The recent violent crackdown on demonstrators in Khartoum by Sudan’s military and its suspension of talks with the civilian protest leadership have many parallels with Egypt’s tumultuous summer of 2013. It is also probably not a coincidence that this crackdown occurred soon after leaders of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) held talks with leaders from the region, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who have restricted political space and arrested many political dissidents in their own countries. The chief of Sudan’s TMC, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, may have gotten a green light for such harsh policies from these leaders who fear that the success of the democratic movement in Sudan would have a spillover effect beyond its borders.
Although the civilian opposition groups were able to stage a general strike on June 9 that left much of Khartoum shut down, they are up against formidable domestic and regional forces of reaction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have offered the military government $3 billion in aid after the TMC staged its coup against the deposed Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, while the Egyptian government has pledged diplomatic support. Protesters in Sudan justifiably fear that unless political power is passed to a civilian leadership, the generals will remain in charge indefinitely. While it is unclear at this point how this power struggle will end, it is incumbent on the Trump Administration to do more to support the civilian opposition or risk alienating much of Sudan’s educated middle class. Further, a meager response from the United States may unintentionally encourage additional violence by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the government militia that was unleashed against the protesters.
It is incumbent on the Trump Administration to do more to support the civilian opposition or risk alienating much of Sudan’s educated middle class.
Many Similarities with Egypt in 2013
Tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens took to the streets since December 2018 to oppose the long and corrupt dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir and to demand a democratic government. Their efforts spurred the military to topple Bashir in April and to replace him temporarily with the Transitional Military Council, initially led by Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf, who was later forced to step down and replaced by General Burhan.
Protracted negotiations then took place between the civilian protest leaders, who had coalesced into the “Alliance for Freedom and Change,” and the TMC. The latter promised elections in two years while the former insisted on elections much sooner because of their concerns that the generals wanted to hold on to power. In addition, the civilian protest leaders demanded majority seats in a new transitional council, with the military in the minority.
When the civilian protest leaders pulled out of the talks in early June, the military council unleashed the RSF––a government militia formerly known as the Janjaweed, which was responsible for atrocities in Darfur––against them. More than 40 of the protesters in Khartoum were killed at the hands of the RSF in early June, and at least 60 more were killed in subsequent days, as the militia searched homes for opposition activists. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which has been part of the opposition since early 2019, claimed that at least 40 bodies were pulled from the Nile River. In addition, the doctors’ group reported that hundreds of civilians were wounded by gunfire.
On June 6, the opposition called for an accounting of all those complicit in crimes committed since Bashir’s ouster in April and demanded the “full transfer of the transitional authority to a civilian government” and the dissolution of the “Janjaweed militia.”
In Egypt in the first half of 2013, popular pressures were building against the presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly from secular-oriented Egyptians who had organized themselves under the so-called Tamarrod (rebellion) movement that was supported by the security services. By late June 2013, huge demonstrations were taking place in Cairo, some supporting Morsi and others opposed to him. The military’s sympathies and support were clearly with the anti-Morsi crowd. After then-Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi gave Morsi an ultimatum regarding compromising with the opposition, the president was removed from office in a military coup on July 3. Although the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was named acting president in an interim government, Sisi and the military hierarchy were the ones in actual charge of the country.
Although the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was named acting president in an interim government, Sisi and the military hierarchy were the ones in actual charge of the country.
The pro-Morsi demonstrators, however, refused to leave their protest encampments. They called for the freeing of Morsi from prison and his restoration to the presidency and an end to military rule. When they refused to disperse, Sisi in mid-August ordered the military and other security forces to violently crush their sit-in, resulting in over 800 deaths in a single day—this was the Rabaa Massacre of August 14, 2013.
Sisi and the military not only arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood activists and supporters in subsequent weeks but he also imposed a draconian protest law that autumn, making it virtually impossible to hold demonstrations against the government. Many of the liberal activists who initially supported Sisi’s ouster of Morsi came to realize that Sisi was not interested in establishing a democracy where the right of peaceful dissent was to be respected. The lesson here was that anyone opposing the military would be suppressed.
Although Egypt has gone through presidential and parliamentary elections since 2013, the trappings of democracy are a mere cover for an authoritarian government, one that is arguably more repressive than the previous regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Although Sisi acts as a civilian president, he and the military hierarchy are the real power in Egypt; indeed, those who voice opposition to their policies are either branded as traitors, harassed by the security services, or arrested. To be sure, the dragnet is not just confined to the Muslim Brothers and their sympathizers.
As an indication of the Egyptian military’s hold on power, recent constitutional amendments included the following: the armed forces now have the right to “preserve the constitution and democracy, protect the basic principles of the state and its civil nature, and protect the people’s rights and freedoms.” As one prominent human rights activist has noted, this amendment gives the military greater sway over the rest of the state, particularly during major political upheavals. The military, instead of the Supreme Constitutional Court, can now apply its own interpretation of what poses an internal threat to the state.
Undoubtedly, many Sudanese professionals remember these developments that unfolded in their neighboring country. They are probably concerned that the Sudanese military would take a page from the Egyptian military’s playbook to maintain power and set back the popular demand for democracy.
But Some Differences
The tactics of the military’s crackdown on protesters were similar in both the Egyptian and Sudanese cases––with the obvious contrast in the numbers of those killed in Egypt, which has far exceeded the casualties in Sudan so far. The main difference, however, is in the type of constituency that supports or opposes military rule in the two countries. In fact, Sisi’s coup against Morsi in Egypt was chiefly against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose activists and supporters continue to be treated as pariahs in the country today. While the coup in Sudan was staged against a military leader, the chief domestic supporters of the Transitional Military Council are Islamists interested in continuing Sharia laws promulgated and implemented by Bashir. This fact throws into sharp relief the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian drive against Islamists in the Arab world: it is an utterly political stance whose aim is to oppose political change from authoritarian rule, no matter who demands it. In the case of Sudan, these three countries are actually siding with the military and Islamists and against the opposition’s push for democracy.
The coup in Sudan was staged against a military leader, the chief domestic supporters of the Transitional Military Council are Islamists interested in continuing Sharia laws promulgated and implemented by Bashir.
Indeed, the civilian protest leaders in Sudan are largely doctors and other professionals who come from the middle class. Many of these leaders have a secular world view. There is also a large constituency of young supporters of the protests who do not have specific political affiliations while others may have some Islamist sympathies. In fact, opposition to Bashir in 2019 was not based on identity politics. Morsi supporters in Egypt, on the other hand, believed in the Brotherhood’s agenda and were angry that secular Egyptians and the security services conspired to bring down the first Brotherhood president in Egyptian history using unconstitutional means.
Many secular liberal Egyptians initially saw Sisi and the military as their saviors from what they perceived were efforts by Morsi and the Brotherhood to create a theocracy. Even though Morsi did not succeed in this quest––partly because he faced considerable opposition during his time in office (only a year) and he was not a particularly competent leader––his identity was seen as a threat. The fear of the imposition of an Islamist project on Egyptian society sent Egyptian liberals into an embrace with the military, one that proved fatal because military institutions are not known for tolerance of dissent.
After the violent crackdown in mid-August 2013 against the pro-Morsi sit-ins, some prominent liberals like interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and leader of Egypt’s Dostour Party, resigned from the government, whereas other liberals justified the crackdown as necessary to restore order and remove the Brotherhood’s “threat.” In fact, a majority of Egyptian liberals likely supported Sisi until he started to go after secular dissidents and created conditions that did away with any pretense of democracy in the post-coup environment.
By contrast, Sudan’s current situation consists of a military junta that survives by the power of the gun and with support from Islamist forces whose ideological tenets former President Bashir embraced and implemented. This junta is trying to stifle dissent and preserve the old state he bequeathed. In fact, a number of TMC leaders had served under Bashir and were satisfied with his rule until popular protests made him a liability for the military institution and its interests.
Regional Powers Want a Strong Military in Sudan
With Islamists not in a dominant or strong position among the opposition in Sudan––indeed, supporting the TMC––the question arises as to why Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—countries that have made anti-Brotherhood policies a priority—are supportive of the Sudanese military and not in favor of the civilian opposition. After all, Sudan under Bashir had developed close ties to Qatar—a country boycotted by the three and has exhibited tolerance of the Brotherhood—and the Sudanese military had been a supporter of Bashir until very late in the game.
First, it seems that these three countries want interlocutors in Sudan who can be influenced by largesse. The Sudanese military fits this bill (hence the $3 billion in aid was offered to bolster the military’s popularity), whereas the civilian opposition is too new and unknown to be trusted to do the bidding of foreign influencers.
Second, at least in terms of Egypt, the Sudanese military reportedly has promised Sisi that it would arrest and deport Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures who had fled to Sudan during the 2013 crackdown. Sisi considers the Sudanese military’s assistance as important for Egypt’s security since he views the Brotherhood as a long-term threat.
The success of the protesters in changing authoritarian rule in Khartoum presents uncertain conditions for future political developments in Sudan.
Third, the success of the protesters in changing authoritarian rule in Khartoum presents uncertain conditions for future political developments in Sudan. In other words, if the opposition were to take power at some point in the near future and Islamist forces were to change course and join the government, they could, over time, present a challenge to the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian collective.
Fourth, even discounting the Islamist factor, the fact that an opposition could emerge in Sudan and try to create a liberal democracy likely sends shock waves to these authoritarian countries that fear a democracy contagion among their own educated classes. By contrast, having a friendly military in charge in Sudan, one that is not interested in democracy or political pluralism and can make decisions quickly especially on issues of regional importance, is their preferred course of action.
Some Indirect Intervention by Washington
Shortly after the military ordered the crackdown on the protesters in Sudan, the US embassy in Khartoum issued a statement that read: “Responsibility falls on the Transitional Military Council (TMC). The TMC cannot responsibly lead the people of Sudan.” National Security Advisor John Bolton, also weighed in on the violence, tweeting that the crackdown is “abhorrent” and calling on the military to speed the transition to civilian rule.
Interestingly US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale reportedly called
Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman to request Saudi assistance to persuade the Sudanese military to end the violent crackdown on civilians. The head of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in late May where he met with Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman. Dagalo, who is the deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, pledged continued support for Saudi efforts against Iran and against the Houthi rebels in Yemen where his units are taking part in the ground war. Whether the Saudis have complied with this US request is unknown. Thus far, they have only urged the military and the opposition to resume dialogue. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia traveled to Sudan recently in an attempt to mediate between the military and the civilian opposition, but it is unclear if he made any progress.
Recommendations for US Policy
Although the Trump Administration has generally been reticent about raising human rights issues, especially with countries with which it has close relations, it has been displaying some backbone in the case of Sudan. It is possible that because Sudanese opposition leaders are largely secular professionals, the administration does not see them as a threat and may even consider them a potential ally after the US experience of several troublesome decades with Bashir. But in order to make this effort effective, President Donald Trump needs to speak out as well and signal to the Sudanese military that unless the violence stops and civilian opposition leaders are given a significant share of power immediately, any effort to establish close ties to Washington would be placed on the back burner and all of the officers in the TMC would be held accountable.
It is possible that because Sudanese opposition leaders are largely secular professionals, the administration does not see them as a threat and may even consider them a potential ally after the US experience of several troublesome decades with Bashir.
It should be remembered that President Barack Obama’s reaction to the August 2013 crackdown in Egypt was rather timid. He merely cancelled Bright Star defense exercises with the Egyptian military and later, in October 2013, suspended the provision of some items like Apache helicopters to Cairo. But these punitive actions were reversed about a year and a half later. Although annoyed by the partial suspension of military aid, Sisi probably knew that Obama’s resolve would eventually weaken over time. Trump, who likes to be the anti-Obama, could surprise everyone by taking a very tough approach to the Sudanese military and supporting civilian rule. In order to be effective, however, he needs to personally weigh in on Sudanese matters with Sisi and Saudi leaders, for whom he has done several favors.
*Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here