Sudan’s military leadership could face isolation at home and abroad if it tries to tighten its grip after seizing power in the face of opposition from a sophisticated protest movement and from Western states that had invested in a democratic transition, analysts and diplomats say.
Lacking a political base inside Sudan and with uncertain prospects of support from Gulf states and Egypt, the military has begun to draw on loyalists from the regime of former leader Omar al-Bashir, toppled in 2019 after a popular uprising.
The coup on 25 October drew swift condemnation from Western countries including the United States, which had been working closely with the dissolved transitional government to stabilise Sudan after decades of isolation under Bashir.
The general who led the takeover, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, promised to name a government but has yet to do so as mediation efforts involving Sudanese political figures and the United Nations continue against a backdrop of strikes and protests.
Mediation has focused on finding a way for ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to form a new cabinet of technocrats. Hamdok, an economist, is respected by pro-democracy protesters and was permitted to return home under guard a day after the coup.
But Hamdok resisted pressure to dissolve his government before the coup, and since the takeover has indicated he will not negotiate on a future government unless the army commits to fully restoring the military-civilian power sharing system put in place after Bashir fell.
“Burhan doesn’t have a clean path to form a government in the way that he wanted,” said one diplomatic source.
Meanwhile, the military has been appointing figures associated with the Bashir era to positions in the state media and foreign ministry, and moving to take control of key institutions including the judiciary, said activists, analysts and diplomats.
If the military rejects compromise, it could run the country on cash flows from gold sales and try create “alternative facts” through its control of state media and through social media campaigns, said Suliman Baldo of The Sentry, an investigative and policy group based in Washington DC.
But it will have to contend with a savvy and resilient pro-democracy street movement that has mobilized repeatedly since start of the uprising against Bashir nearly three years ago.
The protest movement has the stamina to wear down the military through scheduled rounds of disobedience and more mass marches, said Mohamed Alasbat, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the main activist coalition.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on 21 October, four days before the coup, to protest against the prospect of a military takeover, and similar numbers returned on Saturday.
A campaign of civil disobedience by a wide range of civilian groups as well as protests and security measures to counter them have brought Khartoum to a near standstill over the past week.
Neighbourhood committees organised Saturday’s demonstrations in greater Khartoum despite an almost total blackout on mobile phone and internet coverage and the closure of strategic sites, bridges and roads by security forces. Activists handed out printed fliers and went door to door to drum up support.
The protest movement “will end up by eroding whatever system he (Burhan) is trying to put in place. This is the real risk for him and that’s why I think he will try to target it very aggressively,” said Baldo.
Foreign states may balk at the unrest this could trigger, and Washington will want to prevent any cross-border spillover, including to conflict-torn Ethiopia, he added. The military takeover has created uncertainty around a partial peace deal that transitional authorities had signed with Sudanese rebel groups last year, with two major armed groups in Darfur and the south rejecting the coup.
The United States has tried to exert pressure by saying it will withhold $700 million in economic assistance and that Sudan will be unable to secure tens of billions of dollars in debt relief as long as the military pursues unilateral control. The World Bank, a key source of development financing whose president visited Khartoum one month ago, has also suspended disbursements.
Internal splits within Sudan’s sprawling military apparatus, which developed its commercial interests under Bashir and includes the powerful, paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, are another risk for the army leadership.
In an indication of possible confusion over its strategy, the former head of Bashir’s ruling party was freed from jail on Sunday only to be rearrested on Monday.
Burhan and his backers “don’t have the capacity or the cohesion among themselves to be able to mount the sort of intensive crackdown that could make it work,” said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and head of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.
Regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were no friends of Bashir’s Islamist government. They would appear to have little to gain by backing military rule in Sudan, de Waal said.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE “don’t have deep enough pockets to bail Sudan out of the hole that it’s in, so the real leverage lies with the US and the World bank and others. And the US and Western governments having taken a strong stand, Burhan doesn’t have much to play with.”