The Coup in Sudan Can Be Stopped

The Coup in Sudan Can Be Stopped 1

On Monday, the Sudanese military launched a coup. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the military, seized control of the transitional government — which was established in the aftermath of the 2018-19 revolution that ousted the autocrat Omar Hassan al-Bashir — and announced a state of emergency. He took the prime minister captive and arrested numerous other cabinet ministers.

General al-Burhan justified the intervention by citing strife and deadlock within the transitional government, whose popularity has waned as the country’s economic conditions have deteriorated. But the real reason for the coup is likely to be more straightforward: General al-Burhan was due to hand over the chairmanship of the Sovereignty Council, the country’s collective head of state, as early as November. Clearly, he was not prepared to relinquish power.

Against a chorus of international condemnation, the military leaders have adamantly refused to back down. (They did release the prime minister, though he remains heavily guarded.) Instead, they have responded sharply to civilians who have protested the coup: At least 12 people have been killed and 150 injured by the security forces. The prospect of a return to military rule, with its repression, violence and tyranny, looms over Sudan.

But it’s not too late to stop it. Extensive popular protest, combined with concerted international pressure, could force the generals to step back. The counterrevolution can still be reversed.

The most obvious recent comparison, from the region’s many similar experiences, is far from promising: After a revolution in 2011, Egypt’s democratic transition was cut short by a coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But other uprisings, in Tunisia in 2011 and in Burkina Faso in 2014, have managed to avoid a return to military rule. (The Tunisian president’s recent assumption of executive power and suspension of Parliament, though troubling, was undertaken without help from the military.)

In all cases, the most decisive factor in whether a coup succeeded was the scale of the popular response. In Egypt, it was notably lacking. By mid-2013 the revolutionary coalition had fractured, with many members of the secularist wing openly backing the military. Supporters of the democratic government, including the Muslim Brotherhood, did mobilize in response to the coup, but their protests were unable to force the generals to relinquish power.

In Burkina Faso, the opposite was true. A year after the uprising, old regime officers attempted a coup — and were met with a fierce revolutionary response, including mass protests and strikes. The generals returned power to civilians a week later. In Tunisia, some activists clamored for military intervention in the summer of 2013. But most of the main revolutionary parties and movements resisted the temptation to turn to the military, and a coup never materialized.

There are reasons for hope in Sudan. For one, the fissures in the revolutionary coalition don’t seem to be nearly as severe as they were in Egypt. The coup appears to be supported by only a small number of parties and ex-rebel groups in the Forces of Freedom and Change, which led the civilian branch of the transitional government. The week before the coup, a sit-in at the presidential palace calling for military intervention drew limited numbers and was at least partly manufactured by the military itself.

Instead, the coup has been fiercely denounced by most of Sudan’s revolutionaries. Leaders from the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of labor unions, have used their widely followed social media platforms to call for peaceful protests. Others, including rebel leaders such as Abdul Wahid al-Nur and Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, have done the same.

Crucially, Sudanese citizens have answered. Protests erupted on the day of the coup, and since then there have been widespread work closures and civil disobedience campaigns. Many of the neighborhood resistance committees that organized local protests during the uprising have regathered. Activists are now planning for a nationwide protest on Saturday, which will demonstrate the full extent of opposition to the coup.

But protest alone may be insufficient. Threats of punitive action from influential foreign allies are vital, too. In the absence of a strong international response, counterrevolutionaries often feel emboldened to stay the course. The United States’ response to the 2013 coup in Egypt, for example, was tepid at best, and there is even evidence that some senior U.S. officials quietly encouraged Mr. el-Sisi to act. Little wonder he took no notice of calls to step down.

Again, the signs in Sudan are more encouraging. Many foreign powers have forcefully condemned the coup and the United Nations Security Council, which includes China and Russia, expressed serious concern. The United States backed up its strong words by suspending $700 million in foreign aid, something the European Union has threatened to emulate. Perhaps predictably, the statements issued by Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been far weaker.

The United States should do its utmost to avoid the mistakes it made in Egypt and lead the way. Cutting off aid is a promising first step but more is needed, such as sanctions that target the coup leaders directly. Washington must also use its alliances with Gulf powers to halt any support, not least financial, the coup leaders may receive from these governments.

Together, protest and geopolitics could combine to reverse the coup. A strong showing of popular discontent on Saturday would significantly increase the pressure on wavering generals — after all, it was the mass protests and sit-in of June 2019 that persuaded the military to begin a transition to civilian rule. If coupled with firm pressure from abroad, the generals may be convinced to back down.

The prospects for democracy in Sudan certainly look grimmer today than they did a week ago. But all is not yet lost.

Killian Clarke is an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Mai Hassan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

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