Sudan: An Islamist Power Grab
By Rebecca Tinsley
At dawn on October 25th, several civilian members of Sudan’s fragile transitional government, including the prime minister, were abducted by the military leaders with who they were in theory sharing power. Yet, it would be wrong to classify this coup as a simple military power grab. Behind the generals are the old guard from the former Islamist regime of Omar al Bashir. Their aims are ideological, personal and financial, and they would not have made this move without a green light from regional powers who could not tolerate the prospect of free and fair elections in an Arab country.
A popular people’s revolution overthrew Bashir in 2019. His former military backers offered him up as a scape goat, deflecting attention from their roles during decades of violence against civil society and Sudan’s Black African minorities. After the revolution, a transitional government was formed, consisting of an uneasy combination of civil society, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and the military, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Sudan watchers warned that the deputy chair of the Transitional Military Council, General Dagalo, known as Hemedti, would undermine the fledgling government. Hemedti began his career in the Janjaweed, the mainly Arab militia responsible for the genocide of Black African Sudanese in Darfur. He rebranded the Janjaweed as the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group involved in the brutal suppression of civilian protests in April 2019.
Hemedti is the link between the military and China, which has oil interests in Sudan and was a faithful backer of Bashir’s regime. Tellingly, while other international actors condemned the October 25th coup, China urged dialogue, not the reinstatement of the transitional government. Analysts say Hemedti has continued to sow discord, stirring up ethnic grievance to undermine the move to a free and democratic society.
In 2019, the transitional government inherited an economy in ruins. Sudan watchers say it has been sabotaged by elements of the old Islamist regime who had personal financial interests in businesses connected to corrupt government procurement and a web of military-owned companies. The old regime has also resisted the progressive drift of the transitional government (e.g. signing international laws on human and women’s rights, and overtures to Israel) and it has provoked economic chaos through currency manipulation.
Sudan specialist Gill Lusk believes the coup echoes the 1989 National Islamic Front coup, when those responsible “won valuable time to consolidate by making outsiders think it was only a military coup, not an Islamist one.”
Lusk continues, “Recent moves by the civilian cabinet to send Beshir [sic] and other leaders to the International Criminal Court for trial over genocide in Darfur threatened all senior Islamists, many of whom are in goal in Sudan. Once the evidence of their atrocities was exposed in public, they too could find themselves at the Hague or on trial in Sudan. It was time to act.”
Lusk says Sudanese she has talked to since the coup began “have in the main no doubt it was engineered by the previous regime…The signs had been there for some weeks, as known Islamists encouraged the blockade of Port Sudan, the only port, and of the Presidential Palace.”
Thousands of pro-democracy citizens responded to the blockade with counter demonstrations supporting the transitional government. According to Sonja Miley from the NGO Waging Peace, “As recently as September 21st a military coup attempt was foiled. Widespread press about this thwarted coup confirmed pleas from activists to the international community to pay attention to the undermining efforts of the military and former regime spoilers.”
However, Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces and their allies in the military and the old regime’s Islamists grabbed their chance on October 25th.
The Makings of a Regional Mess
China’s reaction, urging dialogue, is in stark contrast with the immediate condemnation offered by the Biden administration, the EU, France, Germany and even the normally cautious African Union and the Arab League. The USA has paused the transfer of $700 million of aid.
Sudan watchers fear that the military/Islamist coup would not have gone ahead without the approval of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter two bankrolled Bashir for years, and all three regimes have a vested interest in stopping Sudan’s planned elections. None of these countries want genuinely free and fair elections in a majority Arab and Muslim country.
Also of concern is the position of the South Sudan regime of President Salva Kiir. Kiir recently offered himself as mediator in the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. However, the Ethiopian leader, Abiy, rebuffed him. Kiir reportedly flew to Egypt, which is in a war or words with Ethiopia about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which, Cairo believes, will disrupt Nile water reaching Egypt. The Sudanese military is believed to have sided with Cairo in the GERD dispute.
Suzanne Jambo, leader of the South Sudan opposition group, STEPS, says, “We South Sudanese have strong historical cultural ties and share a lot in common with the Sudanese people. We therefore, and in the strongest terms, condemn the military coup against the will of the Sudanese people who mandated the transitional government in Sudan in 2019 that the military must step aside in November 2021 and pave the way for a full return to civilian government toward the democratic transformation of Sudan.”