Joseph Daher analyzes the current situation in Sudan after the military-backed coup last month.
One month after the first attempted coup, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), announced on October 25 a state of emergency, the dissolution of the transitional authorities, and the dismissal of regional governors with the clear objective of ending the revolutionary process in Sudan. The TMC, with its local, regional, and international backers, are attempting to put an end to Sudan’s revolutionary process.
General al-Burhan justified these measures, which are tantamount to a coup d’état, by pointing to the economic crisis, the need to “rectify the course of the transition,” and the preservation of the country from the risk of “civil war.” He added that the army would guarantee the establishment of a new government composed of “competent personalities” representing all political parties, until elections are held in July 2023.
Following the announcement of the coup, army soldiers rounded up Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, most of his ministers, and the civilian members of the military-led Transitional Council. In addition to arresting many civilian officials, the armed forces, seeking to muzzle any opposition to the coup, arrested political figures, activists, and demonstrators. As for the media, soldiers stormed the official news agency SUNA and the state television station, whose director, a supporter of civilian rule, was dismissed.
For several months, tensions between civilians and the military have only increased as the deadline set by the government of Abdalla Hamdok for the handover of the leadership of the Sovereignty Council from General al-Burhan to a civilian has approached. For the armed forces, the outcome of the transitional process would challenge their political and economic domination of the country.
The generals of the military and security services have broad control over key economic sectors in the country, running a network of companies with billions of dollars in assets. These military enterprises are involved in the production and sale of gold and other minerals, marble, leather, cattle, and gum arabic.
They are also involved in import trade – including control of 60 percent of the wheat market – telecommunications, banking, water supply, contracting, construction, real estate development, aviation, transportation, tourist facilities, and the manufacture of household appliances, pipes, pharmaceuticals, detergents, and textiles. An agreement was reached in March 2021 between the government and the armed forces for a gradual divestment of the army from the economic field and transfer of military companies to civilian state authorities, but no steps in this direction have taken place in the face of the army’s refusal.
The government had also taken steps to recover public assets seized by former senior officials. A committee established under the transitional charter to recover looted funds announced in April 2020 that it had taken back into public hands 20 million square meters of residential land, more than one million acres of agricultural land, and dozens of businesses from officials with close ties to former dictator Omar al-Bashir. All of this is very limited compared to the massive resources of the country’s military, security services, and militias.
In addition, many civilian leaders have not hesitated to publicly call for investigations into human rights abuses and large-scale corruption during the Bashir era, in which General al-Burhan and other members of the military, security, and militia forces played a central role.
Mistaken Strategies and Divisions in the Civilian Camp
The coup also comes at a time of continued weakening of the main civilian force within the transitional council, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition, which has disappointed the popular classes and their organizations. The FFC alliance has suffered increasing divisions since 2019 with some of its leaders even joining the pro-army camp following the coup.
The FFC leadership marginalized other currents that opposed dialogue with the army. Many sectors of the popular movement have criticized the coalition for seeking a modus vivendi with the armed forces rather than accelerating a real democratic transition and the removal of the military from political power. They have also opposed the FFC’s decision to delay the creation of a Transitional Legislative Council by more than two years.
The levers of political and economic power remain largely in the hands of members of the military and security establishment. The Prime Minister himself acknowledged in August 2021 that 80 percent of the companies controlled by the military were “outside the jurisdiction” of the Ministry of Finance and the civilian government.
This is in addition to the continued dominance of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), paramilitary militias led by TMC vice-president Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who has been responsible for numerous war crimes in Darfur and massacres of protesters. Drawing on his strong tribal base in Darfur and his close alliance with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, he projects himself into a prominent foreign policy role and is seen by some in Sudan as the country’s de facto strongman and president.
There is also dissension and rivalry between the RSF and the armed forces led by al-Burhan, although both are united in their efforts to crush the revolution. The RSF also run their own commercial companies, which like the armed forces, have taken advantage of the transition period to expand their economic activities. These two entities reportedly have more than 450 private companies and have also received large sums of money for the participation of their troops to fight alongside forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Libya.
Similarly, the FFC has been unable to improve the living conditions of the working class, which has deteriorated over the last two years. The Hamdok government had implemented severe austerity policies at the request of the International Monetary Fund, including cuts in subsidies, which have caused considerable suffering for the working and popular classes by sharply increasing the cost of living. Inflation now stands at 400 percent and almost half the population lives below the poverty line.
Regional inequalities are also persistent. For example, the crisis in eastern Sudan, the country’s commercial heartland, witnessed major demonstrations in September to protest social inequalities and lack of investment in the region, and demand for greater autonomy.
The east, which includes the Red Sea, Kassala, and Gadaref states, is a strategic area. It borders Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and has 714 kilometers of coastline where the country’s main shipping and oil terminals are located. In addition, it is home to Sudan’s golden mountains, five rivers, more than three and a half million hectares of agricultural land. Despite having all of these geopolitical advantages, the poverty rate is still higher than the national average, exceeding 54 percent, according to official statistics.
Finally, Sudan’s foreign policy following the fall of former dictator Omar al-Bashir has been redesigned by the military, resulting in closer ties with the U.S. As a result, Washington has removed Sudan from its list of terrorist states and pressured the country to normalize relations with Israel.
Sudan’s relationship with Russia has also improved considerably following the signature of a military cooperation agreement in 2019. In November 2020, the two countries inked a 25-year agreement that allows the construction of a new Russian naval base at Port Sudan that would host around 300 Russian troops.
With the backing of Russia and the U.S., the TMC and RSF reached a peace accord with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of several armed groups centered in the western Darfur region, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The participation of civilians in these agreements was limited, in part because they themselves left the army to manage the issue alone.
Massive Resistance from Below
Despite the TMC’s brutal repression, which has killed several dozen activists and wounded hundreds more, and shutdown of the internet, the popular classes have responded to the coup with massive resistance from below. Organizations and unions staged huge rallies, marches, and strikes throughout the country. In the capital Khartoum, demonstrators have set up barricades across the avenues to paralyze the country with a campaign of civil disobedience.
The backbone and real engine of this uprising against the coup is the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which unites a variety of workers groups and unions, the Popular Resistance Committees, and many other popular organizations. They worked together to organize mass protests on October 30 that rallied around four million people in nearly 30 cities across the country. Workers have staged strikes that have shut down the banking, transport, oil fields, and most public institutions.
The movement is calling for an immediate end of the coup regime, the transfer of power to civilian rule, and the release of political prisoners. Following the October 30 protests, the SPA has called for mobilization to achieve a list of radical demands:
- The overthrow of the military coup;
- The trial of the generals of the military and security forces for their crimes;
- The transfer of power to a civilian government without negotiation or partnership with the military and security forces and composed of ministers selected by the revolutionary forces fighting for radical change and the objectives of the December revolution (2018);
- The liquidation of the National Security Services, the dissolution of the militias, and the constitution of a professional national army with a doctrine based on the protection of people and borders, under the command of the civilian authority;
- The transfer of all security, military, and militia companies to the civilian authority and an end to the interference of these entities in economic and investment activities;
- Ending the interference of regional and international axes hostile to the Sudanese people and their aspirations in the management of internal affairs and the political process in Sudan.
The Resistance Committees have also issued similar demands. They have called for an end to civilian negotiations and partnership with the military, the conviction of generals for their crimes against the Sudanese people, the termination of the military’s role in the economy, and the replacement of the current regime with a new and sovereign democracy free from foreign intervention.
Between Counter-Revolution and Revolution
The TMC’s coup is backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and to a lesser extent Russia. The U.S., other Western powers, the African Union, and international organizations are calling for dialogue and would rather see a return to the interim government’s power-sharing agreement between civilian representatives and the military.
The popular movement, its organizations, and unions oppose both options—the coup and any return to the interim government’s intolerable status quo ante. Instead, they are determined to continue the revolutionary process, win the emancipation of the country’s popular classes, and establish popular democratic control over the whole of Sudanese society.
The TMC will never relinquish power gradually as the FFC has hoped. It was always going to resist such a transition with brutal violence, now on display throughout the country. Only the mobilizations and self-organization of the popular movement will enable the Sudanese popular classes to build a counter-power to overthrow the coup regime.
The fate of the revolutionary process in Sudan will undoubtedly influence similar ones throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Their destinies are linked in a common struggle against the region’s capitalist states. The Left, popular organizations, and unions throughout the world must stand with their struggle and against all regional and imperial intervention to stop Sudan’s revolutionary uprising against the coup.
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Joseph Daher is a Swiss-Syrian socialist and scholar. He is the author of Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God (2016) and Syria after the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience (2019).