The military’s takeover of Sudan is a huge blow for hopes of democracy that flourished following the 2019 revolution. The recent resignation of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok makes clear there is little prospect of the military accepting a genuine transition to civilian rule. Protests continue, and they continue to be met with military violence. It’s time for Sudan’s partners and the international community to stop believing the military’s false promises and recognise what has happened as a military coup. Sanctions must target the military’s economic power. Support must flow towards the homegrown anti-coup movement as the only means by which democracy can be established and sustained.

Sudan’s shaky transition to democracy hit a roadblock with the resignation of civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok in early January 2022. This left the leadership of the East African country completely in the hands of the military. In his resignation speech, Hamdok warned that Sudan was at a ‘dangerous crossroads threatening its very survival’.

Hamdok’s resignation was the latest in a dismal series of events that began on 25 October 2021, when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s top military official, arrested Hamdok and dissolved the joint civilian-military transitional government. This was a move that was condemned internationally but not fully recognised as a coup.

A civil-military tug-of-war

Hamdok signed a power-sharing deal with the military on 21 November. International institutions and Western powers – the troika of Norway, the UK and the USA, plus the European Union – had urged his return, fearing that otherwise the democratic transition that began with the 2019 revolution would collapse completely.

Despite the growing unpopularity of Hamdok’s deal among pro-democracy groups, he had argued that by returning to office he could save the transition as well as safeguard the country’s economic programme. In the deal, al-Burhan promised elections in mid-2023 and committed to release all political detainees – including ministers from the ousted civilian cabinet – and reinstate the constitutional declaration. A key condition was that the reinstated prime minister would lead a cabinet of technocrats appointed by him without military interference.

Hamdok must have hoped that by returning he would limit military power, but clearly this didn’t work. Only a few weeks later, the military reneged on the agreement. Hamdok reportedly stepped down due to al-Burhan’s interference in his cabinet appointments, as well as the relaunch of the widely feared intelligence service, which had been a powerful force of repression under the former rule of long-time dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

New momentum for the pro-democracy movement

In a country with a long history of miliary coups and military rule, the idea of reaching an agreement to try to work with coup leaders was never acceptable to many in the democracy movement. The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the civilian coalition that led the 2019 uprising, rejected any power-sharing agreement. For many, the rapid failure of the deal was all too predictable. They had never been convinced by it.

There remains understandably widespread scepticism about the military’s promises of elections, and fears that any electoral process overseen by the military rather than an independent civilian body has no chance of being free or fair, particularly in light of al-Burhan’s demonisation of political parties.

The network of protesters that led the 2019 uprising has therefore continued to mobilise against the coup. Its backbone is the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), working alongside 50 neighbourhood-based grassroots organisations, known as Resistance Committees. Once the peak of mobilisation passed after 2019, the Sudanese revolutionary movement had fragmented and struggled to keep up momentum. But the coup gave it fresh impetus.

Following the coup, the SPA urged everyone to take to the streets and engage in acts of civil disobedience. For the next two weeks the campaign’s impact meant that shops, banks, government offices, schools and universities were closed. Doctors and state oil company workers were among those who joined the campaign. On 30 October, the March of Millions saw mass protests across Sudan in support of fully civilian rule. The Sudanese diaspora organised solidarity protests abroad.

When the 21 November deal was announced, the SPA called for a second round of civil disobedience under the slogan ‘no negotiations, no compromise, no power-sharing’.

Military cracks down and consolidates power

Sudanese people have long paid a heavy price for aspiring to democracy and civilian rule. Many were killed, detained, or tortured before, during and after the 2019 uprisings. It was therefore a particular trauma for pro-democracy protesters to reach the third anniversary of the start of the protests that led to the revolution feeling almost empty-handed in face of the military’s power grab. Women activists, who played a prominent role in the revolution, particularly feared the loss of their role in public life and restriction of their rights.

When people protested, including on the third anniversary in December, the military unleashed a violent crackdown. Security forces met mass protests with live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas. An internet shutdown, imposed during the coup, continued after the 21 November deal despite a court ruling ordering access to be restored. Several journalists were arrested, including the head of Al Jazeera’s Khartoum bureau. In a move meant to legitimise the violence against them, the military vilified protesters, portraying them in state media as a bunch of ‘angry young men’.

On the day of Hamdok’s resignation, security forces killed three protesters. In the following days, as anti-coup protests continued, so did the brutality. The death toll has risen to at least 72 since the coup.

Violence was consistent with the military’s long history of violations of civilian rights, but at odds with its promise of completing the transition to democracy.

In his first speech to the public on 25 October, al-Burhan claimed he had been compelled to act to prevent the ‘civil war’ that could result from quarrels between political parties. The general’s claim of division among the civilian part of the government was not entirely false. In September, the FFC split in two, with a breakaway group supporting the military. Later, the splinter group defended Hamdok’s return.

But what didn’t hold true was Burhan’s hyperbole that such disagreements, normal in any democratic context where there is a range of views around any issue, put the country on the verge of civil war, and therefore required military intervention.

Given Sudan’s history of military rule, al-Burhan’s depiction of his coup as a ‘correction to Sudan’s transition to democracy’ rang hollow. People knew it was principally the military’s unwillingness to concede power that made Sudan’s democratic transition so fragile, rather than mismanagement by civilian leaders, as al-Burhan claimed.

The transitional government was always haunted by the possibility of another coup orchestrated by remnants of the old regime. Unsurprisingly, the coup happened as the key moment approached when, under the transition plan, the military would have to hand over full control of the transitional government to civilians – something that clearly wasn’t in the best interests of the generals, since it would also jeopardise their control of Sudan’s economy.

The economy: from weak spot to leverage of change?

In 2020, Hamdok stated that 80 per cent of Sudan’s public resources were outside the finance ministry’s control, implying they were in the hands of the military. Al-Burhan has of course made no moves to correct that, but rather has sought to further consolidate this economic power. After the revolution he reportedly put the Military Industry Corporation – a Sudanese Armed Forces holding company that owns hundreds of firms – in charge of many of the companies once owned by al-Bashir’s family and inner circle.

Al-Bashir’s corrupt system has not been dismantled; it has merely been taken over by the generals. In neighbouring Egypt, a similar failure to confront military power brought the revolution to an end. Clearly, democracy is a danger to the generals’ economic power because it could only bring scrutiny and demands for redistribution.

Since the coup, al-Burhan has moved to further protect his interests. By declaring a state of emergency and suspending key sections of the constitutional document, he granted himself near total power and legal immunity. In a further betrayal of the revolution, key staff from the al-Bashir era were brought back into government, replacing transitional government officials. The revival of al-Bashir’s notorious national intelligence service (NISS), only under a new name, the General Intelligence Service (GIS), is a further step back to the bad old days.

Meanwhile, Sudan has been grappling with a severe fiscal crisis that al-Burhan and the military cannot handle without support from the international community. Around 11 million people are expected to suffer from food shortages in 2022. It was a desperate need for the continuation of international aid that forced al-Burhan to sign the 21 November deal with Hamdok, giving military power the veneer of legitimacy western states were looking for. Otherwise, he would likely have continued leading the fully military government he formed following the coup.

With Hamdok’s withdrawal, al-Burhan is on the search for another toothless prime minister to grant him global legitimacy and enable access to foreign aid. If he succeeds, much of that aid can be expected not to help meet people’s basic needs but to be siphoned off by the military.

To avert this, it’s time for Sudan’s partners and the international community to stop hoping for the best and instead do something to make change happen. They must support a second wave of the Sudanese revolution by investing resources not in the government but in pro-democracy civil society.

Given the military elite’s preoccupation with hanging onto its economic power, they must hit the military where it hurts. They should use sanctions that target not only key military officials but also the companies they control. Through a coordinated approach to sanctions, global and African institutions and western states must put pressure on the military to set a roadmap and timetable for a proper transition to democracy.


Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi is founder and director of the Sudanese Development Initiative, a civil society organisation that works toward stability, development, and good governance in Sudan.


The role of international institutions, including the United Nations (UN) and African regional institutions, has been one of damage control rather than damage prevention. The United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) was deployed to Sudan in 2020 but throughout the months prior to the coup and the escalating tensions and differences between the parties leading the transition period it remained totally absent. Its mediation role only materialised at a later stage, following the unfortunate events of 25 October and after the axe had already fallen, so to speak.

Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Arab League have played a marginal role, with the former only issuing statements threatening suspension of Sudan’s membership, and the latter sending a delegation to help with negotiations in the wake of the coup.

More recently, on 8 January 2022, UNITAMS issued a statement announcing it was ‘formally launching an UN-facilitated intra-Sudanese political process which is aimed at supporting Sudanese stakeholders in agreeing on a way out of the current political crisis and agree on a sustainable path forward towards democracy and peace’.

While this step by UNITAMS is to be applauded, it is important for UNITAMS as well as the international community supporting UNITAMS to carefully consider the details of the process. Rather than taking a head-on approach or focusing on a single objective of just simply resolving the current political crisis, the process should include embedded elements that ensure ownership and transparency and help build visions for common ground amongst the stakeholders involved, for the transitional period and beyond.

The process should also ensure the elaboration of a dispute resolution mechanism for when differences arise. UNITAMS will have only one shot at this and if it fails, it will lose credibility and the continued presence of the mission in Sudan will come into question.

Moreover, beyond the immediate challenge of surpassing the immediate political crisis, the UN and other international institutions need to step up their act and stay one step ahead of the transition game in Sudan. Transitions in countries such as Sudan, which is emerging from conflict and years of authoritarian rule, require greater agility, heightened levels of coordination and collaboration and more strategic responses on the part of the UN system and international institutions more generally. To achieve this, they need the help of Sudanese civil society, so they will also need to adopt a more structured and strategic approach in engaging with them, instead of the current ad hoc and largely symbolic form of engagement.

Once the current political crisis is overcome and the path to the democratic transition is resumed, there must be greater investment in and commitment to civil society on the part of both the government and the international community. Support will be needed for efforts to improve civic space and create a more enabling environment for civil society. Support should also be geared towards facilitating dialogue across the various groups that make up the non-political civic scape in Sudan and strengthening their ability to act and speak as one on critical national issues and future challenges.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi. Read the full interview here.

Will the international community push for democracy?

The gap is growing between people’s desire for full civilian rule and the determination of the military to suppress their demands by violent means. The democracy movement is well aware of the authoritarianism resulting from a wave of military coups rippling through Africa and is desperate to avoid this fate for Sudan. Members of the military who fear what might happen to them after they hand over power to civilians continue to harden their positions. A protracted and bitter dispute could set in.

The UN has attempted to mediate between the military and the pro-democracy movement. It was in this spirit that in December, the UN Secretary-General urged people to support Hamdok in the interests of transition. But his call went down badly with many democracy protesters.

When Hamdok stepped down, the UN resumed its mediation efforts through the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission, supporting dialogue between different groups, although until recently most pro-democracy groups refused to join talks with the military. The SPA continues to reject the UN’s invitation to participate in the discussions. Trust is understandably low.

While trying to bring the parties into some kind of compromise, the UN also shows mounting concern about the human rights situation. On 5 November, following civil society advocacy, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create the office of an Expert on Human Rights in Sudan, who will monitor the human rights situation under military rule. This is a necessary first step. But stronger action is needed to challenge impunity, ensuring that perpetrators of abuses are identified and held to account.

The international community must pull all available levers, including economic levers, to force the military to accept a genuine timetable for transition to civilian rule. It must make clear to all parties involved that no plan for transition is feasible and sustainable unless the democracy movement sees a full and genuine role for itself in it. A solution to the crisis that does not fully involve and support Sudan’s mobilised citizenry is no solution at all.


  • All violations of protesters’ rights must be independently investigated, and perpetrators identified and called to account.
  • States and international institutions should implement coordinated sanctions to put pressure on the economic power of the military.
  • The international community should give increased support to Sudan’s civil society to help strengthen its capacity to contribute to democracy.

Cover photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images