At the heart of Sudan’s ongoing tragedy lies a familiar travesty.
For decades, countries in the Middle East have suffered from military coups carried out in the name of national salvation, pride and prosperity that have consistently culminated in disaster.
Many of the coups in the 1950s and 1960s – from Syria to Sudan, through Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – were led by young officers with lofty visions and high hopes for replacing a dreadful status quo with a better, more prosperous future, free of humiliation and defeat.
But the more recent coups, like that in Algeria in 1992, Egypt in 2013 and Sudan in 2021, lacked vision and ambition beyond merely blocking political change and restoring the appalling status quo ante that favoured military power and privilege.
All these coups have generally ended in disaster regardless of their original goals, and yet the farce continues as generals today stubbornly repeat their predecessors’ follies to no end, alas.
If coups were of any benefit to the state, Sudan would be the most prosperous country in the region. It has had more than a dozen coups and coup attempts since it gained independence in 1958.
But it is not. All its coups – attempted, realised and failed – have had a devastating effect on the country, unleashing repression onto its struggling population and destabilising the state.
Despite this tragic history, those who have never won on the battlefield are still eager to attack civilians and civilian institutions and violently suppress political parties as if they were the enemies of the state, all to preserve their power.
Among the few serious studies of the Arab armies is a paper by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies that notes a pattern of behaviour common to most coups, including the latest in Sudan.
It argues that once they take hold of political power, coup leaders do not give it up voluntarily. In other words, they do not seize power for others to rule over them. And once they depose the head of state, coup leaders begin to suspect one another and tend to turn on each other.
Moreover, military leaders-cum-political leaders tend to militarise politics and politicise the military to the detriment of state institutions and the people. Unable or incapable of providing socioeconomic solutions to their nations’ problems, they resort to religious populism, sectarianism or the only language they master – force. They perpetuate instability in the name of stability and fear in the name of security.
So it is no surprise that Sudan’s coup leaders, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army chief, and General Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have pursued the same deceitful ways and means to monopolise power after the 2019 ouster of President Omar al-Bashir.
It was no shock that the mischievous generals squeezed out the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in 2022, about 14 months after reaching an accommodation with the Forces for Freedom and Change, which led the civilian movement challenging al-Bashir’s regime.
When national and international pressure mounted, they struck a new deal, a transitional Framework Agreement, through which they sought to preserve their power.
As their influence grew, so did their suspicion of one another. When attempts at power sharing failed, it was only a matter of time before their distrust and discord escalated into an open, bloody confrontation.
With the battles intensifying in the streets of Khartoum and other major cities and the chances for reconciliation dissipating with each passing day, it is hard to say when the fighting may end or who is more likely to come out on top.
What is clear thus far is that the less powerful but more mobile and battle-tested RSF has pursued asymmetrical strategies, deploying rapidly to sensitive power centres to achieve quick wins against the less mobile military. It is also trying to capture or kill al-Burhan and thus deliver a decisive psychological blow to the armed forces.
If the RSF does not achieve a quick victory and the fighting persists unabated, the bigger, more powerful national army, which has the advantage of more sophisticated weapons like fighter jets, could eventually prevail, albeit at a terrible cost to Sudan and the Sudanese people.
To be sure, al-Burhan and Hemedti, who were powerful enablers of al-Bashir’s dictatorship before turning on him, have had a long, bloody history from Darfur to Yemen. They have conspired against the 2019 popular uprising against al-Bashir and undermined the political transformation towards civilian rule. And today, both have de facto forfeited any right to lead the country, having cynically dragged it down the path of bloodshed and destruction.
Having said that, the two strongmen have very different pedigrees and head two very different military forces. While al-Burhan is a professional soldier who climbed the ranks of an army with clear structures and operating systems, Hemedti was a rogue camel smuggler turned hired gun turned leader of a vicious militia that conducts illicit trade and functions according to his whims and fancies.
Al-Burhan’s transgressions are outrageous, considering his position as army chief. But that is precisely why Sudan deserves a national army whose leaders are professional, legitimate and accountable to its government.
Every state requires or deserves a truly national army, but no state needs a shadowy militia that functions above the law. It is a recipe for perpetual disaster.
That is not to say that the Sudanese people must now take sides as the strongmen fight it out at the expense of the country’s security and stability. Regardless of its outcome, once this reckless, bloody fight is over, hopefully soon, Sudan must overhaul its military and rid itself of all militias.
As they are pushed to choose the lesser of two evils, the Sudanese should opt for a third choice: a civilian-led, democratically elected government that oversees the return of the army to its barracks.