How US efforts to guide Sudan to democracy ended in war


A few weeks ago, US diplomats thought Sudan was on the verge of a breakthrough agreement that would advance its transition from military dictatorship to full democracy, fulfilling growing promise. country’s revolution In 2019.

Sudan became an important test case for President Biden main foreign policy goals Strengthening democracy around the world, which in their view weakens corrupt leaders and allows nations to stand up more competently against the influence of China, Russia and other autocratic powers.

But on April 23, the same American diplomats who had been involved in negotiations in Sudan suddenly found themselves closing the embassy and escape from khartoum Secret night-time helicopter flights as the country plunged into a possible civil war.

Biden administration officials and their allies are now struggling to get the two warring generals to stick to a ceasefire and end hostilities, as foreign governments evacuate civilians amid fighting that has killed at least 528 people have been killed and more than 330,000 have been displaced. The actual toll is almost certainly much higher than the Sudanese government’s numbers.

An urgent question at the heart of the crisis is whether the United States misjudged how difficult it would be to implement democracy in a country with a long history of military rule, and the risks of negotiating with strongmen who talk of democracy , but never worked.

Critics say Biden administration prioritizes working with civic leaders rather than empowering them two rival generalsGeneral Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, The chief of staff of Sudan’s army, and the head of the paramilitary, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, together in 2021, even after a military coup.

“Senior American diplomats made the mistake of belittling the generals, accepting their irrational demands, and treating them as natural political actors,” said Amgad Farid Elateeb, an adviser to Sudan’s ousted Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok. “It satisfied their lust for power and their illusion of legitimacy.”

And some analysts ask Do US officials have a clear vision for meeting Mr Biden’s global push for democratic resilience?

The violence in Sudan is creating exactly the kind of power vacuum Mr. Biden’s allies had hoped to avoid. Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group include players already trying to fill the gapCurrent and former US officials say.

“If this fight continues, there’s going to be a great temptation among outside actors to say, ‘If these guys are going to fight it to the death, we better join in, because we’re going to fight this guy or this guy. Would love the institute.” Victory,” Jeffrey D. said Feltman, the former US envoy to the Horn of Africa who worked on negotiations for civilian rule.

“If you don’t have a ceasefire, not only do you have the suffering of these 46 million people,” he said, “you have a high temptation for outsiders to start hypercharging the fighting by direct intervention.”

mr hamdok Where is The civil war in Sudan would make the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya look like “a short game”.

The State Department and the White House declined to comment.

of the White House africa strategy paperreleased in August, claims that by “reaffirming that democracy provides tangible benefits,” the United States can help limit the influence of “negative” external nations and non-state groups, reducing the need for costly interventions can reduce and help Africans determine their own future.

For the United States, Sudan’s effort to prevent a possible return to autocracy is an unlikely role after decades in which the country was known for widespread atrocities and for nearly five years in the 1990s as home to terrorists including Osama bin Laden. Known as a haven for , In 1998, President Bill Clinton also ordered a missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, which he said made al Qaeda chemical weapons. Although that intelligence was later questioned,

By October 2020, a year after the revolution, President Donald J. Trump announced that he would revoke the country’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism after Sudan normalized its relations with Israel.

“Today, a great people are in charge of Sudan,” Mr. Trump said. “The new democracy is taking root.”

Mr. Feltman and other former and current US officials say that support for democracy in Sudan should still be a cornerstone of US policy, aspirations expressed in the protests that led to the 2019 ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the 30-year dictator. Congress leaders are now calling on Mr. Biden and the United Nations appoint a special envoy to Sudan.

The setbacks in Sudan follow other democratic disappointments in North Africa, including a military counter-coup in neighboring Egypt a decade ago; nearly 10 years of political chaos in Libya, another neighbor of Sudan, after its dictator, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, was overthrown; And most recently the return of one man’s authoritarian rule after a decade in Tunisia, the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring with a democratic government.

The fall of Mr. al-Bashir four years ago has brought joy to Sudanese people who had hoped democracy could root out their country, despite failings elsewhere in the region. After several months of junta rule, Sudan’s military and civilian leaders signed a power-sharing agreement that created a transitional government headed by Mr. Hamdok, an economist. The plan envisioned elections after three years.

However, a council formed to help manage the transition was “a bit of a fig leaf” because it had more military members than civilian members, said Susan, a former US ambassador to South Sudan and a professor at the University of Michigan. d page, said in a post on his school’s website, Important civic voices were excluded, a problem that will persist in the talks this year.

After a military coup in October 2021, the U.S. Stopped $700 Million in Direct Aid Suspended further debt relief to Sudan’s government, while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund froze $6 billion in immediate aid and planned to write off $50 billion in debt. Other governments and institutions, including the African Development Bank, took similar steps.

State Department spokesman Ned Price at the time said that “our entire relationship” with the government of Sudan could be re-evaluated until the military reinstated the transitional government.

Even as rumors of a coup spread in October, US officials warned General Hamdan that he would face “specific consequences” if he seized power, a former senior US official said. But after the coup, Molly Fee, the department’s top Africa policy official, led US diplomats in trying to work with the generals rather than enter into confrontation with them.

The US official declined to specify the proposed sanctions against Gen Hamdan, but said they largely targeted his personal assets, much of it held in the United Arab Emirates – a war chest that experts say It was important to build a military force that was dispersed. current battle.

The United States did not punish General Hamdan with sanctions after the coup – or even after he visited Moscow on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year to appease senior Kremlin officials.

Pressure to punish the generals came from senior members of Congress. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on African Affairs, co-wrote a foreign policy article in February 2022 that the Biden administration should implement a “broad set of sanctions on the coup leaders and their networks” to weaken their grip.

In November 2021, Foreign Minister Antony J. Speaking to reporters during a trip to East Africa with Blinken, a senior State Department official said the generals had indicated they were willing to share power with civilians again. The official, who insisted on anonymity to talk about the negotiations, said withholding aid may not be enough to pressure the generals, and so the administration sought, among other things, a sense of an honorable personal legacy. Had appealed.

Cameron Hudson, who served as chief of staff for successive US presidents’ special envoys to Sudan, called that approach a mistake.

“They pretty much believe what these generals have told them. These people are telling us exactly what we want to hear because they agreed to civilian rule,” Mr. Hudson said. Highest confidence in the State Department that we were on the cusp of a successful agreement.”

Mr Hudson said Washington’s willingness to deal with the generals after the coup had the effect of legitimizing them.

The United States also failed Mr. Hamdok before the coup, he said, when bureaucratic inertia slowed the disbursement of economic aid to show the benefits of civilian rule.

This made Mr. Hamdok very vulnerable.

After the coup Mr. Feltman, the former envoy, felt betrayed. Hours before Mr. Hamdok was arrested, the generals had personally assured him that they would not seize power, he said.

But even if the United States had imposed sanctions on them, “I’m not sure it would have made much difference,” he said. “The two generals see it as an existential battle. If you’re in a fight for survival, you might be annoyed by the restrictions, but that won’t stop them from going after each other.”

The first breakthrough after the coup came in December 2022, when the United Nations, the African Union and a regional bloc struck a deal to transition Sudan to civilian rule in a matter of months.

But overwhelming issues still had to be resolved, notably how quickly General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Force would be merged with the regular army, and who would report to the civilian head of state. The task of bridging those differences fell largely to the major foreign powers in Sudan: the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Even though Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are authoritarian monarchies, they want democracy in Sudan.

But as the talks progressed, the gulf between the two generals widened. Military reinforcements from both camps began entering Khartoum.

In late March, American and British diplomats presented proposals to the generals intended to iron out their biggest differences. Instead, the plan seemed to escalate tensions. Weeks later, on 12 April, General Hamdan’s forces captured an air base 200 miles north of Khartoum, the first public sign that years of diplomacy were culminating in war.

Three days later, the fighting began.

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