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The street confronts the army

The military's power-grab after weeks of negotiations deepens the crisis over the country's return to constitutional rule

With his proclaimed dissolution of the transitional government in Khartoum and the arrest of the prime minister and other civilian leaders on 25 October, the armed forces commander General Abdel Fattah al Burhan is defying hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protestors as well as several regional and international organisations.

Next month, Gen. Burhan was due to hand over the chairmanship of the country's ruling Sovereignty Council to a civilian appointee. Hundreds of thousands of protestors across the country took to the streets, calling on the military leaders to make good on their commitment to transition.

This shift, said civilians in the transitional government, could have cleared away some of the military's blocks to reforming the judiciary and the security services as well speeding up the setting up of a legislative council.

Meeting in emergency session, the African Union's Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan's membership. Significantly, Egypt, until now regarded as one of Burhan's strongest supporters, didn't demur from the AU statement.

Thousands of protestors were marching across Khartoum within hours of the coup in the early hours of 25 October, some setting up barricades of burning tyres. Many were heading towards military headquarters, site of the mass occupation which preceded the toppling of President Omer el Beshir's Islamist regime in April 2019. Hundreds of soldiers and militia fighters have been patrolling the area, some firing live rounds and others lobbing tear-gas canisters at the activists.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was arrested along with his wife and several ministers, urged Sudanese to 'resist' peacefully, condemning Burhan's takeover as a 'rupture' of the 2019 accord between civilian and soldiers on the transition.

The Sudan Professionals' Association and Resistance Committees across the country, which led civil activists in the 2019 revolution, added their own call for mass protests and a general strike. Local groups are distributing timetables for street protests and preparing for mass nationwide demonstrations.

AU Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat tried to stop Burhan's putsch in its tracks, calling for the release of detained political leaders, strict respect of human rights and the resumption of negotiations between the civilians and the military on the transition.

The UN and the Arab League say they are 'concerned' about the takeover, calling on 'all sides' to respect the 2019 accord on the transition. This follows the United States' and the European Union's condemnation of the coup along with warnings that it would trigger the suspension of international aid.

The military's action came at the end of a weekend of meetings between the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, and sundry civilian and military leaders in Khartoum. US officials are said to be frustrated with Burhan for launching his putsch just hours after his meeting with Feltman, in which he reported his determination to reach a functioning agreement with civilians in the transitional government.

Given widespread domestic and international opposition to the coup, and the probability it will further damage living standards in the country, rivalries between the separate factions of the military and security services might worsen. So far, the usually taciturn Gen. Burhan has been the frontman for the coup.

Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', the former Janjaweed militia leader turned Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has taken a step back. This could be a tactical move should Burhan be dropped overboard like his predecessor, Beshir.

With his network of diplomatic contacts and ties to the leaders of several armed groups, Hemeti has shown some negotiating acumen over the past two years. Yet he shared the same fears as Burhan about the direction of the transition: that it would strip the generals of their access to state funding and practical immunity from prosecution for war crimes (AC Dispatches 19/10/21, Military faction fans crisis, trying to derail transition to elections).

Allying itself to the AU's condemnation of Burhan's coup is the Intergovernmental Association on Development (IGAD), the main regional organisation in the Horn and currently chaired by Sudan. Backed by the AU, it could play a mediating role in Sudan's crisis, although it found itself sidelined by Addis Ababa when it attempted diplomacy over Ethiopia's war in Tigray. Ethiopian Premier Abiy Ahmed will be watching developments closely in Khartoum. Burhan and other senior officers had been pushing for more aggressive action against Ethiopia over its territorial dispute with Sudan (AC Vol 62 No 2, Abiy risks more war).

At a training session for Ethiopian diplomats late last month, we hear, Prime Minister Abiy asked Redwan Hussien, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, whether he had known about the failed coup attempt in Khartoum on 21 September. Abiy shocked his audience by telling them that he had known about it two weeks before and criticised the foreign service for not being better informed.

In turn, Egypt wants a government in Khartoum that will unambiguously side with Cairo in its dispute with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile. So far, President Abdel Fatteh el Sisi seems to have calculated, like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that open support for Burhan's putsch could backfire.

First, there is the awkwardness of Burhan copying so obviously from Sisi's route to power via a coup d'etat in July 2013. But there are critical differences in Sudan. Most importantly, there is mass support for civilians in the transitional regime in Khartoum and widespread distrust of the army's high command and the Islamist factions aligned to it.

The next few days will prove critical for Burhan and his new junta. There is little sign that it has a plan other than regime survival in the face of widespread opposition. That suggests something akin to the junta in Myanmar but presiding over a more volatile situation and a crashing economy. Even the obvious supporters for Burhan's junta – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – are yet to offer any diplomatic support, let alone hard cash.

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