On the 11th of April 2023, Sudan was supposed to get its first civilian government in more than three decades. Four years after the protests that ousted Omar al-Bashir, their former dictator, the people of Sudan were to finally start enjoying the benefits of a secular, civilian government. Their painful revolution was finally bearing fruit.
Instead, what they got was war. The 11th of April came and went. And in the following days, two rival factions of the country’s military lobbed bullets and missiles at each other all over Khartoum, the capital city, heedless of the civilians trapped in the crossfire. As of this writing, nearly a hundred people have been killed, and over a thousand injured. The revolution, it seems, is ending with a bang.
The roots of this unprecedented flare-up go right back to 2019 and the involvement of the military in the revolution. While it is true that the protests were the main factor behind the ouster of al-Bashir, they were, in the final analysis, just a catalyst. It was the military’s decision to withdraw its support for al-Bashir that finally made his rule untenable.
Things would have perhaps gotten better much faster if the military had then withdrawn into the background and let the civilians handle the transition. Instead, its leaders, long used to running the country (al-Bashir came to power through a coup in 1989, after all), stuck their heads into the door, twice taking over power from a transitional committee of civilians, and twice triggering new protests.
These protests resulted, in late 2019, and then again in late 2022, in new transitional committees, jointly run by civilians and the military. It was the latter committee that would have ushered in a new civilian government last week. But its success relied, as many pundits have observed, on the cooperation of two rival military leaders.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander of the regular armed forces, who is effectively the current leader of Sudan, is feuding with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and an estranged ally, over details of the transition that was to be.
The eruption of their disagreement into open war has thrown the international community into a flurry of activity. Leaders of surrounding East African countries, including Salva Kiir of South Sudan (which seceded from al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime in 2011), have reached out to both combatants. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, along with his Saudi and Emirati counterparts, as well as the Arab League, have united in appealing for an end to the conflict.
So far, none of these efforts seem to be working. The battles rage on.
For many in Sudan and beyond it, this is the culmination of fears about the very possibility of civilian rule in the country. In trying to avoid the fate that befell their predecessors in the Arab Spring, which were, with one exception, quickly taken over either by Islamists or the military, or both in succession, the Sudanese had attempted to chart the middle path – a drawn-out transition that was to give civil society time to mature and produce a secular civilian government.
This dream now seems shattered. As has happened in most popular revolutions through history, Sudan’s military leaders have proved themselves too proud to submit to civilian command and have now gone a step further — hashing out their personal differences by means of open war, blatantly ignoring the safety of the very civilians over whom they claim a right to rule.
The temptation to lose hope must tug strongly at the hearts of many who cheered jubilantly when al-Bashir was toppled. But now is not the time to throw in the towel. Good may yet come of this trial. For what it’s worth, I am reminded now of another revolution that came dangerously close to similarly going awry, had not one virtuous man stepped into the breach.
There are many moving scenes in James Thomas Flexner’s biography of George Washington. For me (as for the friend who induced me to read it), none is more poignant than the Newburgh Address, in which Washington calmed his troops, who, egged on by some of their officers and backed by corrupt businessmen, were planning to overthrow the Continental Congress.
Their grievances were valid and grave. For over eight years, they had fought to secure the independence of a country that couldn’t define itself, led by a hapless Congress that paid them – and that only reluctantly – in valueless money. They were now being sent off into the sunset, unpaid and unappreciated. It only made sense that they should take over the government until the debt had been paid, upon which they would cede it back to the chaotic civilians.
Washington, who shared in their plight but saw clearly the danger in the path upon which they had resolved, tried and failed, by many a long argument, to dissuade them from it. Having given up all hope, he closed his speech by attempting to read them a letter from a sympathetic member of Congress. His sight had been failing, however, and so he had to produce a pair of glasses for the task, to the surprise of his men, from whom he had been hiding this weakness.
As he put them on, he said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only grey, but almost blind in the service of my country.” This turned out to be the most effective argument. None of the men could claim to have suffered as much, and for as long, for their ungrateful country. As if a cloud had been lifted from their eyes, these hardened men, painfully slighted by the country they had given everything for, burst into tears.
When the war formally ended, they dispersed peacefully. Most of them never got paid. Many likely died in penury, their sacrifice hidden to history. But thanks to it, and thanks to the man who arguably had more reason than any of them to overthrow the government, the United States got its start as a civilian-run polity, its most consequential trait. It was Washington’s excellence, more than all the theorizing of the American revolutionaries, that made the United States what it became.
It is perhaps unfair – or just plain silly – to expect this sort of heroism and virtue out of men who have already grown fat off decades of ruling a repressed people. Both al-Burhan and Hemedti got to the helm of Sudan by backing the murderous regime of al-Bashir and then, when it became clear he wouldn’t last, stabbing the man on whose coattails they had ridden the clouds of glory in the back.
In hindsight, it is obvious that their cooperation with the protestors was a self-serving ploy. They have never suffered for their country, and never shared the pain of the protestors. They added nothing of value to the revolution. However many arguments they may now make for the righteousness of their stands, there is no doubt that they care more for themselves than for anyone else.
Only their resignations can prove the opposite. And that’s exactly why they won’t resign. Neither of them is that sort of man.
And that’s to their eternal disgrace.