the hundreds of civilian parastatals that do not submit their income to the state treasury, accounting for a large part of the 82 percent shortfall in government revenue.
How to Take on Hemedti and His Rapid Support Forces
A considerably thornier challenge consists of dealing with Hemedti, Burhan’s deputy as chair of the Transitional Sovereign Council. The RSF he commands has been accused of perpetrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur in 2015 and of spearheading the massacre of civilian protesters in June 2019, and Hemedti clearly colluded with Burhan in organizing the October 2021 coup. But the political reality of Hemedti’s tribal power base in Darfur, coupled with the constitutional fact that the RSF is a formally established state agency—having been elevated from a state-sponsored Janjaweed militia by Bashir, effectively putting it on par with the SAF—will complicate attempts to make him step down or neutralize his forces.
A start can be made, nonetheless, by having a restored civilian government repeal the order issued by Hemedti in June 2021 that designated the RSF as part of a joint force tasked with maintaining public order in Khartoum. Instead, the transitional government should invest in standing up the law enforcement capability of the police and other agencies reporting to the Ministry of Interior.
Like the SAF, the RSF has also developed significant commercial interests. These differ somewhat from the SAF’s holdings in that they are partly legal, albeit taking the form of private front companies owned by relatives of Hemedti or other RSF commanders, but they also include extensive black market activities. Hemedti and his officers should be presented with a choice: the RSF can be an official military force or a commercial enterprise, and they can be commanders or businessmen, but not both. In all cases, dubious commercial exploitation licenses awarded to RSF-affiliated companies should be reviewed, and revoked wherever appropriate, not least in the extraction and marketing of gold and other natural resources and principal exports such as sesame and gum Arabic.
More strategically, a review should be initiated with the aim of bringing the RSF in line with standard policies and regulations regarding enlistment, officer training, pay and pensions, and service conditions in the SAF. Its budgeting structure and financial management procedures should also be reviewed for alignment with those of the Ministry of Defense. Ideally, the process would start by revoking the RSF’s autonomous status under the Bashir-era constitution and placing it under the Ministry of Defense. This may have the added advantage of being regarded favorably by the SAF, which views the RSF as a rival.
In the longer term, other options can be considered for the RSF’s future, foremost among them the force’s integration into the SAF and other security services. This is what the transitional government promised to do with fighters of the various rebel groups with which it signed the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) in October 2020, and this is what will presumably also be offered to members of the other groups with which it has negotiated since then.
However, wholesale integration may cause more problems than it resolves. It is likely to result in a severely bloated military and security payroll in a country that can ill afford it, and such a move could undermine cohesion and generate political tensions within Sudan’s defense and security agencies. An alternative approach might be to accommodate paramilitary and rebel forces within a new, countrywide national or provincial guard structure established for this purpose, approximating the U.S. National Guard. Every option comes with political and financial costs, but the UAE’s special relationship with the RSF may offer a crucial entry point. This is an added reason for getting the UAE on board and giving it a stake in the success of the entire effort.
What External Powers Can Do
External actors are in an unusually good position to influence the course of events in Sudan if they align their policies and pool resources. An immediate objective should be to start shaping the expectations and incentive structures of key military and civilian constituencies. This can be done in three ways.
First, external actors should underscore the need to respect the timetable for the transition, starting with the transfer of the Transitional Sovereign Council to a civilian head. This also means scheduling the convention that is supposed to draft a permanent constitution and design the electoral system, which is to govern the parliamentary elections that, prior to the coup, were scheduled for July 2023. The external actors should, moreover, clearly signal their readiness to favor the preferences of the civilian component in the event of foot-dragging by the military, including the option of bringing forward any of the preceding dates. The purpose is to get the SAF to regard adherence as less costly than all the alternatives.
Second, outside countries can help defuse the political crisis in ways that drain support for military intervention. Stepping up economic support, debt relief, and targeted social assistance can alleviate the government’s acute financial problems while mitigating the impact on the population of the lifting of subsidies and other austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund and bilateral creditors. Help with footing the $13 billion bill of implementing the JPA, as well as technical assistance in demobilizing or integrating rebel groups, would further reduce tensions and neutralize potential spoilers. The civilian factions should additionally strive to improve their standing with rebel groups that currently support the military by proposing “a larger number of power-sharing provisions and the effective inclusion of previously marginalized ethnic groups,” as Nils-Christian Bormann and former transitional finance minister Ibrahim Elbadawi have recommended. The evident pro-military stance of some rebel groups has eroded their political capital, offering an opportunity to negotiate improvements on the JPA. Besides shifting the public mood, these measures would make it harder for the military’s old guard to justify standing in the way of the civilians, and these steps could possibly generate support for the transition within the military’s own ranks.
Last, but far from least, the United States and other principal supporters of the pro-democracy camp should lobby hard to get more reluctant regional neighbors on board. The demonstration of Western willingness to step up will in itself shape their perceptions. Now is a good time to influence the Sisi administration in Egypt, which is keen to preempt growing hostility in the U.S. Congress on Cairo’s human rights record, while both Saudi Arabia—which has a special interest in stabilizing the Red Sea—and the UAE have a chance to demonstrate their willingness to work with Washington on easing regional tensions. These three countries have the greatest stakes in Sudan’s stability, and efforts should be made to wean them off the notion that the way to achieve this is through yet more military intervention. Even relative neutrality on their part will help convince the SAF and RSF that they must moderate their own positions.
Sudan was hardly immune from regional geopolitics for the three decades of Bashir’s rule, but the country’s subjection to international sanctions kept it relatively insulated from the rest of the world. That isolation is now over. Domestic politics are in a state of flux not seen since the brief restoration of elected civilian government in the mid-1980s.
The main difference today, however, is the heightened role of Western governments. If these external actors can help engineer a better outcome and sustain it this time, then they should do so. For this to happen, they need a clear idea of what to seek and how to attain it. Failure to be proactive in advancing the democratic transition in Sudan at this moment would condemn the country to an even deeper crisis.
1 Brigadier-General Staff (retired) Ma'ash al-Sirr Ahmed Said, The Sword and Tyrants (Khartoum, Sudan: Global Company for Printing, Publishing, and Distribution, 2008).