Elephants in the Room

Washington Is Turning Its Back on Sudan

The United States should not abandon the Sudanese in their greatest hour of need.

A protester waves a Sudanese flag in Khartoum on May 17.
A protester waves a Sudanese flag in Khartoum on May 17. Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

The world celebrated in early April when the Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship in Sudan finally came to an end with his arrest by his own military. His final hours seemed like they might herald the start of a new chapter in Sudan’s history as Bashir’s army refused his last, desperate order to fire on the civilian protesters. But nearly two months after his fall from power, security forces initiated a new effort this week to break the back of the peaceful protest movement that led to his ouster. As the death count from this week’s violence climbs north of 100, with hundreds more wounded and missing, and the scorched earth on the site of the peaceful sit-in literally still smoldering, Sudan appears to have reverted to the kinds of atrocities that defined the Bashir regime.

It didn’t have to be this way. For decades, Western activists, editorialists, and politicians have made Sudan’s government and its now-former leader household names—synonymous with evil and brutality. When the government attempted to wipe out African tribes in the country’s western region, high school students, celebrities, and outlets like this one implored the world to “Save Darfur.”

When the George W. Bush administration broke with its own policy and agreed that Bashir should be brought to justice for his misdeeds, it supported his indictment by the International Criminal Court—a first. And when Bashir and his protectors refused to cooperate with the court, activist funded websites emerged to keep a round-the-clock vigil on his every movement around the world in the hopes that sufficient warning would motivate a friendly government to seek his arrest.

But with Bashir’s removal from office, it’s as if the United States has raised the now proverbial “Mission Accomplished” banner over Sudan, when the country’s future now hangs in the balance and U.S. engagement is needed more than ever.

Recent research has shown that since the end of the Cold War half of all coups toppling dictatorships result in new authoritarian regimes and only one in five have resulted in a democratic transition. Most worrisome for Sudan, and the tens of thousands of democratic protestors who remain in the streets, the 12 months following authoritarian coups show stark increases in repression, human rights abuses, and state-lead civilian atrocities as new regimes attempt to establish their authority and drive out any remaining pockets of resistance.

Sadly, this assertion began playing out on the streets of Sudan’s capital this week. Fresh off a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca, where Sudan’s military leaders were flanked by their most formidable backers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—who reportedly pressed the leaders of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council to expedite their consolidation of power—security forces opened fired on protesters after months of peaceful sit-ins.

Since Monday morning, Sudan’s medical society reports more than 100 civilian deaths, many of whom were found washed up on the shores of the Nile, and the site of their sit-in burned to the ground—a telltale tactic of the country’s infamous Janjaweed militia rehatted as the Rapid Support Forces and operating under the command of the Transitional Military Council’s second in command, Mohammed “Hemedti” Daglo. The kind of extreme violence Bashir once routinely exacted on Sudan’s peripheral, minority populations now has set a dangerous new precedent on the streets of the capital, Khartoum.

The United States has squarely aligned itself with the civilian protest movement, but behind the scenes there is a near total absence of U.S. diplomacy. Facing the grim prospect that Sudan’s faint democratic hope is evaporating, why is the United States not doing all that it can to ensure that after decades of advocacy and diplomacy Sudan doesn’t go the way of the other 80 percent of cases that don’t enjoy a transition to democracy? In countless tweets—which pass for U.S. policy on Sudan and much of the rest of the world these days—the United States has squarely aligned itself with the civilian protest movement, but behind the scenes there is a near total absence of U.S. diplomacy. The country has not deployed any of the funding or technical support tools to help democratic protesters become better organized, unified, and effective in negotiating with a better trained and resourced counterpart that would have increased the democrats’ abilities to face down their military foe at the negotiating table.

On the diplomatic front, the United States last month backed the African Union as its preferred diplomatic entry point in Sudan, despite the AU’s near total silence in recent months, while the real drivers of influence in Sudan, Gulf Arab States, continue to enjoy unquestioned U.S. backing. A single meeting of European and African allies in Washington last month resulted in no joint statement or roadmap for future engagement.

An easy remedy would be the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for Sudan—someone to remind Arab states that Sudan’s civilian leaders can, in fact, protect their long term security interests in the country while at the same extending civil and human rights to its deserving citizens. That envoy could also build an active coalition of African and European allies, already looking for U.S. leadership, to help level the playing field between those standing up for their democratic rights and those seeking to extinguish them.

But perhaps most importantly, a U.S. envoy would represent to those brave Sudanese on the ground that after nearly 20 years of supporting peaceful reforms in the country that Washington has not abandoned their cause at their hour of greatest need.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council. Twitter: @_hudsonc

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