Sudan’s coup leader has sworn to return the country to an elected administration. However, Abdel-Fattah Burhan has a slew of strong backers, including Gulf states and a notorious Sudanese paramilitary leader, and he looks determined to keep the military in check.
Burhan rose to prominence in 2019 after he and other top generals deposed Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years, in the face of widespread protests.
He stayed in control for several months, until international pressure led the military to make an agreement with the demonstrators on a power-sharing arrangement. This constituted a hybrid civilian-military Sovereign Council led by Burhan, which intended to administer Sudan until the 2023 elections.
Burhan’s record was relatively clean, and unlike al-Bashir and others, he was not charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the Darfur crisis in the early 2000s. During al-military-Islamist Bashir’s dictatorship, he was a rare non-Islamist among the senior generals. Sudan was able to rise from its worldwide pariah position under al-Bashir as a result of this.
Burhan took away the last remnants of civilian government on Monday. He disbanded the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, imprisoned Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other officials, and imposed martial law. Hamdok was released on Tuesday, while the others are still being held.
Burhan, 61, was set to be replaced as chairman of the council by a civilian only weeks before the coup. He has stated that after a government is elected in July 2023, the military will relinquish power.
Civilian rule would not only weaken the military’s political authority, but it would also jeopardize its vast financial resources and potentially result in prosecutions for previous human rights atrocities.
Egypt, led by a general-turned-president, and Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates, have backed Burhan in recent years. He attended Egypt’s military college and has paid many trips to Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s de-facto ruler, since 2019.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the foreign minister of regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia regarding Sudan, demonstrating the Gulf nations’ significant behind-the-scenes involvement. Both men decried the military coup, according to a State Department statement.
Egypt and several Gulf nations avoided denouncing the coup on Monday, instead asking for calm and discussion.
“Most people want a strong military leader who is also extremely transactional. “That matches Gulf interests better than a democratic administration,” said Cameron Hudson, a Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a former US State Department official.
“They’re afraid of what an Arab Spring success story looks like,” he added, alluding to the 2011 revolutions that sparked the Sudanese demonstrations.
Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the Rapid Support Forces — a paramilitary squad that came out of the al-Bashir-backed Janjaweed militias renowned for massacres and rapes during the Darfur crisis — is also standing by Burhan.
RSF fighters played a key role in Monday’s coup, assisting in the arrest of Hamdok and other top officials as well as policing the streets. According to Suliman Baldo, senior consultant at The Sentry, an investigative and policy organisation focused on war crimes in Africa, the force is effectively a “de facto parallel army of tens of thousands of battle-tested militants.”
Burhan and Dagalo, sometimes known as Hemedti, have a long history together. Burhan was a commander in Darfur, where the military and RSF fought a deadly rebellion, according to Baldo. In a campaign of widespread rape and cruelty, up to 300,000 people were slaughtered and 2.7 million were uprooted.
He distanced himself from the killings, telling the BBC, “I am not accountable for any terrible activities in Darfur… I am not responsible for any negative actions in Darfur…” In my opinion, I was fighting an enemy in the same way that all conventional soldiers do.”
Burhan and Dagalo worked together in 2015 to plan the deployment of Sudanese troops and RSF militants to Yemen to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Their soldiers got large sums of money from the Saudis and Emiratis, strengthening their ties with the two leaders.
Burhan and Dagalo defied instructions to brutally remove the protestors during the rebellion against al-Bashir, and even visited with them at their sit-in camp. Behind the scenes, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates pushed for al-removal. Bashir’s
After al-collapse, Bashir’s however, protests persisted, with demands for the military to step down. The demonstrators were assaulted by police personnel and RSF combatants on June 2, 2019. More than 100 individuals were slain, and scores of women were raped by soldiers. Prosecutors accused paramilitary troops, but demonstrators saw Burhan and Dagalo as victims of the carnage.
“Burhan was culpable because he was the leader,” claimed Osman Mirgany, a journalist and editor for the daily al-Tayar in Khartoum. “He vowed not to interfere with the sit-in, but then there was a slaughter.” People recognized he would never follow his commitments after that.”
Burhan’s assurances of civilian control are met with mistrust by the military’s opponents. According to Baldo of the Sentry group, both the general and Dagalo want to be free of civilian scrutiny.
Furthermore, he stated that they are “worried about being held accountable for horrific crimes perpetrated under their leadership” in Darfur and the 2019 sit-in rapes and deaths.