Sudan’s army chief appointed himself as the head of a new ruling body on Thursday, entrenching a recent military coup and dealing a major blow to western-led efforts to steer Sudan back to a democratic path.
The sudden announcement by Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan dashed hopes for an early end to a crisis that has gripped Sudan since October 25th, when his soldiers arrested the prime minister, imposed a state of emergency and cut off the internet.
Since then, anti-coup protesters have flooded the streets of Sudan’s major cities and engaged in civil disobedience as US officials led a diplomatic scramble in the capital, Khartoum, that sought to persuade Gen Burhan to reverse course.
But on Thursday night the military appeared to be tightening its grip on power, with the announcement on state media of a new governing council led by Gen Burhan that it promised would steer Sudan toward its first free election. Few in the international community appeared to believe that promise.
The military’s announcement coincided with a closed meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis. UN secretary general António Guterres said the developments in Sudan were “very concerning” and called for “a return to the transition as quickly as possible”, his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters in New York.
Mr Dujarric reiterated calls for the release of the deposed prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who remains under house arrest, and other detained political leaders.
In a statement on Facebook, Sudan’s minister for culture and information, Hamza Baloul Al-Amir, played down the significance of the military’s announcement as “an extension” of the coup that started on October 25th. There was no immediate reaction from the United States.
The military’s move highlighted the fragility of the democratic hopes that stirred in Sudan in 2019, when massive street protests led to the ousting of the country’s dictator of 30 years, Omar al-Bashir.
Bashir was thrown in jail and later convicted on corruption charges. But a shaky power-sharing arrangement between civilian and military leaders, which was supposed to steer the country toward free elections as early as 2023, was dogged by tensions and is now in danger of running entirely aground.
Protest groups plan demonstrations on Saturday, the latest in a series of strikes, rallies and civil disobedience campaigns that have paralysed Sudan in recent weeks. People enraged by the coup have barricaded themselves into Khartoum neighbourhoods, hoping to reverse what they have termed as a military power grab.
Gen Burhan said he seized control simply to end squabbling between rival political factions and has vowed to return power to civilians. He is under immense pressure from western countries that have threatened to slash economic aid, including tens of billions of dollars in debt relief, as Sudan suffers through a punishing economic crisis.
But Sudan’s generals are also seeking to protect the sweeping privileges and considerable financial interests they accumulated under three decades of Bashir’s rule. And they are backed by several Arab powers, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, whose long-standing antipathy toward democracy is matched in Sudan by their strategic interest in outright military rule.
The governing council announced by Gen Burhan on Thursday was effectively a reboot of the civilian-military body that has been running Sudan for the past two years. The military members named by Gen Burhan remain the same, including his powerful deputy, Lt Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo – an ambitious, ruthless paramilitary commander who many analysts believe is vying to lead the country.
“This consolidates their hold on power and deflects attention from Burhan to a wider group that is nominally responsible for governing,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior Africa analyst at the Atlantic Council.
US diplomatic pressure in recent weeks has focused on getting the military to reinstate Mr Hamdok as prime minister, Mr Hudson noted, adding, “This moves us in the opposite direction.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times