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Laundering the coup in Sudan

Wednesday 1 December 2021, by siawi3


Laundering the coup in Sudan

By Nesrine Malik

November 28, 2021

A little over a month ago, a military coup in Sudan ended a military-civilian partnership established after the 2019 revolution that removed president Omar al-Bashir after almost thirty years in power. The army arrested the prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and, along with several of his cabinet and other civil government officials, threw him in detention. In the weeks that followed, the Sudanese military and their partners in power, the Rapid Support Forces, moved quickly. They reappointed a new government of “technocrats” (read “loyalists”), shut down internet services, and violently suppressed peaceful protests against the coup and its sabotaging of the 2019 revolution. During those weeks, Hamdok remained the symbol of the stolen revolution, betrayed by the military, detained illegally, unable to communicate with the people who demanded his return. In his figure, the moral authority of the counter-coup resided.

Until, for reasons that neither he nor anyone in his close circle has spelled out coherently, he decided last week to accept an offer to return as prime minister, but on a very different footing to that on which he stood before. Hamdok returns not as the head of a restored civilian government that has vanquished the treacherous army and ejected its allies in the security and paramilitary forces out of Sudanese politics for good. He returns as a coup launderer, a means through which the coup can be legitimized, and popular opposition to it pacified.

It is clear what is in this for the army and its partners. The path of the coup was not as smooth as expected despite attempts to lubricate its way. What was a practical victory brought about by force, failed to garner any legitimacy or moral cover. Before the coup was executed, when it was clearly in the offing, the military and security forces attempted to astroturf a popular march demanding the army take over to restore economic stability. They failed to organize anything of scale. Unable to pretend that the takeover was a response to a popular call, the army resorted to the claim that the coup was nothing of the kind, merely a “correction” of a situation beginning to go awry as a result of reckless behavior on the part of civilian members of government. This claim also fell flat, and it quickly became clear that neither the Sudanese people nor the international community had any intention of letting the coup pass. Street-level opposition in particular remained dogged, organized by local resistance committees at the street and community level, unfettered by shootings and detentions, uninterrupted by an internet blackout. For the past four weeks, the new military government has not had a moment’s peace, as marches, protests and civil disobedience stretched and cohered into a chain of disruption. And so a third attempt to pacify the Sudanese people and buy some time for the new regime to bed in came in the form of agreeing with Hamdok to return as prime minister.

There is no kind reading of Hamdok’s motivations. Rarely has a politician’s capital plummeted so quickly in such a short span of time. Protestors immediately rejected what he views as a return, but what is essentially a reappointment to a new, toothless job. He has miscalculated epically in expecting that the Sudanese people were naive enough to believe that he would have some sway and power in the new military dictatorship, that his reappointment signifies some sort of concession. His public statements and interviews since his release have been banal and out of step with the anger and urgency on the streets of a country where many are mourning those killed by his partners while he was in detention. Nor has he addressed the Sudanese people directly to assuage their concerns about how his return effectively co-signs the coup. He has framed his decision as one of pained pragmatism. His goal, he claims, is to stem the flow of blood on the streets, and stabilize a country at risk of falling apart.

So far, his alleged sacrifice seems to have been a wasted one. If anything, it has backfired. Protests and marches continue, their anger if anything, redoubled. Hamdok’s willingness to return to the political fold, however bitter he claims that pill was for him to swallow, has driven home an understanding that the conflict playing out since Bashir’s removal in 2019 is not between the military establishment and civilians, but a much deeper divide between the people and the class that their rulers, be they military or civilian, are drawn from.

That class has so far managed to constantly reconfigure itself in ways that maintain its grip on power, either through military-civilian alliances, or more recently, agreements with rebel leaders who increasingly run mini-sultanates in historically marginalized areas of Sudan. Either through oppression, or co-option, these formations have succeeded in staving off popular protests. But the durability and integrity of these urban elite institutions is fraying; the army is weakened, under-resourced by a Bashir government that preferred to outsource its fighting to vigilante groups and militias. The civilian technocratic class, already small, concentrated in the capital, and terminally self-involved, finds itself at sea in a country that has for years now been governed by a large and ruthless deal-cutting establishment of security heads, rebel leaders and cartels enriched by the seizing and trading of much of Sudan’s lucrative natural resources. These new dominant forces are broadly the forces behind last month’s coup. But the very diversity and number of these counterrevolutionary parties, their competing interests and latent suspicions — hangovers from when they were on opposite sides in various conflicts — renders their compact fragile. Their ability to stabilize the country by acting in unison is compromised. Hamdok’s recruitment in this effort is transparent, and its immediate rejection a reflection of the fact that these ruses no longer have purchase amongst a Sudanese people who understand that their interests will never be served by, or trickle down from, those who seize power by force.

The bad news is that the failure of Hamdok’s return to pacify the protestors means more will die, as the people are locked in a confrontation with the army and security forces that only ends with either a massacre, or the reversal of the coup. The former is more likely than the latter. The good news is that the very continuation of these confrontations suggests that the old models of politics, where a constantly repopulated cast of historically empowered political protagonists accumulates wealth and power at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods, has finally been exposed and rejected. The only way forward is that the ongoing handover to a new extractive class is interrupted. Accepting the coup may save lives, but prove fatal to Sudan itself.