NAIROBI — Sudan’s military on Monday detained the prime minister, dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency, in what could be the end of a democratic transition propelled by the millions of Sudanese who marched in the streets for the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir more than two years ago.
The Biden administration will suspend $700 million in bilateral assistance to Sudan in response to the military’s takeover, the State Department said Monday. Speaking to reporters in Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price called for the military to release civilian leaders, restore civilian control and refrain from using violence, including live ammunition, against protesters.
“We are watching very closely to see how the military responds, to do everything we can to see to it that the military respects the right of peaceful assembly and ultimately to see to it that the military respects the aspirations of the Sudanese people to restore the country’s path to democracy,” Price said. “Our entire relationship with this entity in Sudan will be evaluated in light of what has transpired unless Sudan is returned to the transitional path.”
The coup comes just days after the U.S. envoy to the region met with Sudan’s military leaders and warned them that American support — which aims to prop up an economic renewal after decades of sanctions — was conditional on sticking to an agreement that would see power put squarely in civilian hands this year.
Sudan’s top military commander and head of state, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, appeared on state television about noon local time to announce the new measures, but he did not specifically address the arrests of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other members of the government. He also did not mention a target date for a transition to full civilian control of the government. He said the military was still committed to democratic elections by mid-2023.
As news of the military’s action spread around Khartoum, crowds gathered in the streets in protest — just days after the capital witnessed the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations since 2019, when Bashir was toppled by a wave of popular discontent. Locals described security forces out in droves using batons and live ammunition to scatter protesters, who uploaded videos of the chaos despite Internet services being disrupted.
“Everyone is on the streets. People are feeling like this is a major determining moment for our future,” said Asma Ismail, 35, a pro-democracy activist who spoke by phone from Khartoum. “Two and a half years of progress could disappear. It could all have been in vain.”
Local news channels reported the closing of roads and bridges connecting Khartoum with the rest of Sudan by large contingents of security forces, as well as the suspension of flights at the airport. A prominent doctors association said in a statement posted to Twitter that two people had died of gunshot wounds and more than 80 were injured.
Since Bashir’s ousting, the country has been governed by a civilian-military transitional council, and tensions over power-sharing have repeatedly threatened to boil over into outright confrontation. Divisions within the military have also contributed to the instability. Last month, pro-Bashir elements in the army attempted a coup but were thwarted.
The civilian side of the government, led by former economist Hamdok, had recently set a Nov. 17 deadline for a full transition to civilian power.
In a statement posted on the Facebook page of Sudan’s civilian-run Information Ministry, Hamdok was quoted as calling on the Sudanese people to peacefully “occupy the streets to defend their revolution.” A separate post said Hamdok had been arrested and transferred to an unknown location. His whereabouts remained unclear Monday afternoon.
The United States, European Union and United Nations all issued statements calling for the immediate release of civilian leaders and their restoration in the government, and the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership. Saudi Arabia, a close ally, expressed concern in a statement but did not call Monday’s events a coup or military takeover.
“The kingdom calls for the importance of self-control, calm and de-escalation, and preserving all that was achieved from political and economic gains,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s statement read.
Washington’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa region, Jeffrey Feltman, met on Saturday with Hamdok and Sudan’s two most powerful military figures, Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, a former warlord who now commands a powerful paramilitary unit called the Rapid Support Forces.
Feltman had used the meeting to warn that U.S. support for Sudan was tied to its transition toward elections and civilian rule, which military leaders have agreed to while pushing for a longer transition period.
On Monday, Feltman’s office said in a tweet: “The US is deeply alarmed at reports of a military take-over of the transitional government. This would contravene the Constitutional Declaration and the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people and is utterly unacceptable. As we have said repeatedly, any changes to the transitional government by force puts at risk U.S. assistance.”
Price, the State Department spokesman, on Monday suggested that while U.S. economic aid was paused, U.S. humanitarian aid to Sudan would continue. “Our humanitarian commitment to the people of Sudan will not change,” he said, without providing details.
Price said the United States had not been in touch with Hamdok and did not get advance notice from military officials about their takeover.
The Sudanese Congress Party, which is part of Hamdok’s coalition of civilian stakeholders in the transitional government, posted numerous videos to its social media accounts of protesters gathering Monday in symbolically important places in Khartoum, including in front of the military headquarters, the focus of the vast protests in 2019 in the months before and after Bashir’s eventual unseating by his military commanders.
The protesters reprised a central slogan of the 2019 revolution as they marched up Africa Avenue past the airport and toward the center of the city: “Freedom, peace and justice, the revolution belongs to the people.”
The prime minister’s political coalition, largely made up of groups that supported Bashir’s overthrow, had made progress with Western governments in normalizing Sudan’s diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the world after decades of sanctions. Sudan was taken off the United States’ state sponsors of terrorism list last year and had begun engaging with Western lending institutions to clear enormous debt arrears and secure loans to stabilize the country’s inflation-rocked economy.
The military’s role in Sudan’s transitional government was presented to civilian leaders in 2019 as a largely honorary one, but Burhan and others have figured prominently in the country’s domestic and foreign policy since then, and they accused Hamdok of trying to monopolize control.
Over the past half-century, Sudan has been rocked by coups and wars, creating an intricate and shifting web of alliances and rivalries. In 2011, following a decades-long civil war, the country was split in two after largely non-Muslim southerners voted to secede and create the new country of South Sudan. A particularly brutal conflict in the western region of Darfur, along the border with Chad, still simmers and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people this year alone, according to the United Nations.
Militia leaders from Darfur who once fought Burhan and Hemedti have now sided with them in an alliance that has made supporters of the civilian government, especially among displaced communities in Darfur, deeply uncomfortable. Pro-democracy demonstrators have also alleged that Sudanese military leaders still maintain close ties with Bashir’s inner circle despite claiming to be vanguards of the movement that ousted him.
A particularly sore point has emerged over Bashir’s outstanding warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, relating to atrocities in Darfur carried out by state security forces between 2003 and 2008. The civilian government has approved measures to hand Bashir over to the court from a Sudanese jail, but the military has blocked the move. Burhan, Hemedti and other prominent military and paramilitary figures served in Darfur under Bashir, but there are no outstanding cases against them.
Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.