Tensions between the civilian and military components of the transitional government in Sudan have been escalating since the failed military coup attempt on September 21. On Sunday, September 26, amidst the deteriorating security situation in capital Khartoum and other parts of the country, the police and soldiers guarding a critical government office were withdrawn at the order of Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah El Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). However, civilian protesters gathered in large numbers to provide security to building which has great symbolic and official significance.
Burhan is the president of the Sovereignty Council, the highest body in the transitional government. Following the failed coup attempt on September 21, Burhan accused the civilian leaders in the government of creating an environment which encouraged the coup by disrespecting the military and blaming it for the economic and security crisis in the country.
The coup was allegedly led by a faction in the army which continues to support the Islamist regime of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. He was ousted in 2019 as a consequence of the mass demonstrations that started with the December Revolution in 2018. Early on the morning of September 21, eyewitnesses saw frantic movements of military tanks between Khartoum and its twin city, Omdurman. The commander of the Armored Corps in Omdurman, Major General Abdalbagi Bakrawi and 22 other officers of different ranks were arrested. Reuters reported that they had tried to take control of state radio in this city.
“What happened is an orchestrated coup by factions inside and outside the armed forces and this is an extension of the attempts by remnants since the fall of the former regime to abort the civilian democratic transition,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said in a statement that day.
Burhan claimed that by thwarting this coup, the army had protected the Revolution from the forces of the former regime. However, he then proceeded to compromise the security of the very body tasked to dismantle the regime’s remnants, the Empowerment Dismantling Committee. This committee’s office was set up in the old parliament building, from where the declaration of independence was made.
On the morning of September 26, between 8 and 9 am, all the police and army soldiers guarding this office and the premises of 22 assets of the former regime confiscated by this committee were recalled, leaving it open to attacks.
“We requested the governor of Khartoum to dispatch forces as he is also the head of the Khartoum state Security Committee, but he indicated that there was already an order to withdraw the police forces from each site,” Salah Mannaa, a senior member of the committee, said in a press conference.
Revolutionary forces stand guard
With murmurs of a looming military takeover making rounds, members of the Resistance Committees, which had formed the backbone of the December Revolution, stepped in to protect the office.
“By 10 am, hundreds of comrades who stayed close by had flocked to the premises to guard it. There was no mobilization required, everyone knew what was to be done. It was spontaneous. With more and more people marching to the office in the following hours, the place was packed with revolutionaries by evening,” Rashid El Sheik, one of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) members who had stood guard at the premises, told Peoples Dispatch.
It is to be recollected that the SCP, the Resistance Committees, and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella organization of trade unions which had spearheaded the December Revolution, have been holding repeated demonstrations and protests since the formation of the transitional government.
These protests were directed not only against the military, but also against the civilian heads in the transitional government and the centrist political parties in the ruling alliance. The protesters alleged that these civilians sections made compromises and failed to stand up to the military, whose upper echelons remain dominated by members of Bashir’s regime.
“Bashir had a security council consisting of himself and 11 generals who were his confidants. Six of them, including Burhan, now sit in the sovereignty council,” Sheikh pointed out.
Another sovereignty council member is Burhan’s second-in-command, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo a.k.a ‘Hemeti’, who many argue is the most powerful person in the country. “Bashir used to refer to him as ‘my guardian’,” Sheikh said.
While Bashir stands trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide in Darfur, it was his main henchman Hemeti who had organized the region’s nomadic Arab herdsmen, called the Janjaweed, into a notorious militia – the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF was responsible for carrying out killings, rapes and burning of villages. Hemeti continues to head this militia as a force outside of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).
In 2019, following the overthrow of Bashir, the army had formed a junta to rule Sudan but was under immense pressure from a mass sit-in demonstration which had surrounded its HQ in Khartoum. The RSF was then mobilized to clear the sit-in, which resulted in the June 3 massacre. Surrounding the demonstration from all sides with machine gun-mounted pick-up trucks, the militiamen indulged in an orgy of violence – shooting, hacking with machetes, and raping the pro-democracy protesters who were demanding that the junta be dissolved and state power handed to a civilian administration. More than 100 were killed.
Compromises by centrist political parties
The resistance on the ground continued even after the massacre in the form of stay-home strikes and guerilla blockading of roads. However, the centrist political parties – which had until then stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the revolutionary forces – got cold feet and sought to negotiate a settlement with the military junta.
The power sharing agreement that emerged out of this negotiation made way for the formation of the transitional government in August 2019. The military generals hold half the seats, including that of the president, in the Sovereignty Council – the highest body of the transitional government. These members, including Hemeti, are immune from prosecution and cannot be held accountable unless their immunity is lifted by the Legislative Council. However, the very process of the formation of this council has been derailed.
In the civilian-dominated cabinet, the defense minister is not answerable to the prime minister, but to Burhan. While the finance ministry pays the salaries of the soldiers and the militias, it exercises no control over the businesses owned by the army. In an expression of helplessness as prices continue to spiral out of control, the PM recently revealed that up to 82% of the economy is controlled by the army.
It is not only the strategic industries that the army controls. “Even petty-production like the farming of tomatoes for local consumption is controlled by the army! Petty producers and small businesses are being put out of commission due to competition by army-owned businesses,” Sheikh explained.
“Military is destabilizing the country on purpose”
“The logic here is not simply to make profit; it is to control the livelihoods of the people, it is to wield the power to starve the masses,” Sheikh said. He further alleged that the army, since the formation of the transitional government, has been using this control to create a severe scarcity of essential commodities. Food items are becoming increasingly unaffordable.
“The purpose,” he said, “is to make lives unlivable” in order to spread disaffection against the transitional government. The army wants the security situation to deteriorate, with riots in the cities and armed tribal violence in the peripheries. Then, at a time when the masses are desperately crying for help before an impotent civilian cabinet, the army can step in “to bring the situation under control” by dissolving the government and usurping full state power again. However, he adds, this plot has become all too familiar to succeed.
Lessons learnt from previous revolutions
“The Sudanese people have learnt the lessons from the previous revolutions. The December Revolution was the third revolution in modern Sudan. The first was the October Revolution in 1964, when through civil disobedience the military junta was overthrown, and a civilian administration was put in place. But the revolution was not guarded. The revolutionaries had gone home, assuming the task to be complete and leaving the rest to the civilian government. By 1969, the military seized power again with a coup,” Sheikh said.
After a decade and half of ruthless military rule, the people took to the streets again in 1985, bringing down the junta. As in 2019, the centrist political parties struck compromises at a critical time and entered into a power sharing agreement, forming a government composed of both military and civilian leaders.
The government, in which the civilian forces had little power, was not able to address the crisis the masses were facing. It was overthrown by a coup in 1989, which brought Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir to power.
“It was 30 years before he could be overthrown,” Sheikh said. While the centrist parties yet again resorted to compromising with the military, the revolutionary forces, unlike in the previous revolutions, never demobilized, and continue to retain the capacity to take the streets in the event of a threat of military takeover, Sheikh added.
Thus, after the withdrawal of security from the Empowerment Dismantling Committee office on Sunday, hundreds amassed to guard it in less than two hours. Thanking them for their quick response, head of the committee, Mohamed al-Faki, who is also the spokesperson of the Sovereignty Council, said in his address that he was confident that the revolutionaries would spring into action.
Protesters ready for confrontation
Describing their action as a testimony to the readiness of the revolutionary forces, Faki said, “This Holy Place, where Sudan’s independence was declared, will be the center for confrontation if they (the generals) want it.” The proclamation was received with a chorus of revolutionary slogans.
The military appeared to take a step back after this show of strength and the police were sent back to guard the place. “However, the revolutionaries continue to remain on the premises to keep vigil all night,” Sheikh said.
Burhan and Hemeti continue to insist that they are on the side of the revolution, asserting that it was the army which thwarted the coup that could have brought the former regime back to power. However, Sheikh insists that the regime has never really been dissolved. He argues that it continues to exist today in the deep state and Burhan and Hemeti are its heads, waiting for a suitable moment to seize full state power.
“This reality is becoming clear even to the centrist parties, especially to their rank-and-file,” he argued said. “They are beginning to understand that the army can never be an ally in Sudan’s struggle for democracy.” The army’s withdrawal of security on Sunday to threaten the civilian forces in the government “has only rekindled the revolutionary fires and united the democratic forces in the country.”