by Neville Teller
On October 25 Sudan’s military, under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power and placed the country under martial law. Less than a month later there are strong signs that Burhan may have bitten off more than he can chew and is starting to regret masterminding the coup.
It was in some ways quite unnecessary. Even before he acted, Burhan was the most powerful man in the country. He was head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, representing the military arm in the country’s civilian-military collaborative administration. His role, which was perfectly legitimate, was embedded in the power-sharing agreement of August 2019 between the military and the civilian element within Sudan, notably the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a loose coalition of civilian groups.
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That agreement had emerged after the overthrow of Sudan’s longtime autocratic leader, Omar al-Bashir, in a popular uprising. Under its terms the country was to be governed by a coalition of military and civilian powers who pledged themselves to move the country in an orderly fashion toward democracy, and to parliamentary elections in 2023.
However, popular feeling had grown increasingly impatient with the administration’s failure to deal with the country’s severe economic problems and the obvious lack of progress toward any form of democracy. Relations between military and civilian leaders within the Sovereign Council worsened. On October 22 national frustration erupted in a mass protest in the capital, Khartoum, estimated at a million strong, in support of civilian rule.
Three days later Burhan dissolved the country’s civilian cabinet, arrested prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and other leading figures, and declared that the country was under military governance. Any hopes he may have cherished of quickly consolidating his seizure of power were quickly shattered. He was faced with instant and near-universal condemnation. The UN, the African Union (AU), the Arab League, the eight-country African development body Igad, and Sudan’s Western donors – including the US – all called for the return of Sudan to civilian rule.
Within the country, popular opposition to the military takeover rose to boiling point. Ever since, pro-democracy protesters have been out in the streets ever since in a series of mass demonstrations demanding a return to civilian rule.
Burhan has begun to pull back. On November 4 he spoke on the phone with US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. “The two parties agreed on the need to maintain the path of the democratic transition,” said Burhan’s office immediately afterward. Burhan then ordered the release of Hamdok and other government ministers he had deposed in the coup. Nureldin Satti, Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, said somewhat prematurely in a television interview “the coup is over,” maintaining that the pressure of condemnation from within and outside Sudan was too great for Burhan to resist.
Meanwhile prime minister Hamdok, who had been allowed to meet with UN and international diplomats as part of mediation efforts to return the country to stability, was demanding a reversal of the coup as his condition for any further negotiations.
Sudan is of course one of the four Arab countries that signed up to normalize its relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords, although final ratification is still awaited. Naturally enough, since Burhan was head of the Sovereign Council, the normalization initiative had been led by the military, with Burhan himself playing a leading role. The civilian arm of Sudan’s administration is thought to have been less keen on the move. As a result, Israel finds itself in a unique position. It has a strong working relationship with the very sector of the administration that carried out the coup – a point that has not escaped the attention of the US.
Shortly after the military took over the country, Washington is reported to have requested Israel’s help in calming the situation. According to Israeli and US officials, Blinken asked Israel to encourage the Sudanese military to restore the country to stability. He also said that obviously the normalization process with Sudan could not go ahead until a legitimate administration was re-established.
The US message was in complete accord with Israel’s own best interests. Doubtless anxious not to jeopardize the ratification of its normalization deal with Sudan, Israel has so far issued no official reaction to the coup. It will be keen to re-establish as quickly as possible both the civilian-led government, and the collaborative military-civilian administration, while doing nothing to sour relations with Burhan.
Accordingly an Israeli delegation is reported to have visited Sudan and met with military leaders involved in the coup, among them Abdel Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, a prominent general and close ally of Burhan. Dagalo was part of a Sudanese military delegation that visited Israel several weeks earlier. This working relationship has given rise in some media to speculation that Israel was somehow complicit in masterminding Burhan’s coup – a conspiracy theory that does not hold much water. With normalization signed but not yet sealed, there would be little to Israel’s advantage in helping establish an unstable, illegitimate regime against mass popular opposition. As Israel has shown over the past year, it is more concerned with helping to stabilize Sudan’s economy, which is relatively underdeveloped compared with other members of the Abraham Accords.
US envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, said in a briefing with reporters on November 2 that Burhan and his supporters in the military had “hijacked and betrayed” the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.
“The world is watching,” said Feltman. “The military can’t choose its civilian partners in the transitional government. They need to work together.”
Burhan, it seems, is getting the message. In a broadcast interview on November 7 he committed himself to a peaceful transition to civilian rule, indicating that he will not hold a government position afterward. “We are committed to handing over power to a civilian government,” he said. “We will honor our pledge, the pledge we made to the people and the international community, that we are committed to completing the transition [and] holding the elections as scheduled.”
Israel is doubtless striving behind the scenes to ensure this desirable outcome.