NAIROBI, Kenya — Military forces detained several top members of Sudan’s civilian government early on Monday, injecting another note of instability in the northeast African nation’s fragile transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.
The detentions came about one month after the authorities said they had thwarted a coup attempt by loyalists of the deposed dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
As news of the arrests spread, protesters filled the streets of the capital, Khartoum, early Monday. Television stations showed people burning tires in Khartoum, with plumes of smoke filling the skies.
The Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Information said in a Facebook post on Monday that joint military forces had detained cabinet members and civilian members of the Transitional Sovereignty Council and taken them to “unknown destinations.” The ministry also said that internet connections had been cut from mobile phones and that the military had closed bridges.
The possibility of a coup has haunted the country’s transitional government since 2019, when Mr. al-Bashir was overthrown, and Sudan has been rocked by protests from two factions. One side had helped topple Mr. al-Bashir after widespread mass protests, and the other backs a military government.
On Monday, pro-democracy demonstrators chanted: “The people are stronger. Retreat is impossible.” Some clapped, and the procession of demonstrators grew larger.
Relations between the leaders of the transitional government, which is made up of civilian and military officials, have been strained. In recent days, pro-military protesters have demanded the dissolution of the transitional cabinet, a step many pro-democracy groups have denounced as setting the stage for a coup.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, the main pro-democratic political group, had warned on social media that the military was preparing to seize power. The association urged residents on Monday to take to the streets to resist what they called a “military coup.”
“The revolution is a revolution of the people,” the group, which is made up of doctors, engineers and lawyers organizations, said in a Facebook post. “Power and wealth belongs to the people. No to a military coup.”
As the protests intensified on Monday, NetBlocks, an internet monitoring organization, said there had been a “significant disruption” to internet services affecting cellphone and some fixed lines in the country. That disruption, it said, “is likely to limit the free flow of information online and news coverage of incidents on the ground.”
For months, the country has been wracked by political uncertainty and the challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic, and Sudan’s economy is in a precarious state, with growing unemployment and rising food and commodity prices nationwide.
The army chief of staff had been expected to hand over leadership of the transitional cabinet to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in November, giving him a largely ceremonial post, but one that would signify full civilian control of Sudan for the first time in decades.
On Saturday local time, Jeffrey Feltman, the United States special envoy for the Horn of Africa, met with Mr. Hamdok and reiterated the Biden administration’s support for a civilian democratic transition.
After the detentions on Monday, state television played national patriotic songs, and local news reports said that Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the sovereignty council, was expected to make a statement about the unfolding events.
After President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years, was ousted in a coup in 2019, the country began taking tenuous steps toward democracy, but has been plagued with unrest and an attempted military takeover.
His government was replaced by an 11-member sovereign council consisting of six civilians and five military leaders, who were given the task of preparing the country for elections after a three-year transition period.
The council appointed Abdalla Hamdok, an economist who has held several United Nations positions, as prime minister, and his government immediately embarked on an ambitious program designed to placate pro-democracy demonstrators and rejoin the international community.
Mr. Hamdok’s government eased decades of strict Islamist policies, scrapping an apostasy law and abolishing the use of public flogging. It also undertook a political and economic overhaul. It revived talks with rebel groups, and began investigations into the bloody suppression of the Darfur region under Mr. al-Bashir, promising to prosecute and possibly hand over to the International Criminal Court those wanted for war crimes there.
But stubborn obstacles to progress remained, including the coronavirus pandemic, stagnant economic growth and continued violence in Darfur. Mr. Hamdok survived an assassination attempt, and concerns of a coup swirled when the country entered lockdown last year to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Last month Sudanese authorities said they had thwarted an attempted coup by loyalists of Mr. al-Bashir. Soldiers had tried to seize control of a state media building in the city of Omdurman, across the Nile from the capital, Khartoum, but they were stopped and arrested.
Mr. Hamdok blamed the failed coup on Bashir loyalists, both military and civilian, and described it as a near miss for the country’s fragile democratic transition.
The army chief of staff had been expected to hand over leadership of the sovereign council next month to Mr. Hamdok — a largely ceremonial post, but also one that signifies full civilian control of Sudan for the first time in decades.
Three years ago Sudanese protesters protested against the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for three decades since a 1989 coup.
Mr. al-Bashir had led his country through disastrous wars and famine, but it was anger over the rising price of bread that incited the first protests in December of 2018. After nearly four months of demonstrations and dozens of deaths at the hands of security forces, Mr. al-Bashir was forced from power in April 2019.
He had ruled Sudan longer than any other leader since the country gained independence in 1956, and was seen as a pariah in much of the world. He hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, leading to American sanctions, and in 1998 an American cruise missile struck a factory in Khartoum for its alleged links to Al Qaeda.
Mr. al-Bashir presided over a ruinous 21-year war in southern Sudan, where his forces pushed barrel bombs from planes onto remote villages. The country ultimately divided into two parts in 2011, when South Sudan gained independence. But Mr. al-Bashir kept fighting brutal conflicts with rebels in other parts of Sudan.
In addition, he sent thousands of Sudanese soldiers to fight outside the country, including in the civil war in Yemen.
Mr. al-Bashir, 77, has been imprisoned since his ouster. He has been wanted by the international court in The Hague since 2009 over atrocities committed by his government in Darfur, where at least 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million displaced in a war from 2003 to 2008, the United Nations estimates.
The international court has been pressing Sudan’s transitional government, which took over after Mr. al-Bashir was deposed, to hand him over along with other leaders accused of crimes in Darfur.
Sudanese courts convicted Mr. al-Bashir of money laundering and corruption charges in late 2019 and sentenced him to two years in detention. He still faces charges related to the 1989 coup, and could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment if he is convicted.