What Happened?

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok announced his resignation on January 2, in a speech marking the country’s Independence Day, citing the failure of his efforts to bring about a national political consensus “necessary to achieve the security, peace, justice, and averting of bloodshed that we promised citizens.” Hamdok had previously been forcibly removed from office in the coup mounted by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) on October 25, 2021, but was reinstated following the compromise deal he reached on November 20 with coup leader Lieutenant General Abdul-Fattah al-Burhan, SAF commander in chief and head of the ruling Transitional Sovereign Council. Sudan’s multifaceted political, economic, and social crisis has only intensified since then, throwing the country’s fragile transitional process even further into doubt.

As part of his understanding with Burhan, Hamdok was to lead the civilian government until general elections scheduled to be held in July 2023. This immediately ran into difficulty, as Burhan insisted on the formation of an apolitical cabinet of “technocrats,” excluding the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the main civilian coalition in government in 2019–2021, and polarizing the political arena. It was partly due to the frustration of his efforts to form a new government that Hamdok finally threw in the towel. Although his resignation speech seemed to apportion blame for the impasse equally to “all components of the transition,” he hinted broadly at military responsibility for the collapse of the initial “concord between the civilian and military components … which did not endure at the same level of adherence and harmony it started with … [leading to] an accelerating pace of distance and division between the two partners.”

It is clear that Hamdok chafed at the military’s attempt to restrict his powers, in violation of Burhan’s commitment under the so-called Framework Agreement of November 20 that the Transitional Sovereign Council would not interfere with the executive branch. Hamdok was initially able to order a review of dismissals and hiring in the civil service and transitional bodies that had taken place after the coup, but this had no visible effect. To the contrary, the antimilitary news website Al-Rakoba reported that the prime minister’s resignation was triggered by the military’s insistence on vetting civilian appointments after he had assigned deputy ministers and directors general to various ministries, and reinstated ambassadors who had been dismissed by Burhan following the coup.

In contrast, a decree issued by Burhan on December 26 awarded the state’s official forces judicial powers of search and arrest, as well as the authority to seize funds and other assets and to prohibit or control the movement of people. Notably, these powers extended to the detested General Intelligence Service, largely restoring it to the previous role it had played under deposed president Omar al-Bashir. Burhan’s decree moreover granted legal immunity to all regular forces’ personnel for their actions since the coup and for the duration of the state of emergency declared on October 25.


Why Is It Important?

Deep political polarization, sharp disunity within the civilian camp, and the fundamental incompetence of the military make it probable that Sudan will remain mired in a dangerous impasse.

Hamdok lost considerable credibility within the diverse and often fractious prodemocracy camp for accepting Burhan’s terms to be reinstated as prime minister last November, and thus seeming to legitimize the coup. His resignation may partially restore his standing, even as it may also improve his ability to leverage some concessions from the military in a new bargain that sees him return to office once more. But wherever he lands next, the political situation is likely to keep unraveling. Grassroots “resistance committees,” which reappeared during the 2019 uprising and have spearheaded mass prodemocracy protests since the coup, have borne much of the brunt of security sweeps and repression. They are in no mood to heed Hamdok’s exhortation that “living for higher goals is no less honorable than dying for them,” nor to soften their demands for the military to cede power completely and to be held fully accountable for various crimes.

Burhan is determined nonetheless to create a civilian facade that he hopes will help legitimize military rule domestically and ensure a resumption of international aid and credit flows. This is crucial for a country lumbered with over $60 billion in debt, pervasive corruption and mismanagement, and an economy in shambles after decades of international sanctions. It also poses a dilemma. Burhan’s easiest course of action is to ask parties previously excluded from the FFC-dominated cabinet—such as the Democratic Unionist Party and Sudan Call, which formed the National Movement Forces coalition in late December, and the National Charter group that broke away from the FFC—or those that advocate continued dialogue—principally the National Umma Party—to form a new government.

But Burhan realizes that this is unlikely to convince the United States, the European Union, or other donors to release pledged assistance, as they made this contingent on the Hamdok’s reinstatement after the coup. Hence Burhan’s continued insistence on forming an “independent” government of “technocratic professionals” (kafa’at). Yet even Hamdok’s return would be a poisoned chalice. Virtually all the security, economic, and political reforms for which he called in his initiative of June 2021, published as “The National Crisis and Issues of Transition: The Way Forward,” are unpalatable to Burhan and his various military and paramilitary allies.

Despite their advantage in deploying the means of organized violence, Burhan and his allies painted themselves into a corner by mounting a coup. Ironically, the 2019 interim agreement offered them enough leverage both to preserve core interests of the military and to secure amnesties for themselves, while allowing them to place the burden of responsibility for steering the country through painful financial austerity measures and economic reforms on the shoulders of the civilian transitional government and principal political parties. By taking complete power, Burhan and his allies instead put themselves in a position where they are fully responsible for everything, and yet incapable of providing it. There is nothing in their history as part of the Bashir regime and its wars in south Sudan and Darfur to suggest they are genuinely committed to democratization, nor have any idea of how to address the country’s challenges.


What Are the Implications for the Future?

Burhan and his allies seem not to have clear goals beyond preserving their autonomy and impunity, which effectively means restoring the pre-2019 status quo ante. For now, at least, this includes the deputy chairperson of the Transitional Sovereign Council, Lieutenant General Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the commander of the notorious Rapid Support Force, but this could change, for example, in response to shifting sentiment in the provinces where his power base lies, or to policy prompts from his principal external backer, the United Arab Emirates.

The military will probably try to sit out the immediate crisis, much as their Algerian counterparts did in response to their country’s parallel uprising of 2019. A largely passive strategy runs the risk of seeing Sudan’s multiple simmering conflicts and communal grievances come to a boil: Dozens of civilians died in restive Western Darfur province in December, while secessionist sentiment grows in the east.

If Burhan is far-sighted, he might attempt to follow the path of the Egyptian Armed Forces. They exploited the disunity and self-serving behavior of civilian political parties after Egypt’s 2011 uprising to build public support for military rule, and then secured constitutional amendments awarding themselves the permanent right to intervene in politics whenever they deem necessary, while leaving daily governance to politically powerless civilians. But even this stark prospect would require Burhan to provide better management of the economy and public finances than he is capable of. However, the inability of Sudan’s prodemocracy camp to generate sufficient unity of purpose and leadership may allow an otherwise fumbling military leadership to stumble into a broadly similar outcome as in Egypt.