Sudan’s coup has shattered the hopes of its 2019 revolution | Nesrine Malik

Mercenaries, the army and Bashir-era business interests have seized control and will sell the country’s resources to the highest bidder

Last week in Sudan, two years disappeared in a flash. Two years of working to bring Sudan in from the cold after almost three decades of isolation. Two years of trying to establish a civilian government. Two years of mourning those who had died in Sudan’s revolution to oust Omar al-Bashir. And two years of tentative hope that perhaps these deaths had not been in vain. In the end, all that mattered was that it was two years during which the military grew tired of partnering with civilians in a transitional power-sharing agreement. Last week, the army seized power in a coup that erased everything the Sudanese people had gained since Bashir’s military government was toppled in 2019.

That revolution had reignited hope for democratic rule, not only in Sudan, but across the Arab world. In hindsight, its short-lived nature seems inevitable. Sudan’s uprising may have removed Bashir, but behind him sat a military and security state with deep roots and complex economic interests. When it became clear that the Sudanese people were not going to tolerate another military figurehead as a replacement for Bashir, an agreement with civilian parties resulted in a transitional power-sharing arrangement that should have paved the way for elections.

One could argue that it was naive to expect the military and its associated allies to merely hand over power and withdraw to the barracks. But it also seemed unfathomable that they would make such a brash, regressive move as they have. The country’s newfound stability is still in its infancy. The military now faces international condemnation and diplomatic crises. The coup has severed attempts to reintegrate Sudan into the international community. Debt relief has been suspended, leaving the economy on its knees. The US cancelled 700 million dollars worth of aid only 24 hours after the coup.

Yet these calculations do not concern militaries who are bent on extraction in a country that does not need to thrive for its overlords to prosper. An alliance between a large army of mercenaries, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF, the formalised and uniformed version of the Janjaweed that terrorised the Darfur region), the army, and remnants of business interests from the Bashir regime now has the country in a tight grip. They will run Sudan as the host body for a partnership of parasites.

Without facing the checks of transparency or accountability, Sudan’s new ruling club will be able to divide the country’s infrastructure, seizing raw materials such as gold, and selling them to regional allies. They will have the firepower to suppress rebellions in the country’s marginalised regions. By doing dirty, lucrative deals with Gulf allies, they will be able to alienate whomever they please in the west. RSF forces have already sold Sudanese soldiers – some of them children – to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to provide support for their wars in Yemen. Flogging Sudan’s resources and people to the highest bidder is too lucrative a business to give up for a few hundred million dollars of western aid.

In that sense, Sudan’s revolution, like all revolutions, was not only against one regime, but many. It took aim at the corrupt legacies and arrangements that were manifested in a single dictator – Bashir – who was vested with power by his large network of enablers. At every stage of the uprising since 2018, the Sudanese people have discovered another despot behind the despot. Behind Bashir stood a phalanx of generals who had come to power when many of the protesters on the streets had not even been born. Behind the generals was the mercenary army, and behind the mercenaries towered the allies of the counterrevolution, Sudan’s allies in the Middle East and north Africa: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, which wanted to ensure democratic civilian rule never became a reality on their doorstep. Condemnation from the US and censure by the UN merely bounces off the iron realpolitik that sustains Sudan’s coup.

In a way, it is a miracle that the Sudanese revolution succeeded at all, that it lasted a whole two years before the army moved once again. It is a testament to the number and indefatigability of the protesters, who kept spilling on to the streets in 2019. They not only removed Bashir, but dictated the shape of the transitional government that followed him. Millions of Sudanese people stared down the barrel of what seemed like certain failure, and persevered. Last week they did so again, taking to the streets in their millions to reject the coup and demand the return of the civilian government, and the release of many of its members, including the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who are in detention or house arrest.

The Sudanese waited 30 years for a revolution, only for three to come at once. Last week, protesters were shot and beaten once again, and the dead and wounded fell on the streets of Sudan’s cities. Once again, an anxious standoff is taking place between Sudan’s people and an army and alliance of security forces that has only two choices: bend to the will of the Sudanese, or massacre them. The soldiers and military men think there might be a third option – to bide their time and hope that the protests run out of steam as the new military government settles in. That seems unlikely.

But even if the coup prevails, it will be an uneasy win, enfeebled by constant policing and suppression of dissent. Civic resistance to the coup might appear frail when compared to the might of the generals and their backers, but the military is up against a people who are determined never again to be ruled by force. Their determination seems as limitless as the army’s appetite for power.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist


Nesrine Malik

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