The Military Reset in Sudan
The ousting of Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, in 2019 was a critical moment for the country. President Al-Bashir was a military leader who had overthrown the former democratic government and, during his rule from 1993 to 2019, committed genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. Protests erupted in 2019 in response to worsening economic conditions in the country and the lack of any comprehensive government response. Seeing just how popular the protests became, military officials, once aligned with Al-Bashir, called for and carried out his arrest, initiating what was meant to be the transition to democracy. Years earlier, other North African countries such as Libya and Tunisia experienced similar political revolutions aimed at installing democracy, or at the very least ridding their countries of their dictators in order to improve the well-being of citizens. Unfortunately, most of those revolutions were co-opted by military leaders or affiliated security organizations and did not result in democratic governance.
Similarly, the promise of democratic governance was not in the cards for Sudan following the events of 2019. Since taking power, the military government in Sudan has accumulated a wealth of friends in the area – most of whom are other autocratic, or authoritarian, governments like that of Egypt. This regional support has emboldened Sudan’s military government under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to the point where it led another coup in 2021 against the elected civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, to gain a total share of power. This has been an ongoing trend within the region and globally of stronger support between autocratic leaders to keep themselves in power. Since the wave of revolutions in the 2010s that brought disturbance to the autocratic regimes in the region, the solidarity between leaders and regimes has strengthened.
Egypt and Sudan’s Friendship: Shared Anti-Democratic Aims
Egypt and Sudan both had strong civilian protests that were crucial to ousting long-time leaders. However, ever since Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a former member of Egypt’s military, took control of the country from Egypt’s first democratically-elected government in 2014, the military has reigned supreme. It was a similar story to the intentions of the military leaders of the coup in Sudan in 2021. Like Sudan’s military government, Sisi’s regime has committed numerous human rights abuses in the process of cracking down on anti-regime protests.
While not particularly an admirer of Bashir nor a close ally of his regime, Sisi did not welcome Bashir’s overthrow in 2019. Sisi worried that the successes of the democratic movement in Sudan might inspire a similar campaign in Egypt that would then threaten his authority. His fears were perhaps not unfounded – many Egyptian activists and citizens felt a sense of solidarity with Sudanese protestors given their own experience with a democratic uprising in 2011 that brought down longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Sensing the impacts a civilian takeover in Sudan could have, Sisi recommended that the military council in charge of Sudan be afforded more time to get the country’s affairs in order before a civilian government could be elected. Sudanese protestors responded by denouncing Sisi and reminding him where Egypt’s borders, and thus his influence, are supposed to end.
In the leadup to the 2021 coup in Sudan, Sisi and his government maintained their support for Sudan’s military, albeit behind the scenes. When the coup was carried out in October 2021, many Sudanese citizens speculated that the Egyptian military had a more active role to play. It was reported that a senior intelligence official from Egypt met with General al-Burhan prior to the coup and explicitly voiced Egypt’s interest in seeing civilian leader Hamdok removed. Then just days before the coup, al-Burhan supposedly met directly with Sisi to secure Egypt’s stamp of approval and diplomatic backing. While it remains undetermined the exact degree of Egypt’s involvement, Sisi’s government has certainly shown where its allegiance lies in the aftermath of the coup; after initially taking a neutral stance, Egypt has lobbied in support of al-Burhan’s claim.
What’s more, the Egyptian government has taken direct action to attack Sudanese civilians who oppose the coup. For example, refugees from Sudan who fled to Egypt and expressed any kind of activist sentiment have been targeted and faced arbitrary arrest by Egyptian police. This is but one example of how authoritarian governments in North-East Africa are creating mutually-beneficial agreements with each other to maintain their power and quash any pro-democracy and human rights movements.
A Regional Ripple Effect
This relationship between Egypt and Sudan’s autocratic governments has extended outside of domestic issues into creating joint diplomatic pressure on other countries. For example, as Ethiopia finishes up the Grand Renaissance Dam – a massive project that threatens Egypt and Sudan’s water security on a major tributary of the Nile river – the two nations have formed a unified front to lobby against the project. In addition, the two countries have been holding military exercises in response to diplomatic breakdowns on how the new dam should be filled up while still ensuring water reaches Egypt and Sudan.
Rather than supporting the military’s return to power in Sudan like the Egyptian government has, other countries in the region instead urged stability and compromise from the country’s two major oppositions. However, the promise of stability feels empty when the military holds all official power and creates hostile situations for peaceful protesters. As well, little has been said by neighboring countries about the reports of the Sudanese citizens who have been killed while protesting, perhaps out of fear of potentially rallying their own supporters of democracy.
Money Does the Talking
Not only has diplomatic support from the likes of Egypt been paramount to Sudan’s military government, but building economic alliances with neighboring countries has been crucial for al-Burhan’s aspirations. Sudan’s economic situation has steeply deteriorated ever since its once oil-rich territories were incorporated into the newly-independent South Sudan in 2011. In addition, the political conflict over the last few years has heightened Sudan’s economic crisis. The economic crisis has been placed largely on the shoulders of citizens as opposed to the elites in the military. Costs for goods coming from outside the country have sharply increased and in addition, agricultural goods in Sudan have been insufficient due to faltering rain. The United Nations’ socio-economic organizations have warned of what will come if a compromise is not found and international relief can begin.
Support for Sudan has grown with new partnerships to explore a potential railway line between Egypt and Sudan. It would mean a more direct line of goods and support coming to Sudan that could alleviate some of the economic pain in the country. In addition, Egypt has directly announced aid packages involving humanitarian support for Sudan. This even extended to assisting in training medical professionals in Sudan. Egypt has put all its eggs into the military leadership’s basket in supporting the coup leaders.
Al-Burhan’s government has also been pursuing outside support from oil-rich autocracies a little further away. The United Arab Emirates is one country that has been supporting Sudan’s military leaders especially when it comes to the supply of oil to Sudan. The same applies to Saudi Arabia, a country that itself is no stranger to carrying out attacks on civilians. Sudan has sought both material and financial assistance from the two countries by requesting deposits intended to stabilize the Sudanese currency. Both countries are part of the Friends of Sudan diplomatic group created to assist in negotiations between the two sides.
An Opportunity for Solidarity
The military officials leading Sudan have similar interests to those presiding over the regimes of countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the U.A.E who all want to maintain power in the face of public demands for change. Having learned from the wave of popular uprisings in the 2010s, military-affiliated autocrats like Sisi and al-Burhan know that unrest in one nation can spill over into the other. Thus, they have apparently recognized that having each other’s backs is the most strategic option to maintain their own individual monopolies on power. Seeing the way their own leaders conspire to suppress democratic movements, the people of Sudan and Egypt could pursue their own avenues of solidarity on the ground. Acknowledging the shared experience of democracy being ripped away from them by power-hungry militaries could foster transnational ties and promote the power of the people in the two respective nations and beyond.
Edited by Chelsea Bean