The Coup in Sudan: Some Theories

5 Dec

Though the entire incident is shrouded in confusion, it appears as there was attempted coup in Sudan on November 22nd.  Though the coup did not have any real impact on violence levels or the situation of Sudan’s civilians, the potential impact of regime change on  in these sectors is enormous, and therefore it is an important issue to keep tabs on for civilian protection advocates.  The details of the event are still mostly unclear, and so while it is impossible to establish a comprehensive summary, there are a few ideas that I would like to put forward.  Inevitably, with time, the events of November 21st and 22nd will become more clear.

One theory regarding the incident was that it was simply a government hoax aimed to repressing dissent, and there was never a real threat to Bashir’s regime.  This doesn’t make sense for a few reasons.  Firstly, those arrested come from within the NCP, despite attempts to obfuscate.  Khartoum has no reason to publicize splits within the NCP if it doesn’t have to.  Secondly, the messaging in the early hours following the coup was confused.  Numerous government officials made conflicting statements about who was involved, who was arrested, etc.  Presumably, an government sponsored hoax would have been preceded by inter-agency cooperation and planning, and this seems not to have happened.  While this fact seems to almost certainly point to a putsch attempt, it at least indicates the severe lack of institutional organization within the regime.

While the coup has not led to overthrow of Bashir, it has significant analytical importance for examining the state of the Bashir regime.  Currently, Sudan is experiencing severe economic problems, which culminated in #SudanRevolts this summer.  Additionally, there are doubts about the health of Bashir, who is recovering from a throat operation.  Finally, the NCP is experiencing severe political divisions, with roughly the hard-line Islamists on one side and the reformers on the other.  These three factors, combined with the attempted coup, reveal the extreme vulnerability afflicting the current Sudanese regime.  Theda Skocpol, and other structuralists, has highlighted the importance of state collapse in precipitating revolutions.  Therefore, not only can regimes not fall without debilitating internal strife, but revolutionary movements can only exist if there are signs of state weakness.  If we accept this line of theory, we can expand her analytical framework to encompass coups, and conclude there could never have been an attempted coup without significant state weakness.  The regime is currently not fragile enough to crumble under its own weight, but it is weak enough to produce an attempted coup.

Despite obvious signs of state weakness, Bashir’s security forces responded promptly to the attempted putsch.  Though it seems clear the plotters were hard-liners from Al-Sae’ohoon, the government clumsily and belatedly tried to blame the opposition.  While the coup response was intended to strengthen and consolidate the regime, it seems to have only further isolated Bashir and his cronies.  One major question, however, is how active and deliberate was this coup?  Bashir clearly felt the need to crackdown, but was this because of an imminent coup or simply deep divisions within the NCP?  It is quite plausible that Salah Gosh was indeed organizing opposition within the NCP, but did not intend to overthrow the government.  Did Gosh really put everything on the line as the government has claimed, or was he merely working toward shifting the party’s policies in a more hard-line direction?  With the current information, it’s basically impossible to tell.

There, of course, is a long history of failed coups all around the world.  However, I think it is important, especially in the Sudanese context, to not merely dismiss the coup as a failure, but to place it within a broader context.  The current state weakness may indicate that this was a “dress rehearsal” coup.  What I mean here is that this coup was a first attempt to overthrow the government, which gives the opposition a reading on how the regime would respond to a later coup.  This can be interpreted in two ways.  Firstly, the opposition simply wanted to test out the strength of the regime, and therefore put a small group of individuals together to challenge the regime, with the knowledge that it would likely fail.  This model, however, seems overly conspiratorial.  Secondly, the weakness of the regime encouraged a small group of plotters to try to overthrow the government, but were unable to garner enough support due to others’ readings of state strength.  Opposing factions now know how the government will react to a coup, and may be able to create a larger, successful coup in the future.

“Dress rehearsal” coups have happened before.  Argentina in 1955 and Chile in 1973 both provide examples of an attempt by a portion of the armed forces to overthrow the government that failed.  In both cases, the armed forces united three months later and succeeded.  Could this happen in Sudan?  While the situation is not totally analogous, there are certainly similarities.  Like Argentina and Chile, Sudan is in a state of crisis and the public has a growing lack of trust in the government.  The initial attempt to seize the state seems to have been caused by the apparent fragility of the government, though it was too soon to actually gather support.  Ultimately, the failed coup attempt weakened the regime, and the armed forces saw that they would indeed be able to seize power.  In Sudan, we have a failed coup that included parts of the armed forces at a time of great state weakness, causing a backlash from the ruling faction.  In response to this coup, Bashir has seemingly isolated himself from both Islamists and the opposition by imprisoning the first and blaming the second.  A successful coup in the future certainly isn’t inevitable, but Bashir shouldn’t count himself lucky just yet.

* I am not a political scientist, therefore any comments or corrections on the theories presented in the last few paragraphs would be appreciated.

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One Response to “The Coup in Sudan: Some Theories”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Conflicts to Watch in 2013 (Part I) « The Widening Lens - January 1, 2013

    […] they might not even be the biggest problems in 2013.  Growing divisions within the NCP caused what appears to have been a coup attempt in November, and combined with the return of #SudanRevolts, Bashir now looks far weaker than he […]

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