Economic hardship, quashed democratic hopes: What led up to Sudan's coup

CAIRO – Monday’s military coup in Sudan threatens to destroy the country’s fragile transition to democracy, more than two years after a popular uprising forced the long-standing autocrat to be dismissed Omar al-Bashir.

The move comes after months of increasing tension between the military and civil authorities. Protesters are on the streets denouncing the takeover and troops have opened fire, killed some of the protesters and opened the door to major unrest in the country of 40 million people.

This is how Sudan reached this point:

What happened monday

The military dissolved the interim government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the Sovereign Council, a power-sharing body made up of officers and civilians that has ruled Sudan since late 2019.

A Sudanese protester takes a picture of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.AFP via Getty Images

General Abdel-Fattah Burhan announced that the military would remain in power until the July 2023 elections. The top military official declared a state of emergency and said a government of technocrats would be formed to rule until the elections.

His announcement came hours after the military arrested Hamdok along with several other high-ranking officials and political leaders.

What’s happening now?

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have denounced the coup, but much depends on how much influence they have over the Sudanese military. The country needs international help to overcome its economic crisis.

On the other hand, Sudan’s generals have close ties to Egypt and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which so far have not criticized the takeover and instead demand calm.

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Burhan said he was serious about holding the elections on schedule. But a year and a half is a long time, and it is not clear whether the powerful military is ready to let go of its decades-long hold in power.

Protesters fear the military will steer the process to ensure its control and vow to keep their pressure on the streets, increasing the likelihood of new confrontations.

Hasn’t there already been a ‘revolution’

The pro-democracy movement, which was a mixture of groups from professional unions, political parties and youth groups, won al-Bashir’s ousting in April 2019. But it was only a partial victory as the demonstrators couldn’t push the military out of the way of politics entirely.

Immediately after his fall, the military seized power. But the protesters stayed on the streets and urged the generals to hand over power to civilians. The crackdowns turned bloody, and in June 2019 armed forces stormed the main protest camp in front of the military headquarters, killing more than 100 people and raping dozens of women.

Eventually the military agreed on a compromise. They formed the Sovereign Council, a body made up of military and civilians, to rule the country until elections could be held. The council appointed Hamdok as prime minister of a transitional government.

Sudan’s top general declared a state of emergency when soldiers arrested civilian leaders.AFP – Getty Images

According to the compromise, the military should lead the council first before civilians should lead it.

The compromise ended Sudan’s pariah status in the world. The US removed Sudan from the list of countries in support of terrorism after the military-led council reached a normalization agreement with Israel.

Sudan, a former home of Osama bin Laden, earned US ire when it was accused of complicity in two al-Qaeda bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, in which hundreds of people were killed.

In the meantime, Hamdok’s government has withdrawn many of the strict Islamist rules from the al-Bashir era and received praise from Western governments and human rights groups. However, it is struggling to deal with a troubled economy.

What started the coup?

Tensions between supporters of the military and civilian rule have been growing for months.

The Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change (FDFC), the most important umbrella organization for the protests, is increasingly demanding that the military hand over control to civilians in the government.

Military supporters have also stepped up their actions. Since September, indigenous protesters have been blocking the main road to the Sudanese port on the Red Sea, as well as fuel pipelines and calling for the dissolution of the Hamdok government.

Many of the protesters on both sides are motivated by economic hardship. Already a problem under al-Bashir, this was one of the reasons why people rose up against him. But since then, the country has faced even bigger shocks as it tries to rejoin the global economy.

The economic reforms carried out by the transitional government have meant rising inflation and a shortage of basic goods for the average citizen.

Adela Suliman contributed.

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