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To avoid a return to totalitarianism in Sudan we must understand al-Burhan’s path to victory.
Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has pushed Sudan to its most dangerous point in recent history. The coming days and weeks will decide if Sudan can be rescued from brutal totalitarianism. To avoid that fate we must understand al-Burhan’s path to victory.
In the short term, Burhan’s strategy is similar to the playbook that former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir used during the 2018-19 protests. He must subjugate the protest movement through brutal repression and violence. To coup-proof his regime, he must prove to senior security officers that he can keep the patronage network alive and that his regime is viable through domestic political legitimacy.
Subjugating the protest movement
That would mean hundreds, if not thousands, killed during the October 30 protests and beyond. It would also mean thousands of activists and civil society leaders arrested. The long-term implications of al-Burhan’s path to victory mean that Sudan would return to totalitarianism that crushes dissent.
The model for this subjugation of the protest movement is similar to the Burmese junta’s response during the 2007 Safron revolution in Myanmar, the Egyptian military’s response during the 2011 Arab Spring and aftermath, and Omar al-Bashir’s response to the 2013 protests in Sudan.
Al-Burhan’s challenge will be convincing soldiers and those around him to execute the bloody orders. In April 2019, al-Bashir sought a religious edict to sacrifice a third of protesters to preserve order. Military commanders balked when ordered to carry out the killings and al-Bashir was quickly removed.
Prove to security leaders he can manage the system
Al–Burhan’s immediate problem is coup-proofing his regime. Senior officials in the armed forces are the most likely to dictate the fate of al-Burhan’s government. The general must convince the fractured constellation of senior officials that he can manage threats from within. During military coups, soldiers prefer to be on the winning side and fear fratricide and punishment. Al-Burhan has no shortage of questions he must answer to keep control.
Can he convince mid-and-low-level soldiers to execute brutal repression? Can al-Burhan keep Hemeti by his side without alienating officers from the Sudanese Armed Forces? Can he maintain and grow the patronage network of Sudan’s security apparatus during an economic depression?
In the short term al-Burhan is relying on Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russia to show these senior officials he has the international financial and political legitimacy to keep the cabal rolling. What will al-Burhan give up to these international partners in exchange for political and financial support? The strategic location of the Red Sea, continued access to sub-prime minerals, and regional alliances are the menu. Al-Burhan has likely calculated that his coalition can withstand isolation from Western nations. Al-Bashir did it for thirty years.
Domestic political legitimacy
Burhan needs to create domestic legitimacy to prove his regime is viable to the security apparatus. His government needs to include some members of the FFC, the former civilian cabinet, and civil society leaders to have a hope of being legitimate to the public, which will stem the tide of doubts inside the military. Al-Burhan is already at work.
Al-Burhan has offered Kamil Idriss, the former head of the World Intelllectual Property Organization, the job of prime minister. Idriss is considering the post. Eventually al-Burhan hopes leaders from FFC groups like the Umma Party, DUP, and Baathists will give legitimacy to his new government. This pillar of al-Burhan’s plan is the most likely to work. The self-serving nature of Khartoum’s political elite means that a combination of money and political power has a good chance of seducing these leaders.
Naunihal Singh, Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Interview with individual familiar with negotiations, 28 October 2021, Khartoum.
“This Is Not a Coup” is a daily update from Sudan that gives perspective on the country’s military takeover. The author is anonymous to protect their identity. The title is a reference to the 26 October speech of General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan.