“We basically signed this agreement for us to save the lives of our people, avoid bloodshed and be able to put the country back on track,” said Sudan’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who was ousted by a coup in October but reinstated only three weeks later after he signed an agreement with the military.
However, despite reinstating the civilian elements of the transitional government the 14-point deal signed on 21 November was met with widespread condemnation from pro-democracy organisations and thousands of Sudanese who took to the streets in protest.
Some have called Hamdok, who was until recently an icon of the protestors, a “traitor” for allowing powerful generals to continue exerting control over Sudanese politics when the military had previously promised to cede power to civilians in the run-up to 2023 elections.
“It caused a split because everyone had previously been united against the junta. When we realised that Hamdok had signed an agreement with the military it threw everyone off and there are so many theories on why he did it,” said a Khartoum-based gold miner, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lack of support
In the days after the deal, 12 cabinet ministers resigned in a sign that the agreement may not do enough to quell Sudan’s ongoing crisis.
The politicians belonged to the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a powerful coalition of political parties and union movements that oppose military rule and entities linked to the former dictator Omar al-Bashir.
The biggest blow for Hamdok was the lack of support from the National Umma Party, a moderate Islamist party that has a huge following and was formerly led by the late Sadiq al-Mahdi, a leading figure in Sudanese politics.
Other groups like the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and political parties like the Communist Party of Sudan (CPS) and the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party have also opposed the deal.
One of the main reasons is that the deal has not yet been accepted by the protestors who are pushing for a complete move to civilian governance.
“People took it emotionally because they were pressing the military very hard, they were under a lot of pressure and some say that if Hamdok waited another week then they would have buckled,” said the gold miner.
- 25 October: Military coup overthrows Sudan’s transitional government
- 28 October: US and World Bank halt aid to Sudan after coup
- 2 November: Pressure grows on Sudan’s military to end deepening crisis
- 5 November: Sudan’s coup leader releases detained ministers
- 8 November: Sudan nears power-sharing deal amid growing pressure
Sacrifice or advantage for Hamdok?
Hamdok said he signed the deal to prevent further bloodshed and to preserve the unity of the country.
Around 40 civilians have reportedly been killed in widespread protests since the military seized control in October.
Some observers argue that if the killings were to continue then lower-ranking members of the military may have defected, sparking further chaos and raising the risk of violence and war.
This would legitimise Hamdok’s claim to be acting to protect the country.
“He sacrificed himself and his popularity for at least taking the option of the civil war off the table,” said the Khartoum-based miner.
But others argue that Hamdok has cut a deal with the military to give him more legislative power as he was constrained by the myriad ideological parties and opinions that make up the FFC.
In the days after the agreement, Hamdok said that the FFC should focus on preparing for elections as they would be less involved in governance moving forward.
Reaching a deal
However, there are some signs that the deal could eventually be accepted both internationally and domestically.
Mohamed Osman, a Sudanese businessman and fellow at the African Leadership Institute, believes that the deal was brokered by the US who were keen to avoid a protracted standoff in Khartoum while neighbouring Ethiopia is on the verge of collapse.
“In the past few days and weeks the US was not talking about punishing [coup leader General Abdel Fattah] al-Burhan as strongly as talking about the necessity of reaching a deal and bringing back Hamdok, and that is what happened,” he says.
US puts pressure on coup leaders
In the weeks following the coup, as the World Bank halted $2bn in loans and the US suspended $700m in aid, coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seemed to have overplayed his hand.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, telephoned Hamdok in November after he was placed under house arrest by the military junta.
In a visit to Kenya later that month, he said: “If the [Sudanese] military puts this train back on its tracks and does what’s necessary, I think the support that has been very strong from the international community can resume.”
That includes extensive debt relief and the prospect of future financial support from multilateral institutions and nations which refused to deal with Sudan during the leadership of Omar al-Bashir.
In June, the IMF confirmed that Sudan would receive debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative which could see its debt reduced by $50bn.
The coup raised questions over that support, while in early November, the foreign ministry of France, Sudan’s second largest creditor, said that the coup had put in doubt its plans to cancel around $5bn in debt owed by Sudan.
Without extensive debt relief and the permanent end of economic sanctions, the prospect of an economic revival in a country experiencing high inflation and shortages of fuel, food and medicine is remote.
“Among the reasons for my return is preserving the economic gains and the economic opening to the world,” Hamdok told Reuters on 22 November.
Support from the US would help formalise the deal but Washington may change tack if large scale protests continue in Khartoum, Osman says.
Monetary support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, close allies with Sudan’s military leaders, is likely to follow soon after, analysts say.
Towards domestic acceptance
Another sign that may help legitimise the deal is that some politicians and civil society leaders are slowly accepting the agreement after the initial shock it caused.
The National Umma Party, for instance, is divided in its support for the deal while some of its members had actually helped to arrange it.
“If the Umma party moves towards the agreement then Hamdok has strong political support but the problem is the youth, those who made the revolution, are thus far against it,” says Osman.
Military red lines
One of the big concessions that Hamdok has had to make in the new deal is to weaken a committee that was reclaiming assets and wealth that were stolen during the Bashir era.
The Committee for Removal of Empowerment and Recovery of Public Funds had been aggressively targeting military and Bashir-linked companies in the last two years – many of the administrators were heralded by protestors as champions.
This was a major reason behind the military takeover only weeks before it was due to hand power to a civilian administration, the gold miner says.
“Some say that the committee started getting closer and closer to the business interests of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the military, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF),” he said.
The new deal with the military will likely see the leaders of this committee replaced with administrators who will take a softer stance on Sudan’s military rulers.
Some observers have argued that only by allowing the military concessions will Sudan be able to transition into a democratic future.
“These are the most powerful guys in Sudan, they are not going to just watch their assets get taken away or be put on trial for killing civilians or war crimes,” said the miner.
Indeed, another demand from protestors is that the military and RSF is held accountable for the 3 June massacre of protestors by security forces in 2019 and the killings of over 40 people during recent unrest.
Many of the pro-democracy groups, resistance organisations and families of the victims have been pushing to bring Hemedti and Burhan to justice.
“If we go after these people the country will go down the drain. Do you think they will accept culpability so they can be hanged? Of course not, they are not going to give up unless they get off the hook for killing protestors,” said the miner.
Was the coup supported by Egypt?
The day before the army seized control in Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan discreetly flew to neighbouring Egypt where he was told that Hamdok “has to go”, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Just before the coup, the director of the Egyptian intelligence service, Abbas Kamel, travelled to Khartoum to meet Burhan, but shunned Hamdok, it was reported.
“The feeling on the street is that the coup was orchestrated by Egypt,” says Sudanese businessman Mohamed Osman.
Many have likened the current takeover to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military surge to power on the back of widespread popular protest against Egypt’s former Islamist regime. The removal of a democratically elected government in Egypt was tolerated by the West and Sisi has since become a key partner in the region – a cautionary tale for stakeholders in Sudan’s democratic transition.
A potential reason behind Egyptian interference in Sudan is due to its stance on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will dam the River Nile in Ethiopia before it runs through Sudan and Egypt. Hamdok, who previously worked in Ethiopia at the UN, was seen to be close to the government in Addis Ababa.
With Sudan diplomatically and geographically in between Egypt and Ethiopia, Cairo wanted a head of state in Khartoum who will apply more pressure on Addis Ababa over the dam, it has been reported.
A current land dispute on the border of Sudan and Ethiopia at al-Fashaga would provide the perfect vehicle to raise tensions between the two countries, a Sudanese businessman tells African Business on condition of anonymity. While Hamdok had tried to steer clear of the conflict, the military repeatedly issued strong statements confirming that the land belonged to Sudan.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have strong ties to Sudan’s military and they would have been in full support of the coup if it hadn’t been for US pressure, experts say.
Hemedti has for years been leasing troops from his Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen.
The UAE is also a key export route for the illegal export of gold from Sudan, a multi-billion-dollar business allegedly connected to Sudan’s military.
Russia was seen to be supporting the coup due to several strategic objectives including gold mining in Sudan and security operations from the Kremlin-linked paramilitary force, the Wagner Group.
Moscow is building its first military base in Africa since the fall of the Soviet Union in Port Sudan.
At the UN Security Council, Russia did not condemn the military takeover and has been making objections to statements that come down hard on the coup.
“To what extent is US support to counter the role of Russia? The million-dollar question is why the US is so engaged with Sudan and how much effort will it put into supporting Hamdok and the transition,” says Osman.
The Biden administration is keen to establish itself, in contrast to the former administration, as a supporter of democracy, but also fears the very real threat of widespread instability in the region.