The general who led Sudan’s coup was for years a little-known figure who stayed behind the scenes. But Abdel-Fattah Burhan has powerful allies, including Gulf nations and a feared Sudanese paramilitary commander, and he appears intent on keeping Sudan’s military firmly in control despite pressure for greater democracy.
Burhan first vaulted to the fore in 2019, when he and other top generals toppled Omar al-Bashir under pressure from mass demonstrations against the autocrat's 30-year rule.
Burhan then chaired a ruling military council until international pressure forced the generals to reach a power-sharing deal with the protesters. That established a joint civilian-military Sovereign Council headed by Burhan that was supposed to rule Sudan until elections, set for 2023.
For the international community, Burhan represented a fresh face who hadn’t been indicted with al-Bashir and others for war crimes and genocide during the Darfur conflict of the early 2000s. He was a rare non-Islamist among the top generals during al-Bashir’s military-Islamist regime. That helped Sudan emerge from the international pariah status it reached under al-Bashir.
For many Sudanese long suspicious of the military establishment, there were few impressions of him — positive or negative.
“Before the revolution, no one knew his name,” said Osman Mirgany, a prominent Khartoum-based Sudanese columnist and editor of the daily al-Tayar.
But for months, civilian leaders and the military have been wrestling for control in steering Sudan. On Monday, Burhan swept away the vestiges of civilian government. He dissolved the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other officials, and declared a state of emergency.
The move came weeks before Burhan was scheduled to be replaced by a civilian as head of the council. Burhan said a technocratic government will be named and promised the military will hand over power once a government is elected in July 2023.
The 61-year-old Burhan hasn’t appeared to be eager for power himself. But the coup was a resounding signal that the military does not intend to be put under civilian control. That would not only undermine its political power, but also threaten its extensive financial resources and could lead to prosecutions for many killings and other rights violations in the past 30 years.
Burhan has been backed in recent years by Egypt, led by a general-turned-president, and Gulf countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates. He trained in Egypt's military college and has made multiple visits and calls since 2019 to the Emirates’ de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Those countries avoided criticizing Monday’s military takeover and instead called for calm and dialogue.
“There’s a general preference for a strong military leader who is very transactional. That fits Gulf interests more than a democratic government,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. State Department official and Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“They’re fearful of what an Arab Spring success story looks like,” he said, referring to the popular uprisings around the Arab world in 2011 that helped inspire the Sudanese protesters against al-Bashir.
Also behind Burhan stands another general, more feared and seen by many as more ambitious: Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, the commander of the so-called Rapid Support Forces The RSF is a paramilitary unit that grew out of the al-Bashir-backed Janjaweed militias notorious for atrocities and rapes during the Darfur conflict.
RSF fighters were prominent in Monday’s coup, taking part in the arrests of Hamdok and other senior officials and clamping down in the streets.
RSF is virtually a “de facto parallel army of tens of thousands of battle-tested fighters,” said Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at The Sentry, an investigative and policy group focusing on war crimes in Africa.
Burhan has a long connection with Dagalo, who is also known as Hemedti. Burhan was a commander in Darfur during the military and militias’ scorched earth campaign to crush an insurgency there, Baldo said. As many as 300,000 people were killed in the conflict and 2.7 million were driven from their homes in a campaign of mass rape and abuse.
Burhan was not among those indicted by the International Criminal Court over the conflict. He distanced himself from the atrocities, once telling the BBC, “I am not responsible for any bad actions in Darfur. ... As far as I’m concerned, I was fighting an enemy just as all regular forces do.”
In 2015, Burhan and Dagalo coordinated the deployment of Sudanese troops and RSF fighters to Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels. Their forces received hefty payments from the Saudis and Emiratis, building those countries’ connections to the two commanders. Dagalo, in particular, is “the favored son” of Gulf countries, Hudson said.
When the popular uprising erupted against al-Bashir, Burhan and Dagalo refused orders to violently disperse the protesters and even met with them at their sit-in camp. Behind the scenes, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates reached out to Burhan and Dagalo, encouraging the generals to push al-Bashir out.
But protests continued after al-Bashir’s fall, with demands for the military to completely remove itself from power. On June 2, 2019, security forces and RSF fighters attacked the protesters’ sit-in. More than 100 people were killed, and soldiers raped dozens of women. Prosecutors later blamed the attacks on paramilitary forces. But the bloodshed further tainted Burhan and Dagalo in the eyes of protesters.
“Burhan was responsible because he was the leader, it’s that simple,” Mirgany said. “He promised not to touch the sit-in and then a massacre occurred. From that point on, people realized he would never keep his promises.”
For the military’s opponents, that skepticism hangs over Burhan’s promises to eventually allow civilian rule. Baldo, of the Sentry group, said the general and Dagalo are both intent on keeping their forces away from civilian control, including oversight of their finances.
Moreover, he said, they are “concerned about being held accountable for atrocity crimes committed under their command” — in Darfur and in the 2019 sit-in killings and rapes.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed.
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