Sudan’s military is turning up the heat on their civilian partners in the transitional administration, allowing critics of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s government much leeway to voice their opposition.
On Sunday, anti-government demonstrators gathered outside the walls of the presidential palace, which houses the country’s top general, to begin a protest sit-in.
Activists and analysts have interpreted this as part of an orchestrated campaign by the military to replace Mr Hamdok’s government.
The generals would favour a new administration which is less critical of the military.
The two sides have been at loggerheads following a failed coup attempt on September 21, publicly trading accusations and blaming each other for the country’s many woes.
“They are loyal to the military and are repeating the military’s calls for the government to step down,” said Sudanese analyst Rasha Awad.
“Regrettably, the coup attempt is proceeding with growing pressure on Hamdok to form a new government that’s loyal to the generals.”
The military and pro-democracy politicians have jointly ruled Sudan since they reached a power-sharing deal – formally called a “Constitutional Declaration” – following the ousting in April 2019 of dictator Omar Al Bashir, whose fate was sealed by the military after months of street protests.
The demonstrations were led by an alliance of political parties and professional unions known as the Forces of Freedom and Change.
The alliance went on to become the “political sponsor” of the government, having selected its members and the prime minister.
However, it has lately fallen victim to internal quarrels that have eroded some of its credibility and undermined its sway on the streets it once controlled.
Prominent among dissenters in the movement are rebel groups from the vast western Darfur region who have allied themselves with the military, after the two sides reached a peace deal in October last year.
Thousands of their supporters were brought by bus to central Khartoum from the city’s outlying districts and rural areas farther afield to take part in protests on Saturday, witnesses said.
They chanted slogans in support of the military and blamed the nation’s economic woes on Mr Hamdok’s government. One key slogan was: “Oh, Burhan, we need a communique.”
It alluded to Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, the country’s de facto head of state and a vocal critic of Mr Hamdok and his backers.
The mention of a “communique” is a reference to what military coup leaders in Sudan have routinely read on state radio when they attempted to seize power.
Gen Al Burhan has repeatedly asserted his commitment to democratic rule, but has also shown signs of his own political ambitions.
“Since when is anyone allowed to protest, let alone camp out, outside the republican palace?” prominent activist Sulaima Ishaq asked rhetorically.
“Protesters who come close or march towards the palace are routinely met with force, often deadly.”
Protesters were left to swiftly set up a sit-in encampment right outside the palace, by the Blue Nile, in the heart of the capital. A field kitchen was also brought in and by nightfall, there were around 200 people staying in tents.
Gen Al Burhan’s office is located within the sprawling palace complex.
“They are after power and are formulating a new political process under their complete control and without meaningful participation by civilians,” Ms Ishaq said, alluding to the military.
Ms Ishaq said that on October 21 pro-democracy groups from inside and outside the Forces of Freedom and Change will respond with mass marches in Khartoum.
These will show support for Mr Hamdok's government and the transition to democratic rule.
Referring to Saturday's protests, Ms Awad said: “The marches were totally manufactured.
“If they had not been in collusion with the military, they would not have been allowed to reach the palace walls.”
Saturday’s demonstration took place a day after Mr Hamdok announced a road map to defuse tension between his government and the military, warning that the “worst and most dangerous” crisis was threatening the country’s transition to democratic rule.
In a televised address, a sombre Abdalla Hamdok also offered the military an olive branch, saying his government respected it and appreciated its role in protecting the nation.
“We have come very close to placing in jeopardy the fate of our country, people and our revolution,” he said.
Mr Hamdok said he had no intention of compromising on Sudan’s transition to democratic rule.
Crucially, he received timely support from the US, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcoming Mr Hamdok's road map in a tweet on Sunday.
The US “urged all stakeholders to take immediate, concrete steps to meet the key benchmarks of the Constitutional Declaration,” Mr Blinken said.
The rise and fall of generals
In the 65 years since Sudan's independence, army generals have ruled for more than 50 years, toppling freely-elected but dysfunctional governments.
However, the military has often failed to deliver on what it promised, from ending civil wars and improving the woeful economy to redressing ethnic and regional inequalities.
Of the nearly two dozen coups and coup attempts over the past six decades, three led to lengthy stints of military rule. Those were in 1958 (six years), 1969 (16 years) and 1989 (29 years).
Pro-democracy uprisings have ended military rule in 1964, 1985 and most recently in 2019.
In today’s conflict, the military is accusing the government of failing to improve the woeful economy and ease the daily hardships endured by most Sudanese.
Mr Hamdok, who enjoys wide international support, counters by saying his reforms have arrested the slide in value of the local currency against the US dollar and reduced hyper-inflation.
“A traditional military coup will not do in today's Sudan,” said Ali Khalafallah, a leading member of the Forces of Freedom and Change.
“Coupists now must secure regional and international backing and find a social and political cover for their action at home.”
A protest movement in the impoverished east of the country, meanwhile, has for nearly a month blocked the main road linking the main trade outlet Port Sudan on the Red Sea to the rest of Sudan.
Protesters are pressing demands for their region to be developed.
The blockage has already caused an acute shortage of bread in Khartoum and, if it is not soon lifted, could affect other basic items, such as petrol.
Mr Hamdok’s supporters charge that the military is behind the protests in the east, with the intention of embarrassing the government and deepening popular discontent over its performance.
Some military figures have added to tensions with ominous threats.
“It [the government] has already dismissed itself because it has been indifferent for some time now to the livelihood, concerns and future of the people,” Gen Al Burhan’s media adviser, Brig Gen Al Taher Abu Haga, wrote on Facebook on Friday.
“If we don’t take the difficult decision [to remove the government] today, it will be more difficult to do so tomorrow.”