Sudan’s six-day old military junta will face its most serious challenge on Saturday with pro-democracy groups, civilian politicians and trade unions calling for mass demonstrations against Monday’s coup.
As Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the Sudanese general leading the coup, announced he would appoint a technocrat prime minister to rule alongside the generals, the scale of the opposition’s “march of millions” will be seen as a key indicator of the military’s grip.
Burhan has insisted the military’s takeover “was not a coup” but only meant to “rectify the course of the Sudanese transition”.
However, with many saying they continued to recognise the cabinet of the deposed prime minister Abdalla Hamdok as the legitimate government, and the US, World Bank and others cutting crucial foreign aid to the economically battered country, the military has struggled to stamp out protests.
Hours before Saturday’s demonstrations, the Saudi-owned al-Hadath television channel said telecommunication services had been interrupted in Sudan.
The United States urged the coup leaders to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters, saying how the army reacts on Saturday will be a litmus test. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on Saturday backed a “nonviolent struggle for democracy”, saying: “Sudan’s security forces must respect human rights; any violence against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable.”
“Tomorrow is going to be a real indication of what the military intentions are,” said a senior state department official. “We call on the security forces to refrain from any and all violence against protesters and to fully respect the citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully.”
On Friday, soldiers from the regular army and the much-feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces patrolled the streets of Khartoum, as well as the twin cities of Khartoum-North and Omdurman.
Heavily armed security forces tore down protest barricades of tyres and rocks blocking roads, and carried out random searches of people and cars. With authorities restricting internet and phone signals, protesters were handing out flyers calling for a “march of millions” on Saturday under the slogan “Leave!”.
Security forces fired at protesters on Thursday night in Bahri, across the Nile from the capital, Khartoum, using live and rubber bullets, witnesses said. A doctors’ committee said one person was killed while two others were wounded and in critical condition.
“Confronting peaceful protesters with gunfire is something that should not be tolerated,” said Haitham Mohamed, a protester in Khartoum. “It will not make us back down; it only strengthens our resolve.”
Recent pro-democracy demonstrations, including in the immediate run-up to the coup d’etat, have hugely outnumbered pro-military rallies which the generals are accused of backing as part of their preparations to seize power.
In an interview with Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency published on Friday, Burhan said the new premier would form a cabinet that would share leadership of Sudan with the armed forces. “We have a patriotic duty to lead the people and help them in the transition period until elections are held,” Burhan said in the interview.
However, on Thursday night Burhan left open the possibility of Hamdok – who is under house arrest – returning as prime minister, saying the army was negotiating with him to form the new government.
In a speech to groups that helped remove the dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, he said consultations were under way to select the prime minister. “Until this night, we were sending him people and telling [Hamdok] … complete the path with us. Until this meeting with you, we were sending him people to negotiate with him and we are still having hope,” said Burhan on Al Jazeera TV.
“We told him that we cleaned the stage for you … he is free to form the government, we will not intervene in the government formation, anyone he will bring, we will not intervene at all.”
Hamdok, an economist and former senior UN official, was initially held at Burhan’s residence when soldiers rounded up the government on Monday. He was allowed to return home under guard on Tuesday.
The generals have not yet produced a list of candidates for the premiership, Burhan said. The decision to appoint such a premier follows earlier calls by the generals for a nonpartisan technocrat cabinet.
The military takeover came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and pace of Sudan’s transition to democracy.