Thousands of Sudanese poured into the streets Saturday, chanting “revolution, revolution” to the sound of whistles and drums, to protest against a military coup earlier this week that threatened to derail the country’s fitful transition to democracy.
Pro-democracy groups had called for mass protest marches across the country to press demands for re-instating a deposed transitional government and releasing senior political figures from detention.
Sudan’s transition to democracy began in 2019 when a popular uprising forced the removal of long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist-allied government after nearly three decades in power.
The U.N. special envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, met late Friday with Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, a coup leader seen as close to Sudan’s strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan. Dagalo commands the feared Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary unit that controls the streets of the capital of Khartoum and played a major role in the coup. Mr. Perthes said in a message posted on Twitter that he “stressed the need for calm, allowing peaceful protest and avoiding any confrontation” in his talks with Mr. Dagalo.
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Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, also urged security forces to avoid violence against protesters. “They will be held individually accountable for any excessive use of force against protesters. We are monitoring,” he warned.
Saturday’s protests were likely to increase pressure on the generals, who already face mounting condemnations from the U.S. and other Western countries to restore a civilian-led government.
The demonstrations, under the banner of “Going backward is impossible,” were called by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association and the so-called Resistance Committees. Both were at the forefront of the uprising against Mr. al-Bashir and his Islamist government. They demand the dismantling of the now-ruling military council, led by Mr. Burhan, and the handover of the government to civilians.
The list of demands also includes dismantling paramilitary groups and restructuring the military, intelligence and security agencies to remove officers still loyal to Mr. al-Bashir.
Protesters took to the streets in Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, activists Mohamed Khalifa and Mohammed Farog said. Footage circulating online showed mostly young protesters marching in Khartoum’s neighborhoods, carrying Sudanese flags and chanting slogans against the military leaders.
There were fears that security forces may again resort to violence to disperse protesters. Since Monday, troops have fired live amination, rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-coup demonstrators. They also beat protesters with sticks and whips.
Mohammed Yousef al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the professionals’ association, said security forces fired tear gas at protesters as they attempted to cross the Manshia Bridge over the Nile River to reach Khartoum’s downtown.
“No power-sharing mediation with the military council again,” he said. “They (the generals) have failed the transition and instated a coup.”
Security forces had already blocked major roads and bridges linking Khartoum’s neighborhoods. Security was tight downtown and outside the military’s headquarters, the site of a major sit-in camp in the 2019 uprising.
Since the military takeover, there have been daily street protests. At least nine people have been killed by security forces’ gunfire, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Committee and activists. At least 170 others have been injured, according to the U.N.
Mr. Burhan has claimed that the takeover was necessary to prevent a civil war, citing what he said were growing divisions among political groups. However, the takeover came less than a month before he was to have handed the leadership of the Sovereign Council, the main decision-making body in Sudan, to a civilian. Such a step would have lessened the military’s grip on the country. The council had both civilian and military members.
As part of the coup, Mr. Burhan dismissed the council and the transitional government, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, that was in charge of day-to-day affairs. He also imposed a state of emergency across the country and military authorities largely cut off internet and mobile phone services. Internet access remained largely disrupted on Saturday, according to internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks.
Mr. Burhan installed himself as head of a military council that will rule Sudan until elections in July 2023. In an interview with Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency published Friday, Burhan said he would soon name a new premier who will form a Cabinet that is to share leadership of the country with the armed forces.
“We have a patriotic duty to lead the people and help them in the transition period until elections are held,” Mr. Burhan said in the interview. He said that as long as expected protests are peaceful, “security forces will not intervene.”
However, observers said it’s doubtful the military will allow a full transition to civilian rule, if only to block civilian oversight of the military’s large financial holdings.