The Sudanese people this weekend delivered the world a masterclass in nonviolent resistance. They flooded the streets on Oct. 30 in peaceful protest against the coup launched by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan less than a week earlier. “No for military rule, yes for civilian rule,” their banners read, in demonstrations across Sudan, including in Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, Kassala in the east, and Nyala in the west. Protestors carried placards in support of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, who the military currently has under house arrest.
As Burhan must now realize, he gravely miscalculated the strength and determination of the Sudanese people. Before the coup, parts of civil society were frustrated with Hamdok’s government, believing that it was too slow to fulfill the demands of the revolution that overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Burhan’s power-grab, though, has reunified the street behind Hamdok.
The protests, which were organized despite an Internet blackout, operated alongside a campaign of civil disobedience, rolled out across Sudan in response to the coup. In the past week, shops, schools, and banks have all been shuttered, and government workers stayed home in support of the nationwide strike.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, I noted key short-term indicators of democratic survival. Two of those indicators have been resolved decisively against the coup, and one remains in play for the coming period:
- Strength of citizen protest: With Saturday’s turnout, Sudanese civil society demonstrated the huge amount of power it wields. If Burhan thought he could copy the playbook of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and sell his actions as responsive to the will of the people, the Sudanese street has proven him resoundingly wrong.
- Unity of regional and international condemnation: Here too, events of the past week have been quite encouraging. The U.S., the U.K., the European Union, and the African Union all lined up swiftly in opposition to the coup. As anticipated, Russia pulled the U.N. Security Council back from outright condemnation. Other anti-democratic states that Burhan is counting on – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E. – tried to get through the week without committing to either condemnation or endorsement. In terms of the overall diplomatic landscape, though, it is fair to say Burhan ended the week more isolated than he had anticipated.
- Willingness of the army to use force and defections: During the Saturday protests, joint security forces fired live rounds at protestors in certain areas. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors reported that three protestors were killed, and over 100 were injured (a senior U.S. official has reportedly estimated the death toll to be 20-30 people). The casualties thus far, while unacceptable, are nothing close to what it could look like if the full force of the state was unleashed against civilians. That outcome remains a possibility. International insistence on the right of peaceful protest must remain resolute.
In the week ahead, the following will be important indicators to monitor:
Information Flow from Outside of Khartoum
It is critical that the international community pushes to get better information about what is happening outside of Khartoum. Youth-driven neighborhood resistance committees have done a remarkable job of working around the Internet shutdown to get documentation of human rights violations out to the world. But the content is still weighted heavily in favor of the capital.
Civilians outside of Khartoum, including in Darfur, The Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, are hugely vulnerable both in terms of immediate humanitarian needs, and direct violence. Burhan is intimately familiar with the tactic, well-honed during al-Bashir’s reign, of scapegoating citizens in these so-called peripheral regions to deflect attention from political strife in Khartoum.
One point that has yet to be highlighted in the media, is that the U.N. Security Council’s referral of the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no expiration date on it. Crimes against humanity committed in the coming period in Darfur still fall within the court’s temporal jurisdiction. Burhan and his deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, who heads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, should be on notice that the ICC can hold them accountable for Darfur atrocities committed by their forces in the weeks ahead, without any additional action from the U.N. Security Council.
Arrests of Activists/Prison Releases of Islamists
Reported arrests of civil society leaders are growing. Well-known organizer Nazim Sirag, who has done vital work arranging medical care for wounded protesters, was arrested on Oct. 29, the day before the protests. The pro-democracy movement has intentionally avoided a centralized structure so that the arrest of a single leader would not stop its work. Still, Sirag’s arrest indicates that Burhan and his allies are now willing to target even those with a high degree of visibility and international support.
Meanwhile, the day after the protests, reports spread that Burhan had ordered the release of prisoners closely associated with the former regime, including al-Bashir’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, and hardline Islamic cleric Mohamed Ali Jazul. Presumably Burhan hopes these releases will solidify his support among members of the former regime, all of whom have a vested economic interest in military rule. This complicates, though, his pitch to his allies in the Gulf that he can keep a lid on Islamist forces in the region.
Willingness of the Army to Use Force and Defections
This stays high on the watch list. The strength of opposition from civil society has made a mockery of Burhan’s effort to paint the coup as a mere course correction – Sudanese made clear they don’t believe him. The massacre of protestors on June 3, 2019, is an ever-present reminder of what is possible, and many fear it is only a matter of time. To date, reports of violence seem to point to RSF and police units as the perpetrators, more than regular Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). If that trend continues, it would indicate a growing rift between the mid-level soldiers in the SAF and the RSF militia under Hemeti’s control.
In addition to the above three indicators, it will be important to monitor the impact of the Internet blackout and general strike on the Sudanese economy. Rumors were circulating late Sunday in Khartoum that Burhan was going to try to force the banks to open. The current state of affairs brings immense hardship to ordinary Sudanese, but it is painful to the economic interests of the military leadership as well.
Finally, Hemeti was notably absent from Burhan’s press conferences last week. This, however, should not be read to imply that Hemeti opposed the coup. Governing Sudan without meaningful civilian interference is undoubtedly his ultimate goal. But remaining behind the scenes until it is clear which direction events will take is an approach Hemeti played to great personal advantage during the overthrow of al-Bashir, and is likely repeating here. With Burhan’s gamble that he could remove civilian power without resistance having clearly failed, all eyes should be on Hemeti’s next move.