It is hard to find anyone in Egyptian official circles who would use the word “coup” to describe this week’s military takeover in Sudan, despite the army dissolving the Transitional Council and government, and placing Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian leaders under arrest.
“Naming is not the point for us. We are concerned with what is going to happen now, and how it will influence the stability in Sudan,” said one government official when asked how Egypt is qualifying Monday’s developments in Sudan.
At the crack of dawn, and less than 12 hours after a demonstration in support of civilian politicians who were facing what the protesters said was “an anticipated coup”, Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the military head of the Transitional Council that has been running Sudan since the ouster of its Omar Al-Bashir, and Mohamed Dagalo, head of the influential Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF), issued orders to arrest leading members of the transitional government who have been squabbling with their military partners for at least a year. The move came after US Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman had held meetings in Khartoum to broker a deal to facilitate the remainder of the transition, including, according to some Western diplomatic sources, a delay in the handover of power from the military to civilian politicians originally scheduled for November.
According to one of the concerned diplomats and analysts in Egypt and Sudan who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, “what happened on Monday” came as no surprise.
“It has been brewing since the summer,” said Amani Al-Taweel, an analyst on African affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The two sides simply failed to reach agreement and things just hit a dead end.”
In a televised statement on Monday noon in which he announced the decision of the Armed Forces to take over the country in cooperation with the RDF and appoint a technocrat government, Al-Burhan said the move was intended to realise the goals of the 2019 December Revolution and preserve Sudan’s security and stability.
In remarks from Paris, Mohamed Al-Asbati, head of the influential Sudanese Professionals Union, disagreed. According to Asbati, Al-Burhan cannot argue that he is pursuing the aims of the December Revolution by executing a military takeover directed by senior military officials many of whom were closely associated with the regime of ousted dictator Al-Bashir.
Speaking on Monday evening, Al-Asbati anticipated a considerable push-back from the Sudanese people. His expectations proved right.
Following an appeal by the influential Forces of Freedom and Change, with the Professionals Union on board, tens of thousands of Sudanese took to the streets on Monday night. They condemned the takeover and vowed to continue their protest until Al-Burhan reversed his decisions.
On Tuesday morning, Reuters reported that seven people had been killed and 140 were injured in clashes between soldiers and protesters. And despite the blocking of the Internet and mobile networks, the protests were continuing.
Al-Burhan has come under international pressure to reverse his decision. White House Spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said: “We reject the actions by the military and call for the immediate release of the prime minister and others who have been placed under house arrest.”
The European Union said that it “condemns the detention” of Hamdok and other members of the civilian leadership, and called for their immediate release, adding that “the actions of the military represent a betrayal of the revolution, the transition and the legitimate requests of the Sudanese people for peace, justice, and economic development.”
The UN Security Council was scheduled to convene late Tuesday evening (East Africa time) to discuss Sudan behind closed doors. An informed Western diplomat said the council would avoid painting Al-Burhan in a corner while making it very clear that he must release Hamdok and other civilian leaders and enter a dialogue that will facilitate completion of the transition. Should Al-Burhan refuse, says the diplomat, Sudan is likely to lose much of the international economic support it was promised.
The Arab League has expressed “concern about the developments in Sudan”. A statement issued by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said it was “closely following developments in Sudan” and called on all “Sudanese parties” to “give priority to the higher interest of the country”, especially “stability and security”.
An Egyptian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that “the ups and downs and Sudan cannot go on forever without having an impact on the stability of the country and the entire region — and certainly on the stability of Egypt.”
The positions of Egypt and Sudan have grown closer over a range of strategic issues, including negotiations with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Indeed, Monday’s events unfolded as Egyptian and Sudanese military forces were participating in the Guardian of the South military drill which is scheduled to continue until 29 October at Egypt’s Mohamed Naguib military base.
According to Hani Raslan, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies, military cooperation between Egypt and Sudan is seen as crucial in Cairo.
At the outset of Sudan’s December Revolution in 2019, Cairo sided with the Sudanese military under Al-Bashir, only to recalibrate its position when Al-Bashir was ousted. Today, the Egyptian government official said, Cairo is taking care not to miscalculate, given that the situation in Sudan remains fluid.
The dynamics of the situation continue to unfold in international and regional capitals where there is little agreement on what constitutes the best scenario to get Sudan out of its political quagmire. Several influential regional capitals have suggested the US and EU “allow Al-Burhan a chance” given the “lack of agreement and competence” among the civilian leaders. The proposal has been greeted tepidly at best.
According to a Khartoum-based diplomat, the final scenario will be decided by the “the people on the street”.
Al-Asbati says the Sudanese public will not give up and calls for civil disobedience to protest against Al-Burhan’s decision will have a strong impact.
Wagdi Saleh, a Khartoum-based civilian politician, insists the volume of support for civilian politicians in Sudan far exceeds support for the military. It is an analysis others dispute, arguing that when push comes to shove the army can call on a large constituency.
“It is a tough situation,” says Sudanese historian Hassan Altom. He argues that while the civilians are not all on the same page, the military’s supporters, especially in Darfour and other parts of Sudan, have demands that Al-Burhan may not be able to fully acknowledge.
There is short term uncertainty ahead, says Al-Taweel, for even if Al-Burhan manages to persuade the international community to accept his “move” it remains unclear how things will unfold on the ground in a country that has had more than its fair share of conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly