Coups are always something other people do. So Sudan’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has insisted that the removal and detention of the prime minister and other politicians in October “was not a coup”. Instead, it was “correcting the track of the transition” that began with the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 following mass protests, and his replacement with interim arrangements under which the military and civilians shared power, uncomfortably.
The tens of thousands who protested against military rule in Khartoum and other cities on Tuesday disagree with the general’s analysis. Though the military has now reinstated the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, his former allies see him as a Potemkin leader whose presence whitewashes rather than reverses the coup. Twelve ministers, including those for foreign affairs and justice, resigned in protest at the deal; the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), one of the leading protest groups, called it “treacherous”. The deal does not appear to mention the Forces for Freedom and Change, the civilian coalition that ousted Mr Bashir. Nor is it believed to specify when the military will hand power to an elected civilian government, though it now claims that there will be elections in 2023.
Mr Hamdok says that he reached the agreement to stop the “bloodbath” continuing – at least 41 people have been killed by security forces as they protested against the coup, according to a Sudanese doctors’ group – and to prevent a slide to potential civil war. But a teenager was shot dead even as Mr Hamdok was reinstated, and security forces have been filmed arresting protesters in hospital.
The transitional arrangements were always fragile. Competing political parties, Islamists, military and paramilitary leaders, and rebel groups were brought together only by the desire to oust Mr Bashir. The generals certainly do not want to risk being held responsible for crimes committed under his presidency or the Khartoum massacre of protesters in June 2019 that followed his removal. Nor do they want to lose control of their hefty agricultural and industrial interests; the transitional administration had tried to bring military companies under civilian control. They need Mr Hamdok not only to try to shift domestic opinion, but also because they cannot afford international condemnation: the US and World Bank froze funds following the coup.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called Mr Hamdok’s return a first step; the administration has wisely said that any resumption of the suspended $700m of aid will require more progress. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces – which have been linked to war crimes and other atrocities in Darfur – has underlined the regime’s cynicism by telling Europe and the US that they could face an influx of refugees if they do not support it.
There are obvious parallels with other parts of Sudan’s history. In 1964 and 1985, popular protests gained the military backing they needed to topple regimes; in both cases, the army soon ended up in charge again. It would be easy to see the events of last month as inevitable: it has never been easy to dislodge men with guns and money, and, despite frictions, the army, the RSF and security apparatus appear broadly united so far. But one could also say that the Sudanese people have repeatedly and bravely made it clear that they do not accept authoritarian rule. They demand, and will continue to demand, something better.