The US Must Support Sudan’s Path to Democracy

For the Sudanese who feel that their actions in ousting a dictator are deserving of American support, there may not be an open-ended window before expectation turns to disillusionment.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Giorgio Cafiero, Gulf State Analytics, Sudan news, US-Sudan relations, Sudan State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Sudan revolution, Omar al-Bashir Sudan, Sudan democratic process, Sudan transitional government

© Comdas / Shutterstock

September 25, 2020 06:23 EDT

In the aftermath of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalizing diplomatic relations with Israel on August 13 and September 11, respectively, many experts predict that Sudan will be the next Arab state to follow suit. The main reason for this pertains to the fact that the Trump administration has been putting pressure on Khartoum to abandon the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and open up full-fledged ties with Tel Aviv. Undoubtedly the White House would desperately like to see Sudan take this step prior to America’s presidential election in November.

In a characteristically transactional manner, President Donald Trump and those around him, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and adviser Jared Kushner, are reportedly making a quid pro quo deal with Khartoum. The US State Department will remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list in exchange for Khartoum normalizing relations with the Jewish state. Nonetheless, this is a cynical and misguided way for the Trump administration to approach Sudan as it disregards the significant ways in which Sudan has changed its policies, both domestically and internationally. Ultimately, it would serve US national interests to immediately remove Sudan from this list regardless of Khartoum’s stances on Israel and the API.

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Since Sudan’s former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir fell from power in the spring of 2019, the country’s democratic experiment has faced myriad challenges. From COVID-19 to human rights abuses committed by the Sudanese military and major economic problems, Sudan has been dealing with many difficult issues amid the post-Bashir period. Today, there is no denying that the popular and non-violent revolution which ended Sudan’s three-decades-long dictatorship is fragile. International support for Khartoum is necessary for Sudan’s democratic struggle to succeed.

Yet this is not forthcoming, due to a lack of focus in US foreign policy that has resulted in insufficient attention being paid to the specific policy drivers that must be implemented if Washington can hope to engage constructively with Sudan’s democratic process. It would behoove officials in Washington to adopt policies that result in the US helping, rather than hindering, Sudan’s difficult transition to democracy and civilian rule.

Struggle for Democracy

After Bashir’s ouster in a palace coup in April 2019, Sudan’s revolutionaries, millions of whom spent months on the streets pressuring the dictator to step down, continued protesting in favor of civilian leadership. In contrast to the many Egyptians who supported the military-backed coup in Egypt that toppled their country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, in July 2013, Sudan’s wider public knew not to blindly trust the country’s military to defend a democratic revolution. By June 3, 2019, hardline elements tied to the Bashir regime, including militants from the notorious Janjaweed militia, massacred Sudanese protesters in the capital, resulting in roughly 120 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Yet about two months after that atrocity, Sudan’s military and civilian revolutionaries agreed to a political compromise that came up with a government that is led by civilians but also maintains significant military representation.

Since August 2019, a sovereign council consisting of six civilian and five military officials has been governing Sudan. Additionally, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok heads a technocratic cabinet comprised of civilians. Sudan plans to run free and democratic elections in 2022, with the interim period of time supposed to give Sudanese civil society an opportunity to regrow after being harshly oppressed under Bashir’s rule. During the present period, there has been a restoration of the freedoms of assembly, press and speech. But the democratic transition was agreed upon in the pre-COVID-19 era and at a time when impacts of the pandemic on public health, the economy and society could not possibly have been foreseen.

For Sudan’s government, the gravest risk is that it will lose its legitimacy among more Sudanese citizens if the country’s economic situation remains bleak. Youth unemployment stands around 40% and could widen societal divisions if left unaddressed or if tackled in ways that exacerbate and widen existing fault-lines and inequalities. Long lines for petrol as well as staple foods are common in Sudan, where the country’s annual inflation rate reached 167% in September. The global coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown have only exacerbated the country’s economic problems and made it more urgent that actions be taken as soon as possible to support the political transition underway in Sudan rather than wait until 2022, by which time the impact of economic and social dislocation generated by the current crisis might be too late to effect a positive democratic outcome.

Harm of US Sanctions

“The single biggest obstacle to Sudan’s economic recovery is the continued U.S. economic sanctions, which … not only impacts trade with and investment from the United States, but from other countries and multilateral entities as well,” explained renowned American Middle East scholar, Dr. Stephen Zunes. Other experts such as the Atlantic Council’s Cameron Hudson agree that Sudan’s long-term economic progress depends on Washington removing its sanctions on Khartoum. Imposed by the US in 1993 when Washington labeled Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, these sanctions were aimed at punishing Bashir’s government for its links to Osama bin Laden and other global terrorists, plus the regime’s sponsorship of armed Palestinian and Arab groups like Hamas, the Abu Nidal Organization, the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, Hezbollah, Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Yet today, Sudan’s post-Bashir government is not sponsoring any Salafi-jihadi terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS). In fact, even Bashir’s government was not doing so during its final years in power. In its 2015 country report on terrorism, the US State Department stated that Washington and Khartoum “worked cooperatively in countering the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and ISIL.”

Thus, Washington’s current policy vis-à-vis Sudan suffers from being stuck in a previous era in which leaders, institutions and both regional and global circumstances were fundamentally different and in no way reflect the considerable changes in Sudanese politics over the past year and more. Hudson described the continued designation of Sudan as a state sponsor terrorism as representing to many “an anachronism and a symbol of Washington’s own lethargy in updating its policy toward Khartoum.” In sum, problems which the US had with Bashir’s regime decades ago should not be “effectively punishing [the Sudanese] further for having overthrown [the Bashir] dictatorship,” as Zunes argues.

Last year, Prime Minister Hamdok spoke before the UN General Assembly and addressed Washington’s outdated policies in relation to Sudan: “The Sudanese people have never sponsored, nor were supportive of terrorism. On the contrary, those were the acts of the former regime which has been continuously resisted by the Sudanese people until its final ouster. These sanctions have played havoc on our people, causing them untold misery of all types and forms.” There is a risk that the longer these sanctions remain in place, the more the US becomes vulnerable to narratives that portray bureaucratic inertia in responding to changing circumstances as something more sinister, ascribing to Washington malign policy motivations that damage America’s standing and public diplomacy interests.

A major concern is that Sudan’s economic situation and COVID-19 crisis could jeopardize the country’s transition to democracy. If the period of time between now and the planned 2022 elections is defined by economic crises and resultant social and political unrest, other actors including the military or conservative Islamists tied to the Muslim Brotherhood may find themselves best positioned to take power. The Sudanese public, so energized by the revolutionary success of 2019, may quickly become disillusioned if it perceives its struggle to have been in vain or to have been betrayed. The experience of disillusioned activists in Tunisia and Egypt has shown how some may be drawn toward radicalization if they feel there is no realistic alternative to an authoritarian status quo.

Policy Recommendations

In order to best secure the hopes for a future Sudan led by inclusive, secular, moderate and democratic civilians, the US government should end all its sanctions on Khartoum and establish fully normalized diplomatic relations with Sudan. Thus, given the urgency of helping Sudan preserve its hard-fought-for democratic gains since 2019 and US interests in seeing a smooth transition occur in the country, below are four key policy recommendations.

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First, Washington should remove Sudan’s designation on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Sudan’s inclusion on the SST list not only bars the US from economically assisting Sudan but mandates that Washington prevent the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions from giving Sudan loans or other forms of assistance. As coronavirus spreads across Sudan, the authorities have had a more difficult time coping with the pandemic because the World Bank came under US pressure in April 2020 to exclude Sudan from a list of developing countries that received help from a $1.9-million emergency fund. Furthermore, the designation requires US citizens to obtain the Treasury Department’s approval prior to engaging in any financial transaction with these Sudanese government. So long as Sudan is on the SST list, it will be difficult to imagine the impoverished country receiving sufficient levels of investment and trade in order to develop and prosper in the future.

Second, the US should lift all other remaining sanctions on Khartoum and encourage multinational institutions to help Sudan, especially amid the global COVID-19 crisis. Because Omar al-Bashir ascended to power in an Islamist-driven military coup in 1989, and the military that took power in the 2019 palace coup did not come to power as a result of a democratic election, there remain prohibitions under Section 7008 of the State Department Foreign Operations funding. In practice, this prevents the US from providing much assistance to any country where the “military has overthrown, or played a decisive role in overthrowing, the government.”

Yet the US should not wait to pull these prohibitions until after the 2022 elections, which is what Washington currently plans to do. Darfur-related sanctions are also still enforced, which as Hudson argues “will continue to have a dampening effect on outside investment until durable peace and credible accountability mechanisms have been implemented.” These sanctions deter banks and other financial institutions around the world from taking the risks that currently come with Sudan-related opportunities. Thus, lifting these sanctions could help boost Sudan’s foreign investment climate.

Third, Washington should reverse its decision, made in February 2020, to end migrant visas from Sudan. This move basically brings all immigration from Sudan to a complete halt, and it will continue to do so even in the post-COVID-19 period if not addressed. As experts such as the Chatham House’s Matthew T. Page have explained, Trump’s domestic political agenda of taking hard stances on immigration issues amid his reelection campaign was largely behind this policy decision, which targeted Sudan and three other African countries. In the process, however, the US loses influence in these developing nations that see the American door slamming on them as only further reason to invest in even deeper ties with China and Russia.

Finally, the US should stand with Sudan’s government in solidarity against COVID-19. While the US should first end sanctions on Sudan, which would help combat the spread of coronavirus in the country and among its neighbors, Washington should also give Khartoum aid to help the Sudanese authorities deal with the pandemic within their own borders. As other states worldwide have practiced “coronavirus diplomacy” to boost their humanitarian credentials, this demonstration of American soft power could secure some goodwill from the Sudanese public following decades of negative relations between Washington and Khartoum.

Key Interests

Ultimately, there is no good reason for the US to be working to undermine Sudan’s democratic experiment, even if that is not the intent but rather the unfortunate byproduct of a bureaucracy that is slow to respond, giving the impression of stasis. Perceptions often play a key role in shaping emerging realities, and for the Sudanese, who feel that their actions in ousting a dictator are deserving of American support, there may not be an open-ended window before expectation turns to disillusionment.

Moreover, there are key American interests that can be advanced through a US-Sudan rapprochement that follows an unwinding of Washington’s sanctions on Khartoum. In terms of competition among global powers, Washington has long-term foreign policy interests in establishing a positive relationship with post-Bashir Sudan. Washington’s sanctions on Sudan, as well as outright American hostility against the country — most exemplified by the Clinton administration’s decision to bomb a factory in Khartoum in 1998 — have only pushed the country closer to China, Russia, and at previous junctures Iran too.

Although Sudan is not a high-ranking issue of interest to the diplomatic establishment in Washington nor to the US public, the American and Sudanese people alike could stand to gain in many ways if their governments reconcile and work toward a more cooperative relationship following a rapprochement. As a farmland-rich country situated along the Red Sea at the intersection of the Arab and African worlds, Sudan represents an important part of the conflict-prone Horn of Africa. In this volatile part of Africa, many powers — China, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Arab Emirates, etc. — are scrambling to consolidate their clout, and the US certainly has its own interests in the immediate and broader neighborhood.

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While the focus on countering terrorism and violent extremism has, to an extent, taken center stage in the US, measures taken now that support the political transition to democracy and strengthen Sudan’s economy can have a significant impact in bolstering Sudanese resilience to potential shocks such as COVID-19 that, if mishandled, could undermine much of the progress made on the security and stability fronts.

Yet beyond such strategic interests shaped by Sudan’s geopolitical position in the wider African, Arab and Islamic regions, the US would in an ideational sense be living up to its professed values if Washington adopted new policies that are aimed at supporting the Sudanese people in their struggle for democracy following 30 years of brutal dictatorial rule. Ultimately, the US is sending the wrong message when it emphasizes the importance of human rights but turns its back on Sudan’s non-violent, democratic revolutionaries while engaging openly with highly authoritarian states around Sudan such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

From a soft power and public diplomacy perspective, too, greater support for Sudan would be a significant tool for the US to project as the world retreats into a great power rivalry synonymous with the Cold War in the 20th century, not least because the African continent has emerged as one of the frontlines for such perceived geopolitical competition with China.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Gulf State Analytics.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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