On Monday, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan seized power from the transitional government in Sudan. International condemnation, while not uniform, was swift. Still, it has not stopped violence against civilians on the streets of Khartoum this week.
Mass protests planned for Saturday will be a test of wills. It is safe to bet on the Sudanese people to brave the threat of escalated violence. The question is whether political elites will follow up with the same degree of fortitude to push the junta toward the exits.
In the past two days, we have heard and read multiple reports of police chasing down youth to cut off their hair – a tactic used to shame and terrorize — even as those Sudanese citizens engage in limited movements to purchase basic staples for daily life. The military has deployed utility trucks and other heavy vehicles across Khartoum to remove barricades that youth members of the neighborhood resistance committees have been constructing as a form of protest and to protect themselves from violent clashes with state security forces.
Activists we spoke with early Thursday reported that security forces are not just seeking to clear protesters from the streets, but have chased them down, battering them with metal sticks, throwing tear gas, and firing live rounds at them. Their accounts are corroborated by statements from local medical personnel. As of late Thursday, Sudan time, at least 12 people have reportedly been killed and over 150 have been injured. This number is likely to be an undercount given that Internet shutdowns are making it difficult for Sudanese to get information out to the rest of the world.
This violence is disturbing in its own right, but even more troubling against the backdrop of the “march of millions” protest that Sudanese civil society has planned for Saturday. Burhan is likely hoping that the violence of the past few days will deter people from turning out on the streets. If so, he has probably miscalculated.
In an online forum with youth activists from the neighborhood resistance committees on Thursday, one young women urged: “If security forces shoot me during Saturday marches, please don’t even bury my body. You guys keep walking marching and get the perpetrators to prisons.”
The events of this week have been a long time in the making. The civilian-military power-sharing government that Burhan dissolved on Monday has been in place since the Sudanese people overthrew the thirty-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The power-sharing government was designed to prepare the country for democratic elections over a 39-month transitional period. For the first 21 months of the transition, the Sovereignty Council was to be led by Burhan; for the 18 months prior to elections, it was to be headed by a civilian.
Under the terms of the original transitional document, the change from military to civilian leadership was due to take place on November 17. That helps explain the timing of the coup this week. However, Burhan and his allies, including those from the former regime of Omar al-Bashir with a personal stake in returning to military rule, have been working to derail the transitional agreement for many months.
The most recent manifestation of this sabotage was in Eastern Sudan, where tribal leaders blocked the only national highway connecting the Red Sea Port and the capital. Wheat and fuel shortages followed, putting an already fragile economy in further jeopardy. While Burhan has blamed the transitional government for the deterioration in living conditions, many Sudanese believe that he was quietly nurturing the blockade. The partial opening of the Port the day after Burhan seized power adds credibility to this belief.
While Burhan and his allies have never been happy to share power with civilian leaders, the great majority of civil society has never been comfortable with anything less than full civilian control of the government. Until now, civil society has tolerated the transitional arrangement, accepting arguments about the need to be “realistic” with an eye to avoiding further bloodshed. But, through his actions this week, Burhan has demonstrated what Sudanese civil society was worried about from the outset: those who benefit from military dictatorship will never cede power to a fully civilian government.
The question ahead is whether those with political power – at the national, regional, and international level — possess the technical skills to maintain a strong negotiation position that meets civil society’s demand that the military be removed from the political scene. And do they have the political will to complement, if not match, the bravery and sacrifice of the Sudanese people?