In the early morning of October 25, Sudans top security brass overthrew the civilian-led transitional government to safeguard their economic assets and their impunity to commit grave human rights abuses. Days after the coup, the U.S suspended $700 million in development aid and the World Bank paused $2 billion in planned disbursements. But its not enough to reassert American leadership in Sudan, a country that President Trump only saw as another box to check in his Israel-Arab states peacemaking initiative.
Bidens policy throughout Sudans coup and violent political machinations since has been largely absent. There has been the typical slate of condemnations and press statements from the State Department, but not enough to assert the commitment that Secretary of State Tony Blinken has made to human rights as a driver of the administrations foreign policy.
All our diplomacy has been undermined by not having an ambassador on the ground. In fact, we havent even lived up to our commitment of appointing one, says Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council Africa Center in Washington.
I do think that has hampered our ability to be effective, to have influence on the ground and to understand the local context. The U.S Embassy is a massive fortress, and it is a ghost town. You have this outward display of U.S influence, but it is literally hollow on the inside, Hudson adds.
Two years ago, the Sudanese people overthrew the despotic government, yet the coup has exposed the Sudanese militarys motive to evade accountability. That was clear when military chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhanthe frontman of the coupmoved to suspend the work of two civilian committees that were formed at the start of the transition in the fall of 2019. The first was tasked with recovering assets stolen by cronies close to former dictator Omar al-Bashir, a mandate that threatened core patronage networks in the military. The other was responsible for pressing charges against those suspected of plotting the massacre that killed more than 120 people in the capital of Khartoum on June 3, 2019.
Despite the juntas obvious intentions, Burhan and his accomplices denied orchestrating the October coup, and instead framed their power grab as a corrective measure to help Sudan achieve democracy.
Sudans vibrant street movement wasnt convinced, prompting activists to call for demonstrations to demand civilian rule. And as protests mounted, so did the publics support for the beleaguered prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, who was kept under house arrest during a countrywide internet blackout. Then, Hamdok lost all credibility with protesters when he signed a new political agreement with Burhan on November 21.
Hamdok, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, explained that he signed the deal to end the bloodshed in the streets, where scores of people have been killed since the coup. The disturbing irony was that a 16-year-old protester was shot dead while Hamdok attended the signing ceremony. Hamdok still justified the agreement by saying it would restore international funding, which his previous cabinet worked so hard to secure.
While its unclear if U.S aid will resume, Hudson suspects that Hamdok was spooked by a draft resolution submitted to the U.S Congress on November 20, calling for targeted sanctions on Sudans coup plotters. Hamdok appeared to have been misinformed about the kind of sanctions being drummed up.
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Hudson explained that the Sudanese prime minister was fearful that new U.S. sanctions would be imposed on the military government, which would put at risk Sudans entire economic program. That suggests that Hamdok was not in close contact with U.S officials. If he had been, then he would have had a better understanding of the type of sanctions being contemplated, he says.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel have great influence in Sudan. U.S officials must convince them that a civilian government is more likely to secure their interests than an unaccountable military regime.
Shortly after the agreement, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who crafted the sanction proposal, reaffirmed his commitment to punishing those obstructing democracy, peace, and accountability in Sudan. (Coons has Bidens go-to foreign-policy emissary when it comes to crises and has been shuttling to the Horn of Africa.) He then stressed that the Sudanese people must decide whether the deal between coup leader Burhan and Prime Minister Hamdok reflects real progress.
The street remains wary. Khartoums resistance committeesneighborhood groups with a horizontal command structure that mobilize protests on the streetshave already opposed the deal in a unified statement. Zuhair al-Dalee, a resistance committee representative, said that street protests are scheduled to intensify.
The streets will be filled with people and revolutionaries will block the streets, Al-Dalee told the Prospect. We have an escalation schedule where mass demonstrations are planned for specific days to express the people's disapproval of the so-called agreement, he said.
The deal appears to be widely unpopular. A loose civilian coalition that appointed Hamdok as prime minister in 2019, called Forces for Freedom and Change, also rejected the agreement. Former foreign minister Mariam al-Mahdi said that the prime minister didnt consult the coalition before inking the deal, speaking at a webinar last week.
The global community will quickly realize that Hamdok isnt redeemable, says Ammar Hamoda, a spokesperson for the Forces for Freedom and Change. I think they will see how different it is to deal with Hamdok as a name on paper, compared to when they were dealing with him as an actual representative of the Sudanese people, he says.
The only chance Hamdok has to retain a sliver of domestic legitimacy is if the military delivers on their side of the agreement. But so far, the junta hasnt stopped attacking protesters, nor has it released all political opponents arrested since the coup. Not all ministers have been freed, nor have activists that were arrested and taken to unknown locations.
Both resistance committees and political operatives agree that imposing sanctions on coup leaders might be the only way to salvage the democratic transition.
Washington could, for instance, employ the Global Magnitsky Act, which freezes the assets and bans foreign persons from entering the U.S. if theyre deemed to have committed grave human rights abuses or been involved in high level corruption. The Magnitsky Act would effectively stop military chief Burhan and his accomplices from sustaining their regime through drawing on profits from military-owned companies, selling gold illicitly, or leasing out mercenaries to the Kremlin, which uses a notorious quasi-private security company known as Wagner Group to secure geo-political gains.
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Targeted sanctions will only be effective, however, if theyre part of a comprehensive policy that supports Sudans remarkable protest movement, according Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political expert with Insight Strategy Partners, a Khartoum-based think tank. She says that its imperative for the White House to appoint an in-country ambassador, as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised to do two years ago. That way, Washington can begin building trust with pro-democracy demonstrators and civil society networks, while exploring ways to support them.
The U.S must build trust with civil society, to the extent that civil society actors trust that they will be supported by the U.S, and not have an arrangement imposed on them from above, says Khair.
Equally important, says Khair, is for Washington to push its regional allies to strip support for Sudans junta. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel have great influence in Sudan. U.S officials must convince them that a civilian government is more likely to secure their interests than an unaccountable military regime.
There are strong arguments to support this logic. For the Gulf states, Sudan is a breadbasket for their internal wheat supply. A civilian government in Khartoum would generate less unrest and more stability, helping to protect Saudi Arabia and UAE agricultural investments. A civilian government could also play a more constructive role in mediating the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). That project threatens to existentially reduce Egypts water supply unless a legally binding agreement is reached to regulate the flow of the Nile. Israel, too, needs to understand that stability in the Horn of Africa hinges largely on Sudans transition to democracy, not a military junta.
The U.S needs to undue the Trump policy of outsourcing the region to regional states, said Khair. The question for the Biden administration is how far are they willing to go to put pressure on these countries?