CAIRO (AP) – The leading general of Sudan’s coup has promised to lead the country to an elected government. But Abdel-Fattah Burhan has powerful allies, including Gulf nations and a feared Sudanese paramilitary commander, and he seems determined to keep the military firmly in control.
Burhan first gained prominence in 2019, when he and other top generals toppled Omar al-Bashir, under pressure from mass demonstrations against the autocrat’s 30-year rule.
He remained in charge for several months, until international pressure forced the military to reach a power-sharing agreement with the protesters. That established a joint civil-military Sovereign Council headed by Burhan that was supposed to rule Sudan until elections, scheduled for 2023.
Burhan’s record was relatively clean and he was not indicted by the International Criminal Court like al-Bashir and others for crimes against humanity during the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s. He was a rare non-Islamist among top generals during the military-Islamist regime of al-Bashir. That helped Sudan emerge from the international pariah status under al-Bashir.
On Monday, Burhan swept away the vestiges of civilian rule. He dissolved the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other officials, and declared a state of emergency. Hamdok was released Tuesday, but others remain in custody.
The inauguration came just weeks before Burhan, 61, was scheduled to be replaced by a civilian as head of the council. He promised that the military will hand over power once a government is elected in July 2023.
Civilian control would not only undermine the political power of the military, but would also threaten its vast financial resources and could lead to prosecutions for rights violations in the past 30 years.
Burhan has been backed in recent years by Egypt, led by a general turned president, and the Gulf countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates. He trained at Egypt’s military university and has made multiple visits since 2019 to the de facto ruler of the Emirates, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In a sign of the decisive behind-the-scenes role of the Gulf countries, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Saudi Arabia’s regional heavyweight foreign minister about Sudan on Tuesday. A statement from the State Department said both men condemned the military takeover.
On Monday, Egypt and some of the Gulf countries had avoided criticizing the coup, calling instead for calm and dialogue.
“There is a general preference for a strong military leader who is very transactional. That fits more with the interests of the Gulf than with a democratic government, ”said Cameron Hudson, a former US State Department official and Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“They fear what an Arab Spring success story looks like,” he said, referring to the 2011 uprisings that helped inspire the Sudanese protests.
Also behind Burhan is another general, one who is more feared: Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary unit that grew out of al-Bashir-backed Janjaweed militias known for their atrocities and rapes. during the Darfur Conflict.
RSF fighters featured prominently in Monday’s coup, participated in the arrest of Hamdok and other senior officials and clamped down on the streets. The force is virtually a “de facto parallel army of tens of thousands of battle-tested fighters,” said Suliman Baldo, senior adviser to The Sentry, a policy and research group that focuses on war crimes in Africa.
Burhan has a long relationship with Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. Burhan was a commander in Darfur, where the army and RSF waged a brutal campaign to crush an insurgency, Baldo said. Up to 300,000 people died and 2.7 million were displaced in a campaign of massive rape and abuse.
He distanced himself from the atrocities, once telling the BBC: “I am not responsible for any wrongdoing in Darfur … As far as I am concerned, I was fighting an enemy just like all regular forces.”
In 2015, Burhan and Dagalo coordinated the deployment of Sudanese troops and RSF fighters in Yemen to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels aligned with Iran. His forces received large payments from the Saudis and the Emiratis, establishing those countries’ connections with the two commanders.
In the uprising against al-Bashir, Burhan and Dagalo rejected orders to violently disperse the protesters and even met them at their concentration camp. Behind the scenes, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates encouraged them to oust al-Bashir.
But the protests continued after al-Bashir’s fall, with demands for the military to surrender. On June 2, 2019, security forces and RSF fighters attacked the protesters. More than 100 people died and the soldiers raped dozens of women. Prosecutors blamed paramilitary forces, but the bloodshed stained Burhan and Dagalo in the eyes of the protesters.
“Burhan was responsible because he was the leader, it’s that simple,” said Osman Mirgany, a Khartoum columnist and editor of the daily al-Tayar. “He promised not to touch the sit-in and then a massacre happened. From that moment on, people realized that he would never keep his promises. “
For opponents of the military, that skepticism hangs over Burhan’s promises of civilian rule. Baldo of the Sentry group said the general and Dagalo intend to remain free from civilian supervision.
Furthermore, he said, they are “concerned about being held accountable for heinous crimes committed under his command”, in Darfur and in the 2019 sit-ins and rapes.