In April, the dictator who ruled Sudan for 30 years was toppled, after months of pro-democracy protests and the decision of career generals to heed demonstrators’ demands and oust him.
The generals of Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country, formed a Transitional Military Council to rule — to protesters’ dismay — and tense negotiations began. The protesters continued to demand a transition to civilian control. The generals resisted, but they continued to talk about potential compromises.
Then, in early June, the talks collapsed and members of Sudan’s security forces fired on a major protest camp, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.
Here is how Sudan, after three decades in the grip of one man, became caught in a crisis between civilian revolutionaries, hardened generals and a fractious network of paramilitary groups and militias.
Undoing the spider’s web
During his long reign, former President Omar al-Bashir, 75, outwitted rivals, survived civil wars and famine, presided over a decadelong oil boom and created a network of security forces and militias that some likened to a spider web.
He also became a pariah in the West, accused of supporting terrorism — Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s — and orchestrating a genocidal purge in the Darfur region that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Since 2009, the International Criminal Court has tried to arrest him for Darfur atrocities, and Western countries have used sanctions and diplomacy to shun Sudan for decades.
Oil revenue, which had grown Sudan’s middle classes, began to run dry. Bashir ended fuel and wheat subsidies last year, compounding slow-boiling frustrations over corruption and economic mismanagement, and protests against him erupted around the country.
And though there were periodic clashes with the authorities, often with tear gas and sometimes with bullets and confrontations between rival security forces, the protests continued for months.
The protesters camp out in Khartoum
Reflecting the way that Sudan’s middle class has disintegrated in recent years, doctors and other professionals played a central role in organizing the protests, which set up a huge sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in the capital, Khartoum.
The doctors helped transform what started as protests over bread prices into a coherent movement, calling for civilian rule. They also documented the fatal wounds of some protesters and established clinics to treat others for gunshot wounds, the effects of tear gas and other injuries.
As the protesters held on, their prominence grew around the world. The image of a young Sudanese protester, Alaa Salah, went viral, as did stories of courage and romance among the demonstrations, which sometimes took on the character of a summer festival — itself rare in Sudan’s conservative society. The generation gap had consequences at the highest levels of power, too: The son of one of Sudan’s most powerful generals urged his father to help topple the president.
On April 11, the military did just that, unseating Bashir, who was confined to a prison in the capital.
After Bashir’s downfall
The euphoria of protesters soured, however, as they realized that generals had taken over in a Transitional Military Council. The protesters decided to continue, circulating a taunt online: “It fell once, it can fall again!”
Faced with the protesters’ outrage, the defense minister stepped down only days after taking power. (Another general replaced him.)
Weeks of delicate negotiations followed, and amid the uneasy talks — with protesters signaling their approval and disapproval of various candidates put forward by the military — a carnival atmosphere took hold at the main protest site in Khartoum.
Wary of the protest movement’s similarities to the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the Middle East in 2011, powerful Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stepped in to support Sudan’s military. (Under Bashir, Sudan had recruited young Darfuris to fight in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.)
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged a $3 billion aid package, and Egypt — where the military ultimately took over after a revolution — provided diplomatic support for Sudan’s generals.
On June 3, days after talks collapsed between the protesters and generals, Sudan’s security forces stormed a major protest camp in Khartoum. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, according to protest organizers. Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the military council’s head, announced that elections would be held within nine months.
It remains unclear which parts of Sudan’s fractious military and security establishment were driving the crackdown. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum blamed the Transitional Military Council led by Burhan, but videos and eyewitness accounts pointed to the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary unit drawn from the janjaweed militias that carried out atrocities in Darfur in the 2000s.