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A Plague O’ Both Your Houses: The False Dilemma of Sudan’s Elites

Even in Sudan’s historically militarized political system, civilian leaders and former rebels face a false dilemma of backing one coup general or the other, an impossible binary that has already had very dangerous consequences.

In Sudan, things are palpably tense. Last month’s framework agreement signed by both General Abdal-Fattah Al-Burhan and his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—commonly known as Hemedti—and around 40 civil society groups led by the pro-democracy umbrella, the Forces for Freedom and Change-Central Council (FFC-CC), was a watershed moment. The deal paved the way for the second phase of the political process, facilitated by the beleaguered tripartite mechanism (UN, AU, and IGAD) and the Quad (US, UK, KSA, and UAE). It also promised full civilian handover through an improbable set of procedural steps and promoted Hemedti, leader of the Rapid Support Forces, implicated in the Darfur genocide. It is this particular shift from the status quo that has drawn the ire of Sudan’s Islamists and Egypt—Sudan’s northern neighbor and enduring spoiler of its democracy, with a serious case of colonial hangover—and had led both to hatch a separate track in Cairo, held in February.

At the core, the Khartoum process favors Hemedti, whereas the Cairo process favored Burhan. Meanwhile, civilian and small armed groups face having to align themselves with either Hemedti or Burhan to secure political ends, the very same generals whose positions catalyze armed confrontations around the country and who, through their brinkmanship, keep propelling Sudan away from political stability. 

That the Cairo initiative came in close succession to the visit of Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamel in early January renders it immediately suspicious to much of Sudan’s youthful population. The Egyptian initiative’s most consequential contribution is that it has catalyzed renewed tensions between the generals. In turn, Sudan’s political groups, armed and civilian, seem to be left making Faustian pacts with one general over the other, with deep, pre-existing enmities taking on new life. This is a false choice, and one that can only lead to further polarization of the political space and, potentially, an armed confrontation between Burhan and Hemedti’s forces, with disastrous consequences.

‘Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms’ 

Phase II of the Framework Agreement’s political process is a series of negotiations around Sudan’s abiding challenges centered on regime accountability and governance issues. Cairo’s initiative did not posit much in terms of an alternative proposition to this, probably recognizing that there is little chance to achieve transformative changes through Phase II anyway. What it did do, is open the way for hold-outs in another umbrella group unimaginatively calling itself the FFC-Democratic Bloc (FFC-DB)—a misnomer since its members, then part of the National Consensus Forces backed the October 2021 coup against the pro-revolutionary cabinet of Abdalla Hamdok—to delay the formation of a government until they have accumulated enough leverage to eventually sign up to it. At the same time, civic actors are less able to leverage the same process as a means to exact democratic gains. 

These two tracks, though differing in levels of pretense, give a sense that there is order to an otherwise chaotic situation that, in reality, neither track can fundamentally address. The pursuit of technical solutions to political problems within Phase II, and the festival of the absurd that was the Cairo conference—for a whopping eight days—may therefore serve only to up the ante between the two camps, and cause further destabilization, especially after a final agreement is signed. Though these tensions may not always be entirely perceptible, given the omerta around the security sector and the exclusivity around negotiations, the market has taken note. The Sudanese pound, artificially held at an exchange rate of $1 to around 575 and 585 Sudanese pounds (SDG) momentarily broke the 600 SDG mark, in some banks and the black market, and is headed back toward 600. The dark arts that hold the pound at a relatively stable rate since the coup are partly related to the health of the relationship between Burhan and Hemedti or, more accurately, Burhan’s Islamist supporters, still very much in control of large swathes of Sudan’s economy and public banks, and Hemedti’s cash injections from his umbrous gold enterprises.

With neither the Islamists nor Hemedti wanting to give in, the brinkmanship playing out through parallel tracks may prove fatal to Sudan’s potential for recovery in the event of a new government. In the meantime, neither general has shown good will, beyond empty rhetoric, that they are ready to cede power to a pro-democracy government, exemplified in the current high-stakes tête-à-tête between them over Hemedti’s future in a military council and warring visions around integration into one unified army. Meanwhile, they maintain their partnership in avoiding commitment to their own accountability.

‘What, drawn, and talk of peace?’ 

The fact that Sudan is not 15-months into a consolidated Islamo-military coup, in the image of the Bashir regime, and that there is even the space for discussions about a new transitional government is a testament to the efforts of the street, led by the neighborhood Resistance Committees, a network of neighborhood organizers. But this has come at a cost. Despite the tensions between the Sudan Armed Forces under Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces under Hemedti, they have so far agreed on one thing: using violence to quell resistance—Burhan’s security apparatus in Khartoum and the Rapid Support Forces in Darfur.

For those paying attention, not a week goes by without a protester being maimed or killed by the regime’s security forces. Unarmed protesters continue to face the heavy presence of security forces, all while the Sudanese public is expected to believe that the putschists will abide by justice and accountability mechanisms, or that their tactical allies will be able to compel them to do so. In another public split from Burhan and his Islamist backers, Hemedti recently announced that he is pressing for police accountability for the gruesome killing of 15-year-old Ibrahim Majzoub, which drew public outrage. But in the meantime, away from the limelight, miscarriages of justice abound, with cases such as that of then 17-year-old protester tortured to gain confessions for crimes for which the state has little evidence, but for which it will mete out capital punishments. Furthermore, with Islamists swiftly returning to the justice sector post-coup, the regime has been able to weaponize the system against its critics by holding prolonged trials on trumped-up charges against protesters and returning to strict sharia laws

Beyond urban violence against protesters, Sudan’s various armed actors—official branches, paramilitaries, ex-rebels, and numerous militias—all contribute to a heavily militarized political scene, one where civilians, political elites, and protesters are held hostage by impossible binaries. The same former rebels who sought leverage through the Egyptian track are the very same groups who have yet to disarm, even after signing a peace agreement with the military component of the hybrid post-Bashir government in 2020. These former rebels, who have hit the jackpot with wealth-sharing deals enshrined in the peace agreement that still see them control the ministry of finance, large and stable social development banks, and the lucrative mining sector, would not give this up and are willing to use arms to defend their gains. Ironically, one problem lies in the peace agreement itself which extended a lifeline to defeated rebel groups and, without a clear singular victor, demobilization and disarmament, as well as integration into a unified army, will prove impossible. 

‘These violent delights have violent ends’ 

In many ways there is an inevitability of the ascendancy of armed actors, large or small, in the current political processes (if they can indeed be called that). Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship was partly maintained through a ‘coup-proofing’ mechanism which saw different strands of the security sector pitted against the other, rebel movements rewarded with seats at the table and a position in government, and a payroll peace in lieu of sincere addressing of genuine grievances. In 1989, when Bashir came to power, there was one major rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army; today, there are over a dozen. The aforementioned dynamics that shaped this trend of rebellion are, in many ways, the same political cauldron that produced Hemedti, a camel herder, turned warlord, turned politician. It is a trend that could see many more Hemedtis. None of this is encouraging for prospects of a peaceful transition toward democracy. Instead, since the peace agreement of 2020 through the chaotic political processes of today, Sudan has been mired in a period of extraordinary and unending violence across the country.

In no greater condemnation of the coup, or of the spurious yet abiding notion of the military as a harbinger of stability, the rate of fresh and resurgent conflicts has increased since October 2021’s military takeover. Acute outbreaks of violence have occurred across the country. The most enduring conflicts in Darfur, have made the already restive region almost ungovernable for a future transitional government, and have bled into instability across the Sahel. Meanwhile, the heads of the armed movements and groups have used the 2020 peace agreement to secure positions in Khartoum and, chiefly, expand their foreign connections, political, and economic, across the Red Sea into the Gulf. The peace agreement carried a significant clause that allowed it to become coup-proof, maintaining the leverage of the signatories in the event that the presiding constitutional document is overturned. One year later it was, largely with the signatories’ help. 

Despite unequivocally siding with the coup, two former rebels and current hold-outs of the Framework Agreement, Gibreil Ibrahim and Minni Minawi currently enjoy the position of being momentary king-makers for whichever general they end up backing, thereby tipping the balance—and the guns—in favor of one over the other. In the end, with almost no constituency to speak of, these loud, but by no means most significant actors know that they must make alignments with both generals in order to secure or increase their political advantage. Meanwhile, these once freedom fighters fail to see that they have been used as tools by both the generals and their regional backers. And, as always, in a system that privileges armed actors, it will be small armed actors that will be, perhaps violently, consumed by bigger armed forces.

All armed actors, having committed a multitude of political ills, understand that they must maintain their means of violence in order to maintain their power or risk meeting violent ends. This was a key undercurrent in the fears by Burhan and Hemedti in the run up to the coup. They had calculated that once they handed power over to a civilian-controlled Transitional Sovereignty Council, they could swiftly lose their pockets, their troops, and their necks—in that order. Changing their calculations and the extent to which they will either curb or support a new transition lies in guarantees around their incomes, the conditions of their integration into a unified force, and immunities around prosecution. But none of these assurances can come without their concessions, chiefly on the justice demands of pro-democracy protesters and the families of those killed by the regime. 

‘The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law’ 

For Sudan’s pro-democracy movement, the pomp and ceremony around the signing of the Framework Agreement—roundly rejected by many neighborhood Resistance Committees—have underscored the extent to which the international community, mostly very much in support of the agreement, is out of touch with popular demands from the street. There are echoes of the experience of December 2018 when Sudan’s revolution started in earnest and spread quickly from Blue Nile, down river to River Nile state, before returning upriver to Khartoum. Then diplomats, even from democratic states, had been so sure of the longevity of Omar Al-Bashir’s rule that they had dismissed the protests as a fleeting youthful pre-occupation. Today that same state-centric thinking prevails and the same international community asserts that the military is here to stay and, thus, Burhan and Hemedti are engaged and coddled as a necessary part of Sudan’s democratic transition. This paradox is not lost on pro-democracy actors who, pushing for full civilian rule, doubt the Framework Agreement’s stated aims of engendering a fully-civilian government while the security state continues to repress a variety of protesters, across the country. 

In Khartoum, the landmark trials of protesters almost-certainly falsely accused of killing a security officer and a policeman, have had little to no attention from diplomatic missions from the rights-based global order, and few calls to respect human rights laws, despite the presence in late January of the independent expert on human rights. It has only been through sustained pressure from the street that some of these innocent protesters have been acquitted.The ICC, doggedly chasing access to investigate Bashir and other indictees, must rely on the Sudanese authorities, and even more improbable on the UN Security Council, to progress on pending cases. In the meantime, the regime’s intelligence chief was hosted in Washington DC and Sudan has been subject to greater attention from US intelligence agencies, perhaps in an indication of a shift toward a more securitized policy approach from the US, at the expense of a rights-based approach.

If western international actors have been generally out of touch, unimaginative, and disunited in their policy approaches to Sudan, liable instead to tend toward orthodox policy responses, regional actors, particularly in Abu Dhabi and Cairo, have been actively seeking a securitized approach by playing favorites with Hemedti and Burhan, respectively. With the US seemingly incentivizing Burhan and Hemedti, separately, to counter varying degrees of Russian influence, the lack of a common approach to the security sector further entrenches divisions. It may soon become difficult to tell the difference between the approaches of the West and the rest. 

More predictably, regional and international patronage which sees states supporting either Burhan or Hemedti, over the sustainability of Sudan, is a fractal of the false dilemma faced by Sudan’s domestic actors. But it is matters beyond Sudan’s political processes that have led to greater international division over which general to back toward a “stable” outcome for Sudan and the region—a fool’s errand, as neither general can. In the post Ukraine invasion-world, Hemedti’s more obvious relationship with Russian mercenary group Wagner has put him in the cross-hairs of international machinations across the Sahel. For Cairo, the prospect of eliminating Hemedti is too good an opportunity to pass up, and the timing is right with western attention coalescing around halting the domino effect of former French colonies turning their backs on Paris in favor of Moscow. To make this work, Cairo appears to have joined forces with the Islamists it loathes in order to shore up support for Burhan, in a tactical move that is sure to backfire both in Khartoum and Cairo.

In many ways, the engagement of Cairo, even against an internationally-backed deal, was inevitable. But it has urged the rest of the international community to effectively take a side too, while the demands of pro-democracy groups have taken a back-seat and are in danger of being relegated to the procedural abyss. 

‘These times of woe afford no time to woo’

For the moment, the UN, the African Union, and IGAD, plus the Quad, with an extra push from US Secretary for Foreign Affairs Anthony Blinken during his visit to Cairo recently, have urged all sides to join the Framework Agreement protocol. Though this agreement patently benefits Hemedti, Burhan has kept his options open by having one foot in the political process in Khartoum, and one out. That’s because Burhan and Hemedti are caught in their own dilemma, the security dilemma, where even if neither wants a conflict, in a system of bifurcated power and multiple sovereignties, both have an incentive to arm and to seek diverging security guarantees inside and outside the state. 

The generals’ tug of war has jeopardized Sudan’s domestic and regional security and threatens to do more if political processes do not recognize Burhan and Hemedti equally as bad faith actors, rather than as potential linchpins of stability; recognize that they are equally and simultaneously in need of committing to reform processes and condemn their tendency to seek the backing of other armed groups to avoid such commitments; and that they are equally in danger of wrecking Sudan’s democratic transition, yet again, rather than championing transformative change. 

Pro-democracy groups know well what Burhan and Hemedti are—they have faced the brunt of their brand of governance. They know that while Burhan and Hemedti may need legal certainties and a stake in Sudan’s future to comply with some reforms, they do not need to maintain their protected incomes, divergent foreign policies, and opportunities to strengthen their security collaboration else they risk further bifurcating the security sector, undermining a new government and rendering reform impossible. The international community recognizes that this period is make-or-break for Sudan, but must avoid buying into this false dilemma and its limited set of options and in its place support political actors to reset their own calculations based on this binary; push Burhan and Hemedti to both commit to long-term reform and to do so before a new transitional period; and in the interim push for the release of all detainees, and separately support civic groups to seek legal redress for miscarriages of justice against pro-democracy actors.

‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast’ 

Of the major differences between the Sudanese organized street and the political elite, is the timeframes of change that they work within. Change in Sudan is expected to happen fastest by international actors, who measure progress through arbitrary timeframes, such as expecting a civilian government in place before Ramadan. Political elites meanwhile stress the urgent necessity of forming a government to stave off economic collapse, an issue that—while imperative for most Sudanese—they nevertheless rarely mention during their respective political processes. Resistance Committees are working within a much longer timeframe and thus many have pivoted away from getting embroiled in the current political chaos. They instead focus on local governance, civic education, and local-level mobilization, pivoting toward a unified civilian base, regardless of political outcomes at the detached elite level. 

For any political process to work, all three layers must be engaged and work in tandem. But above all, successful processes would privilege organic and considered interventions that aim to break the transactional militarized politics of Sudan that force such false dilemmas in the first place. This will require civilians and, as much as possible, former rebels, to avoid Faustian pacts and strive for greater unity and shared civilian opportunities. Otherwise, not only will they endanger their own political futures, but they will remain Fortune’s fools. 

Kholood Khair is the founding director of Confluence Advisory, a think and do tank in Khartoum that works on governance, peace and security, and the economy.


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