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“Devastation and Anger” in Sudan as Military Coup Halts Country’s Democratic Transition

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We look at the attempted coup in Sudan, where the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan overthrew the transitional government Monday, detaining Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other political leaders. As protesters flooded the streets of Khartoum demanding the government be handed back to the civilians, Sudanese soldiers opened fire on them, killing at least 10 and wounding scores more. The United Nations has condemned the coup, and the United States has suspended a $700 million emergency aid package for Sudan. “No one is in support of this coup,” says Walaa Salah, human rights lawyer and activist who attended the ongoing protests and spoke with Democracy Now! by phone from Khartoum on Tuesday. “Military rule is a regression.” We also speak with Isma’il Kushkush, a Sudanese American journalist who lived in and reported from Khartoum for years, who says, for most Sudanese citizens, “the important thing is to see the transfer into a full civilian government, to see elections.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

A warning to our audience: This segment contains graphic video of state violence, as we turn to Sudan, where protesters are back in the streets again today following Monday’s military coup. News outlets are reporting at least 10 protesters have been shot dead since the military placed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest and detained most of his Cabinet. A number of protest leaders have also been arrested. Sudan’s military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan declared a state of emergency and dissolved a joint military-civilian governing council meant to transition Sudan to civilian rule. The coup comes two years after mass protests toppled Sudan’s longtime leader Omar al-Bashir. Protesters in Khartoum demanded an end to military rule.

AL-MIKDAD MERGHANY: [translated] This is a full-fledged coup, and we reject it completely. We have to go back to the constitutional document. The government should be handed to civilians, and you should free all those you detained and bring them back to their positions. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan should submit his resignation. His resignation is the streets’ main demand.

AMY GOODMAN: Protesters accused the military of firing live ammunition at the demonstrators on Monday.

AL-TAYEB MOHAMED AHMED: [translated] They fired stun grenades. Then they fired live ammunition. Two people died. I saw them with my own eyes. Then they came back twice and killed one more. This is the third one I saw.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the military coup in Sudan and called for the immediate release of Sudan’s prime minister and the other detainees. The United States has suspended $700 million in emergency aid package for Sudan. The coup occurred just a day after the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, was in Khartoum, where he met with both the head of Sudan’s military, who’s fomenting the coup, and the now-detained Sudanese prime minister.

We’re joined by two guests. Isma’il Kushkush is a Sudanese American journalist in Washington, D.C., former New York Times reporter who was based in East Africa, lived in Sudan for eight years. But we’re going first to Sudan to Walaa Salah, a human rights lawyer who is based in Khartoum.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us what’s happening on the ground, Walaa? Can you tell us what’s happening on the ground in Khartoum right now? We understand at least 10 people have been killed by the military. Walaa, can you hear me? OK, instead, we’re —


AMY GOODMAN: Walaa, can you hear me? It sounds like Walaa is speaking to someone else right now. Walaa, can you hear me? Why don’t we go to her describing what is happening? We weren’t sure if we could reach her in Khartoum, so just before the broadcast, we asked Walaa Salah to describe what is happening over the last day.

WALAA SALAH: By 6:30 a.m., I think I was on the street, and I was trying to see what’s going on. There were just people coming out of their houses, chanting, general devastation and anger in the faces of almost everyone I saw on the street and a total rejection of the coup. The protests grew bigger by around 12:00, just before the statement by General al-Burhan. By the afternoon, once the numbers grew and it became clear to everyone that this is a rejected move — no one wants it. I still wonder who the Transitional Military Council — who are they going to rule, because, as far as I know, walking around Khartoum city and seeing videos from other cities in the country, no one — no one is support of this coup. No one is in support of this move.

Almost everyone had an issue with the government, you know? But it’s never been, you know, the alternative to have the military rule. People wanted a different government with different policies. But these are not military, because military rule is a regression. And I think the past two years — the past three years, actually, of a very dynamic political environment in the country, where people took the streets more than they went to schools and universities, it became very clear that there are ways to connect from within the grassroots in the country. People, just citizens, are communicating with each other. The internet is out. Phone connection is very poor. I think one network is working. But still, people are going door to door, talking to each other, you know, encouraging each other to take the streets.

What’s going on in the city now, that almost every road and alley is blocked by a barricade that was put in by protesters. Very few cars are able to navigate. But mostly the movement is limited to same neighborhood. Bridges are closed. The borders between different cities are closed, so one cannot travel from Khartoum to other city, even if they don’t need to cross a bridge. So, every city is totally isolated. And this is clearly a move to isolate citizens. But the experience that people have developed in the past years — you know, remember that we didn’t have social media between December and April, December 2018 to April 2019, and we didn’t have internet totally for over three weeks after the massacre in June 2019. So, people have developed not only the resilience, but also the skills of communication beyond technology.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Walaa Salah, a human rights lawyer in Khartoum, describing to us what’s taking place there. Isma’il Kushkush is a Sudanese American journalist who was based in Khartoum for years, now in Washington, D.C. Can you take it from there, from what Walaa described, and explain to a global audience exactly what has happened here?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: So, in 2018, 2019, protests in Sudan brought down the government of Omar al-Bashir, the dictatorship of 30 years. That was followed by an agreement between civilian forces and the military through a power-sharing agreement that would last until 2023, that would see the transfer of power to a full civilian government and elections.

The partnership between civilian forces and the military has been rocky. With new policies, with the pandemic, there is legitimate criticism of the performance of the transitional government, including the civilian side. But one question that has been on the minds of Sudanese since day one, since the fall of Bashir, is: Will Sudan be able to transfer into a truly full democracy? Given the experience of similar uprisings and revolutions in the region, that has been a great concern for many Sudanese.

And we saw in the past weeks attempts for — coup attempts, declared coup attempts. We saw a protest in support of a military takeover, a sit-in in front of the Republican Palace in Khartoum. But we saw also massive, much larger protests in support of full civilian rule. Despite the legitimate criticism of the transitional government, of civilians included, most Sudanese would reject — are rejecting a return of the military. And that’s what we’re seeing right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the role of the other regional powers in terms of their relationship with the Sudanese military? I’m thinking specifically of Egypt or the UAE or Saudi Arabia, because, obviously, the United States openly has so far condemned this coup. But what’s the role of these more local regional powers?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: So, up to now, we haven’t seen any concrete evidence of a direct involvement of any of these regional powers. But given, A, the relationship that we know that the military has with the military in Egypt, with the Rapid Support Forces, which is a militia that turned into — was officialized and became a part of the military council, its relationship with governments in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, its involvement in the war in Yemen — given those relations, there’s suspicion, legitimate suspicion, and legitimate questions: Are they directly involved in supporting this military takeover?

You know, the military takeover comes a day after the U.S. special envoy met with members of the transitional government, both civilian and military. For the military to discount its meeting with the U.S. special envoy and whatever assistance, whatever promises, suggests — again, this is speculation — that it perhaps sees that it has other means for diplomatic and financial support. And these are the questions that people are raising.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk more about that? Can you talk about its relationship with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia, with Russia?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: So, we do know that the Rapid Support Forces has been involved in the war in Yemen, and it has a strong relationship with the United Arab Emirates. The Rapid Support Forces is basically a militia that made — that comes out of the Janjaweed militia that fought in Darfur, that is responsible for crimes. And it became officialized, a part of the Sudanese military apparatus, and was basically lended to fight in Yemen. The Sudanese military, the official army, historically, has had strong relationships with Egypt. Again, given the counterrevolutions that occurred in the region, these are questions that people are raising. Are these governments involved in supporting this military takeover? There is no — again, we haven’t seen any direct links or official statements on this, but I think these are legitimate questions people can ask.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you talk about the civilian prime minister, Hamdok, who was removed and arrested because he refused to support the coup? Does he have any popular backing at all, or is it just the population wants to maintain a civilian government, even though they may have criticisms of the existing officials of that government?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: Well, Abdalla Hamdok, a former U.N. civil servant, has some support. Again, there are critiques of his performance during this transitional period of his government. But I think, at heart, for most Sudanese, particularly the youth, after the 2019 revolution, is — the important thing is to see the transfer into a full civilian government, to see elections. Keep in mind, this is after 30 years of authoritarian rule by the government of Omar al-Bashir. Hamdok was seen as a glimpse of hope, his expertise. Again, this is not to discount the critiques that people have had of the performance of his government. But the idea that we are setting back the clock, after months of protests that brought down 30 years of authoritarian rule, that is something I think most Sudanese will just simply not accept.

AMY GOODMAN: Isma’il, we just see that army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan spoke and said the ousted prime minister is being held, quote, “at my residence for his own safety.” If you can tell us who Burhan is, is he significant as an individual, and what his ties personally might be?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has been part of the military apparatus for some time. He has actually — had been involved in the war in Darfur. He was part of the military that came to face with the bringing down of al-Bashir in 2019.

I think it’s important to understand the delicate situation of the military apparatus in Sudan itself. So, you have the army, the official army, and then you also have the Rapid Support Forces. The Rapid Support Forces, as I mentioned, is a — was a militia, basically the Janjaweed militia, that was made official. These are two components of the military apparatus in Sudan, who do not necessarily like each other but are in partnership and come together to be a part of the ruling Sovereignty Council. So, there is this delicate dance, you can say, between the army, led by al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, “Hemetti.” Hemetti is the deputy of the Sovereignty Council. Now, how — with the changing of this government and the declaration that a new government will be established, I think that it will be interesting to see how this relationship plays out.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] very much for being with us —


AMY GOODMAN: Oh, Juan, last question?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, just in terms of the U.S. role, what do you see? The State Department has suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan. What do you see or you recommend that the U.S. government do in this situation?

ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH: Well, I think the most important thing is to keep eyes on Sudan. You know, with the news cycles, attention might be moved to somewhere else. But I think Sudan’s revolution of 2019 really brought not only hope to the country but to the region. Whether in the Middle East, North Africa, to the Horn of Africa, it was celebrated as one of the greatest examples of people power in recent times. It’s important to pay attention to what is happening in Sudan. I do think that the Biden administration is paying more attention to the democratization process in Sudan. I think that if this was in the Trump administration, that we would have seen something completely different. But I think keeping eyes on Sudan, I think, is the key.

AMY GOODMAN: Isma’il Kushkush, thanks so much for being with us, Sudanese American journalist who lived in Khartoum for years, now based in Washington, D.C.

Coming up, we’re going to look at the tragic shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a film shoot in New Mexico, how it’s drawing attention to cost-cutting decisions, overall safety in the film industry, that almost brought IATSE to a strike. We’ll talk with a former head of an IATSE local. Stay with us.

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