University of Chicago

International Pressures and the Sudanese Promissory Coup by Sammy Elmasri

Nancy Bermeo, in her 2016 paper “On Democratic Backsliding,” describes the transition of “the classic open-ended coups d’état of the Cold War years [to what she calls] promissory coups,” which, of course, matches the change in the two Sudanese coups of 1989 and 2019. She defines promissory coups as those which “frame the ouster of an elected government as a defense of democratic legality and make a public promise to hold elections and restore democracy as soon as possible” [1]. Bermeo’s description of the transition between open-ended coups d’état and promissory coups may be inaccurate in the case of Sudan in that it is driven less by international pressures and more by local and regional ones, and that these pressures do not push countries only in one direction.

In 1989, a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir took control of the fledgling Sudanese democracy and installed al-Bashir as the dictator and self-proclaimed president of Sudan. Recently, civilian-led protests culminated in the military’s deposition of al-Bashir. The country is now ruled by the Transitional Military Council, which promises to transfer power to a civilian government, although talks broke down with protestors alleging that they wish to maintain control. The first objection to calling the Sudanese coup a promissory one is that Bermeo’s description suggests the high likelihood that the TMC will hold power, when it is too soon to dismiss the possibility that they do in fact willingly transfer control to a civilian government. However, the TMC has made their reluctance to give up power clear, at least in the short term, due to the breaking down of talks between them and the protestors, who wish to quickly establish civil rule, as well as their bid to maintain power for two years while the African Union extended their ultimatum for establishing civil rule from 15 days to three months.

Bermeo claims that “today’s trends in backsliding are rational reactions to international incentives as well as domestic history.” The influence of domestic history is clear; the military would not seek to appear as engaging in an outright military coup because the leader that is overthrown was himself installed through the same sort of military coup, which would only inflame civilian protests rather than quell them, following Bermeo’s argument that they are “acting defensively to prevent reenactments of past assaults” [2].

While the influence of domestic history is apparent in the case of Sudan, that of international incentives is not exhibited, in fact there are international incentives pushing Sudan in the opposite direction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have offered billions in aid to the TMC, giving them an indefinite lifeline and expressing their desire for the promissory coup to default on the promise of democracy. Although protestors refused all aid, “five Sudanese opposition groups, including several armed factions, traveled to Abu Dhabi…for talks about joining a military-led government”. Furthermore, their ally Egypt pushed for the time limit on the African Union’s demand for civilian government to be pushed from 10 days to 3 months, only weakening the international incentive for Sudanese rulers to maintain—and perhaps even follow through on—the promise of democracy.

It is clear that in this case, the military has few international incentives to maintain the promise of democracy, especially considering US silence and the aforementioned weakening opposition of the AU. However, international incentives must play some role; even the previous leader al-Bashir maintained the facade of democracy, calling himself president, holding fraudulent elections, and making multiple false promises to step down; opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, the prime minister whom al-Bashir overthrew in 1989, denies that this was a military coup, urging that Sudan join the International Criminal Court, which would certainly be aided by his denial.

It is necessary to consider in analyzing Bermeo’s trends being “rational responses to local and international incentives,” not only that leaders may be incentivized in either direction, but also in that regional incentives play a significant role [3]. Last year, the European Union voted to suspend Hungary’s voting rights as punishment for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s executive aggrandizement; while the vote was unsuccessful, it illustrates the importance of regional incentives and pressures for any single nation. Just as Hungary’s democratic backsliding is opposed by the European community, Sudan’s democracy is opposed by many powerful actors in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and UAE backing the military, and Turkey and Qatar aligning with Islamist forces.


  1. Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, Number 1 (January 2016): 6
  2. Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” 15
  3. Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” 15

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