Could Sudan coup lead to another Arab Spring?
9 Nov 2021|

The Sudanese crisis is an epitome of the ongoing struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and those of pro-democracy change that has come to feature in many states of the Arab world for more than a decade now. In Sudan, where mass protests led to the outer of long-term dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the generals have decided to backtrack on military–civilian transitional rule and the public stands determined to see a democratic transformation of their country. How this struggle is handled, and what the outcome is, carry serious implications for authoritarian and concealed authoritarian regimes in the Arab domain.

Sudan has had a turbulent history since its independence in 1956, when the Anglo-Egyptian condominium control of the country ended. It has persistently been in conflict internally and vulnerable to outside pressure and interference. It was ravaged by a civil war for a long time, which finally resulted in the Christian majority South Sudan gaining independence from the Muslim dominated Sudan in 2011, although hostility and resource disputes linger between the two sides. The country entered an evolving phase from Sunni Islamist to semi-Islamist under General al-Bashir, who assumed power in a coup in 1993.

The architect of the coup was Hassan al-Turabi, a colourful and eloquent radical Islamist scholar and leader of the National Islamic Front. Turabi oversaw controversial Islamist policies, including the institutionalisation of sharia law and transformation of Sudan into a somewhat radical Islamist state. Osama Bin Laden was a welcome guest in Khartoum for two years after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1994 and before he returned to Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-1996. Also, Sudan’s relations with Iran strengthened. These developments proved to be annoying to the largely secularist Egypt under Husni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule and to Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, which viewed any form of radical Islamism and the Sudani–Iranian linkage as contrary to their interests.

However, Turabi’s Islamism wasn’t to last long, as his relations with al-Bashir began to sour after 1996. Al-Bashir and a number of other pragmatic leaders weren’t prepared to endure UN sanctions due to Sudan’s assistance, possibly under Turabi’s influence, to the Egyptian Islamic jihad, which had sought to assassinate Mubarak.

Al-Bashir marginalised Turabi in favour of his personalised semi-Islamist dictatorship. His rule was not only haunted by civil war but also characterised by repressive measures, corruption, maladministration, human rights violations, and social and economic inequities. He was shaken by the popular uprisings, commonly dubbed the Arab Spring, a decade ago, but survived with backing from like-minded regimes in the Arab world, despite having been issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court of Justice in 2009 for crimes against humanity.

By 2019, the Sudanese people had had enough of al-Bashir’s rule. Widespread public protests caused his generals to remove him from office and form a transitional military council with the promise of civilian rule, but essentially designed to protect the interest of the military as the pivotal force in the Sudanese landscape. However, the ensuing struggle between the military and civil society prompted the council to agree to the establishment of a joint transitional government, composed of a civilian cabinet, headed by a civilian prime minister, and a sovereignty council, chaired by the military.

The sovereignty council, led by General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of state, appointed Abdallah Hamdok, a highly experienced administrator who had served in several national and international positions, as prime minister. Under a draft constitutional declaration, general elections were scheduled for late 2022, in which members of the council and other current senior office holders couldn’t run, to complete Sudan’s transition to a democratic future.

Yet the military, reportedly backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which has used its financial largess to influence the processes of democratisation in accord with its preferences in the region, grew weary of losing its grip on power. In late October 2021, al-Burhan staged a coup deposing Hamdok, arresting members of his cabinet and declaring a state of emergency, and postponed the elections to 2024. This not only outraged the Sudanese people but was also widely condemned by the international community, led by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. The African Union suspended Sudan’s membership and the Arab League expressed deep concerns. Although Egypt remained mute, the UAE and Saudi Arabia also called for civilian rule.

With the Sudanese public reviving their mass protests and international pressure mounting, al-Burhan has claimed that Hamdok hasn’t actually been arrested but is confined to the general’s house and is free for consultation. He has also released four cabinet members.

Indeed, not all coups succeed. If the Sudanese people maintain their rage, as determined as they are, and if the outside world remains supportive of their struggle, the prospects for the military to compromise appear likely. A win by the people is bound to reverberate across the Arab world, where a state–society dichotomy stubbornly underlines long-term structural instability. It could usher in another phase of the reform which started with the Arab Spring but petered out in the face of the prevalence of the forces of the status quo.