Hazem Saghieh

Beneath the Sudanese Tragedy

When the Arab countries that had been colonized gained their independence, they found themselves faced with two options:

- Either accept the parliaments and administrations, with all of their defects and shortcomings, that had been established by their former colonizers and then try to bring about gradual change through the avenues afforded by those institutions,

- Or stage a military coup aimed at delivering immediate change, and have intellectuals and their political parties lay the groundwork for it by slandering the political regime in power and calling for its swift overthrow.

Lebanon was a relative exception, as the balance between its sectarian communities (paradoxically) has been a bulwark against military coups. Nonetheless, the function that coups played elsewhere was and continues to be performed by armed factions, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, who have turned the country into a hellscape.

Nothing did more to bring all of this devastation upon us than the military and its politicization, as well as the ideas and parties that accompanied its rise, repudiating political action and justifying the use of violence to achieve change. They tried to accelerate history and ended up removing their countries from it.

Sudan, which has been set alight by two warring armies, is the latest example and among the clearest. In 1956, the country became independent. Just two years later, its first coup, which overthrew Sudan’s parliamentary regime, was announced. After the coup, General Ibrahim Abboud became ruler. As for Abdullah Khalil, the retired general who had headed the overthrown civilian government, his pivotal role in the coup and betrayal of the government he headed did not prevent the military from sidelining him and monopolizing power.

Abboud crippled political life; he stifled political and press freedoms and tried to Arabize and Islamize the South. However, a popular revolution brought him down in 1964, giving rise to Sudan’s second parliamentary constitutional era.

This government was also overthrown in 1969 by Jaafar Nimeiri, who had the help of Nasserist and Communist officers. The policies of the Nimeiri regime swung wildly, and its alliances shifted constantly. Then, in 1983, it sparked the second civil war in the South, which was accompanied by the imposition of Islamic law. Two years later, Defense Minister Abdel Rahman Siwar al-Dahab overthrew the Nimeiri regime and handed power over to civilians, an extraordinary exception in the history of Arab armies. Thus, began Sudan's third parliamentary constitutional era, which would endure only four years.

In 1989, Omar al-Bashir, along with Islamist officers, seized power. The regime they established combined some of the worst aspects of modern despotism with some of the worst aspects of religious despotism. Though a 2011 referendum granted South Sudan independence, this significant development did nothing to noticeably change the life cycle of Sudanese politics. In 2019, the army toppled Bashir and his regime after mass protests called for their overthrow.

Since then, the military has not stopped trying to avoid committing to its pledge to hand power over to civilians: soon after it had been formed, the military-civilian government was toppled in late 2021, only to be nominally reinstated and for its civilian prime minister Abdallah Hamdok to resign because it ran the country in name only. While a "framework agreement" to restore the military-civilian settlement was reached in 2022, its signing was deferred, and it was buried before it was even born.

In other words, the Sudanese have been ruled by the military and security forces for 56 of the 67 years since their country gained its independence. This is the crux of the matter and the source of evils.

Nonetheless, the story does not end here. Indeed, its coup attempts, some of which almost succeeded, demonstrate an overwhelming militarization. Not satisfied with merely confiscating the politics as governance, this militarization also tried to confiscate political opposition.

In 1971, Communist officers launched a coup that succeeded for a few days before Nimeiri toppled them. In 1977, Khartoum was home to the so-called "Juba coup attempt" launched by southern officers. In 1990, the country witnessed a coup attempt led by two retired generals, and Bashir accused the southerners of having taken part in it.

In 2004, another coup attempt was made; the Islamist leader and Bashir’s mentor, Hassan al-Turabi, reportedly stood behind it. In 2012, putschists tried to exploit the broad discontent of the Sudanese at the time. Finally, Sudan witnessed the most recent attempt, which was carried out by officers who have been said to be Bashir supporters opposed to the regime in place.

The tragedy currently unfolding in Sudan, which follows others in several Arab countries, presents an opportunity to reexamine the choices that have taken over the past three-quarters of a century. As for the worst of these choices, it was to burn through stages for ends dubbed “patriotic,” “nationalist,” “socialist,” or “Islamic.” However, all of these ends lead to the same outcome, power lying with the military-security complex.

Neither states nor societies can be built at the hands of this complex. Today, we are seeing the army’s struggle against society bear the fruit of the ongoing struggle between two armies, which comes after Sudan had waged wars that pitted North against the South, Khartoum against Darfur, the Janjaweed against the farmers, and so on and so forth.

As for what has happened, we can do nothing about it. However, the least we could do is learn something to avoid recurrence. It constantly reoccurs, and we never learn.