The October 25 military coup d’état in Sudan marks just the latest example of a decade-long trend, where authoritarian backsliding has undermined the tenuous democratic gains of the Arab Spring. At the same time, the dissolution of Sudan’s transitional government will test the ability of the United States to uphold its commitment to defend human rights and the rule of law in the Arab world. The 2019 downfall of Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan with an iron first for three decades, suggested a brighter future for the country. The coup jeopardizes that vision.
Several ominous events preceded the Sudanese Armed Forces’ bid to return to power late last month.
Several ominous events preceded the Sudanese Armed Forces’ bid to return to power late last month. In mid-September, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok alleged that “factions inside and outside the armed forces” loyal to al-Bashir attempted to stage a coup “to abort the civilian democratic transition.” Just a month later, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Sudan’s presidential palace to demand that the military dispose of the civilian government.
In addition to the military-aligned protesters in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, the generals governing alongside Hamdok in the post-Bashir provisional government seemed to have allies further afield. For two months, demonstrators from Sudan’s Baja ethnic group had besieged the city of Port Sudan, the country’s primary outlet to the Red Sea. However, Baja leaders agreed to a month-long lifting of the blockade in negotiations with the Sudanese military—only days after the Sudanese Armed Forces ousted Hamdok. Those same Baja forces had refused to relent during discussions with Hamdok’s administration. Critics of the military sensed a conspiracy.
In the lead-up to the coup, the United States took pains to demonstrate its support for Hamdok and the civilian wing of the transitional government. In late October, U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey D. Feltman met with Hamdok and the two top military leaders in the provisional government, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Feltman encouraged cooperation between the generals and their civilian counterparts.
The United States seemed well aware of the simmering tensions between Hamdok’s civilian faction and the military leaders under Burhan, who chaired the so-called “sovereignty council” leading Sudan’s transition from the Bashir era. A State Department press release describing an earlier trip by Feltman to Khartoum, from September 28 to October 1, stated that he urged Sudan’s fractious leadership “to avoid brinkmanship and mutual recrimination.” The press release also noted “the integral role that the armed forces will have in a democratic Sudan.”
“We did not discuss or envision the type of military takeover and betrayal of the aspirations of the Sudanese people that the military conducted just hours after I departed.”
American fears about the state of Sudan’s transition notwithstanding, the putsch seemed to catch the United States by surprise. “We did not discuss or envision the type of military takeover and betrayal of the aspirations of the Sudanese people that the military conducted just hours after I departed,” Feltman said of his meeting with Burhan during a November 2 press conference. The diplomat accused Burhan of having “hijacked and betrayed” the democratic transition.
Even as the United States, its allies, and the African Union criticized the coup, other powerbrokers expressed less hostility toward Sudan’s new leadership. Feltman argued during his news conference that Russia “seemed to almost bless the military takeover.” The New York Times, citing an unnamed American official, reported that Russia had supported the coup. According to Reuters, Russia also worked to limit the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of the putsch to a statement voicing “serious concern about the military takeover.”
While Russian backing could go a long way toward securing the legitimacy of Sudan’s new regime within the international community, the Sudanese military also has supporters closer to home. Given the thousands of troops that the Sudanese Armed Forces dispatched to bolster the Emirati and Saudi intervention in Yemen, Burhan can count on having allies in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Egypt, Sudan’s largest neighbor, also remains close to the Sudanese military.
As Burhan and other Sudanese generals tighten their hold on the country, the United States’ leverage appears limited in the immediate term. American officials have already halted US$700 million in economic aid to Sudan—a significant sum, but one that will likely do little to force Sudan’s military to reverse course. Bashir endured decades of economic sanctions, only falling from power when his base abandoned him. Returning Hamdok’s administration to the helm of Sudan will likewise require political maneuvering rather than economic pressure.
Protests against Bashir provided the justification for his removal in 2019, but it was the Sudanese Armed Forces that orchestrated his ouster.
Despite the civilian character of Hamdok’s administration, the military held the reins of power before and after Bashir’s exit. Waves of protests against Bashir provided the justification for his removal in 2019, but it was the Sudanese Armed Forces, not the civilian components of Sudan’s opposition, that orchestrated his ouster. Then as now, the military announced itself as the arbiter of Sudan’s future via coup. Today, Sudan is dealing with the consequences.
By acknowledging the well-established position of the Sudanese military, the United States can begin to develop a strategy to resurrect Sudan’s democratic transition. Though American officials have little independent influence in the country, the United States’ partners in the region have more power to act. The African Union has suspended Sudan’s membership, and the World Bank has stopped disbursing funds to the country. By coordinating with international organizations, the United States can maximize obstacles to continued military rule in Sudan.
At the international level, the United States’ ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates make up for the lack of direct American leverage in Sudan. In public or private, American officials can lean on the Sudanese putschists’ backers in the Middle East to withdraw support or to press the military to compromise with its civilian opponents. Russia’s alliance with Sudan presents a bigger challenge, but even Russia can hardly sustain Burhan on its own.
With merit, some commentators have portrayed the coup in Sudan as a deathblow to the Arab Spring. At the same time, the United States and the international community will rekindle hope for the future of Sudanese democracy if they contribute to the success of ongoing Sudanese protests’ efforts to reverse the putsch. Even if the Sudanese military retains control of Sudan, the number of the coup’s challengers at home and abroad is growing by the day. The Sudanese demonstrating against the coup continue to aspire to democracy, and they are looking overseas for support.