By Khalid Abdelaziz
CAIRO – General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has turned Sudan’s fortunes upside down twice in as many years, first helping remove veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir in 2019 then halting a democratic transition by ousting a civilian government.
A career soldier who served Bashir loyally for decades, Burhan rose through the ranks in wars in South Sudan and Sudan’s Darfur region before participating in a coup against the Islamist leader following an uprising against his 30-year rule.
The general, in his early 60s, then placed himself at the heart of his country’s political and economic crisis by becoming Sudan’s de facto leader, entering a fragile power-sharing deal with civilians that put Sudan on a three-year path to democracy.
That arrangement ended abruptly on Oct. 25 when Burhan dissolved government and arrested top civilians, throwing the transition into turmoil. On Thursday he swore himself in as head of a new ruling council, shrugging off domestic and international pressure to reverse the takeover.
Burhan becomes the latest in a long line of military coup leaders who have ruled Sudan for most of its history since independence from Britain in 1956.
His leadership could now face isolation as it tightens its grip, challenged by opposition from a determined protest movement and cut off from cooperation by Western states that had invested in a democratic transition, analysts and diplomats say.
Critics say Burhan’s actions reflect disdain for street protests and civilian politicians, as well as a pragmatic recognition that his junta lacks a political base inside Sudan.
In response, Burhan has said the army had no choice but to sideline politicians whom he accused of inciting Sudanese against the military. He denied accusations by rights groups that the army was responsible for killing protesters and insisted its takeover, including the removal of civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, was not a coup.
“What the country is going through now is a real threat and danger to the dreams of the youth and the hopes of the nation,” he said after seizing power, promising to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over to an elected civilian government then.
Ahead of naming the new ruling council, which excludes the civilian coalition that had been sharing power with the military, Burhan began to draw on officials who served for decades under Bashir for key posts in the state bureaucracy.
SERVICE IN DARFUR
Born in 1960 in a village north of Khartoum neighbouring Bashir’s home village, Burhan studied at a Sudanese army college, then in Jordan and at Egypt’s military academy.
Analysts say his attitudes to governing were shaped by his 41 years of army service. For much of that time, Sudan was a pariah to the West and on a U.S. terrorism list under Bashir, who hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.
During a war against rebels in Darfur, Burhan held the rank of brigadier general and worked in a district that saw fierce fighting. Burhan came to know Mohamed Hamadan Dagalo, a commander of militias accused of rights abuses in Darfur who is now his powerful deputy. The government denied the accusations.
At Bashir’s overthrow in April 2019, Burhan was the fourth most senior figure in the military, holding the administrative position of inspector general. He has said he was among the military figures who gave Bashir news of his overthrow.
“I went to see him and informed him,” he told the BBC after he was named head of a transitional military council. “I told him the leadership of the armed forces had decided the situation was getting out of hand and therefore he should step down.”
In Bashir’s final years in power, Burhan began developing ties with states that have worked against Islamists in the region, notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Gulf states provided Khartoum with significant aid.
Burhan cultivated Gulf support by helping supply soldiers to a Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen. In March 2021, he received Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Khartoum.
Later he was at the forefront of tentative moves to normalise ties with Israel, meeting then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda in a surprise move in February, 2020.
The transitional authorities dissolved by Burhan’s coup had pledged to cooperate with the ICC, which has issued arrest warrants for Bashir. But the pursuit of justice over Darfur became a point of tension between the army and civilians.
The transitional administration had begun to pull Sudan out of decades of isolation, enacting economic reforms and striking a deal for debt relief that has now been thrown into doubt.