Last week’s foiled military coup in Sudan highlights the undeniable fact that Sudan’s democratic transition towards stability and economic prosperity is far from complete, and will need support from its Arab and African neighbours as well as the international community to succeed.
Sudan’s army leaders, who have been sharing power with the civilian political parties that led the revolt against former president Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, blamed army officers and civilians connected to the previous regime for the failed plot. After ruling the country for 30 years, the former president known for his sympathy with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group, installed and nurtured Brotherhood officials across all levels of government and security organs, including state and local levels. These elements of the previous regime were sidelined and seemingly removed from power by the revolution.
However, what is worrying is that Sudan’s military and civilian leaders do not seem to be reading from the same page, and have been trading blame as to who made the latest coup attempt possible. This is only two months ahead of the deadline for army leaders to hand over power to a government led by civilian political parties, according to the timetable agreed on by the two sides months after Bashir’s removal.
Army leaders criticised the civilian government led by Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok for failing to improve economic conditions, and the deterioration of security conditions in several Sudanese eastern regions. Top army commanders accused civilian leaders of being bogged down by personal and political battles. Civilian political party leaders rejected the criticism, and claimed the coup attempt was promoted by the military to gain domestic and international support so as to remain in control and delay handing over power to a civilian government in November.
Regardless of who engineered the coup attempt, it shows Sudan’s competing, disjointed centres of power and the contested nature of the transition. Sudan’s leaders, both civilian and military, face the unenviable task of trying to reconcile, outmanoeuvre and override these centres while not upending the transition itself.
Indeed the Sudanese government, led by Hamdok, faces enormous economic, social and security challenges after decades of conflict and Bashir’s failed and corrupt rule. Gains have been made to forge peace with some armed groups in war-affected areas, usher in economic reforms and bring Sudan back into international organisations and financial folds, especially after the United States agreed to remove Sudan’s name from its list of nations accused of supporting terrorism. Yet the Sudanese obviously expect more from the current transition government. The two components of that government, military and civilian, must work hard to preserve the unique arrangement resulting from the 2019 revolution, which was the only way to make room for progress.
Despite the ongoing exchange of critical statements, there remains hope that the failed coup, and any organised effort that spawned it, will inspire increased unity and positive actions by the civilian and military leaders. Delaying the plan to hand over power to a civilian-led government was likely one of the motives for the plotters, but if efforts to bolster up civilian and military unity succeed, it can show the transformational power of a civilian-military government as envisioned by the 2019 revolution.
Both components of the government are also required to continue working on establishing key transitional institutions, including the long-delayed legislative council, the constitutional court and judicial organs. These bodies will be critical to institutionalising governance reforms already underway and giving the country a real chance to provide justice to citizens subjected to decades of war and misrule. In the case of the legislative council, its creation is needed to give popular legitimacy and political direction to the transitional government’s decisions and provide space for other political and civic stakeholders to participate. The transition will never be complete without these institutions, and their absence leaves it vulnerable to events like the attempted coup.
As in any political transition in a deeply divided state, there must also be a clear role for the military, while in no way denying its crucial part in making the 2019 revolution a success and maintaining the country’s unity. Sudan’s challenges are not only economic and political. The growing tension with Ethiopia over border areas and the Grand Renaissance Dam is another reason why Sudan’s military and civilian leaders must maintain unity in the face of regional threats.
Sudan’s neighbours, and particularly Egypt, are ready to play any role that will help in achieving stability and prosperity in a country dear to all Egyptians. African nations and the international community also have an important role to play in shoring up support for Sudan’s government, in close partnership with Sudan’s diverse set of decision-makers. Sudan has already gone a long way since Al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019, but much more work is required to assure a smooth transition towards a stable government that will consider peace and economic prosperity in Sudan as its top priorities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly