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Why Won’t Biden Support Sudan’s Democracy Movement?

The prime minister’s resignation amid ongoing protests mean Washington’s policies need a fresh start.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, and , a Sudanese political analyst.
Sudan protests
A Sudanese protester waves the national flag during a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, on Dec. 19, 2021. -/AFP via Getty Images

Since the military coup in Sudan in late October, millions of Sudanese have taken to the streets, reviving the 2018 protest movement that ended the rule of the country’s long-serving autocrat, Omar al-Bashir, but did not appreciably undo his Islamo-military regime. More than 60 people have been killed during the protests.

This week, Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister serving at the pleasure of the military regime, resigned over his inability to find common cause between civilian and military leaders—and the future of Sudan hangs once again in the balance. Washington, which has been slow to tangibly support the democracy movement and has offered only tepid responses to the protests, has been left in the wilderness by the latest developments.

In their renewed effort to dismantle the oppressive state Bashir left behind, protesters have been beaten, raped, illegally detained, and tear-gassed. Recent evidence suggests that military and paramilitary forces even used anti-aircraft weapons against crowds of unarmed protesters, prompting some to now march shirtless—with bull’s-eyes painted on their chests—as if daring security forces to do what they have been taught to do: kill.

Since the military coup in Sudan in late October, millions of Sudanese have taken to the streets, reviving the 2018 protest movement that ended the rule of the country’s long-serving autocrat, Omar al-Bashir, but did not appreciably undo his Islamo-military regime. More than 60 people have been killed during the protests.

This week, Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian prime minister serving at the pleasure of the military regime, resigned over his inability to find common cause between civilian and military leaders—and the future of Sudan hangs once again in the balance. Washington, which has been slow to tangibly support the democracy movement and has offered only tepid responses to the protests, has been left in the wilderness by the latest developments.

In their renewed effort to dismantle the oppressive state Bashir left behind, protesters have been beaten, raped, illegally detained, and tear-gassed. Recent evidence suggests that military and paramilitary forces even used anti-aircraft weapons against crowds of unarmed protesters, prompting some to now march shirtless—with bull’s-eyes painted on their chests—as if daring security forces to do what they have been taught to do: kill.

It is the most fraught and hopeful democracy movement on the African continent today and perhaps in the world. And one of the democracy movement’s chief demands is for the Biden administration to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance from the ruling junta to add pressure on the military, even if it comes at the protesters’ own expense.

Sadly, the resolve and sacrifices of Sudan’s struggling democracy movement didn’t get much attention at U.S. President Joe Biden’s democracy summit last month.

As U.S. officials debate whether to restart a frozen assistance plan, they continue to belittle Sudan’s democrats.

That omission is emblematic of the growing gap between the soaring rhetorical commitment from the likes of Biden, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who wax poetically about supporting and strengthening democracy and who have called for a “year of action” to support democratic movements, and the career U.S. foreign service officers to whom these senior officials so often defer in the day-to-day workings of foreign policy. These officials have expressly adopted a wait-and-see approach to determine whether intra-Sudanese deal-making might result in a more democratic outcome.

It certainly has not helped that Washington has continued to heap legitimacy and even praise on Sudan’s military leaders as they strengthen their grip on power.

That support comes notwithstanding the military’s suspension of the Sudanese constitutional charter, its arrests of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, its stacking of government institutions with military loyalists and insiders from the Bashir regime, and its revival of dormant elements of the Bashir-era security state.

After the coup, Blinken rushed to endorse the lopsided and now defunct political pact between the country’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Hamdok, the former prime minister who was deposed and arrested in the coup before being reinstated following international pressure—until his resignation this week. U.S. support for the latest military-civilian pact came even before Sudan’s beleaguered democracy advocates could take stock of the agreement and voice their objections, denying agency and ownership to the real drivers of political change in Sudan. Cowed by the military’s potential for violence, the Biden administration has chosen the path of appeasement instead of marshaling the pent-up power of the country’s pro-democracy groups. Will Washington change tack now that Hamdok is gone, along with any pretense that a transition to civilian rule still exists?

As U.S. officials debate whether to restart a frozen assistance plan and continue a stalled debt relief process, they continue to belittle Sudan’s democrats. The Biden administration claimed it will “continue to show solidarity,” but at the same time it suggested that the democracy movement’s demands for “no negotiations, no partnership, and no legitimacy for the military” are “unrealistic.”

For the United States, the question now is not so much how to support democracy in Sudan. Rather, it is how to undo Washington’s tacit support of the Sudanese generals and their effort to spin a narrative claiming they share the transformational agenda demanded by the street. Closing the gulf between U.S. rhetoric and the reality of its policies will require explicit efforts to both support the underdog and constrain the powerful.

What’s more, the Biden administration appears to be continuing the Trump administration’s practice of effectively outsourcing Sudan policy to Washington’s allies in the Gulf. The Dec. 16, 2021, joint statement on Sudan by the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Britain is another bland text all but praising the military regime for its efforts, without even the vaguest appeal to releasing illegally held detainees or rescinding the state of emergency. Underlying the statement’s expression of shared interests in Sudan is an increasingly security-oriented U.S. foreign-policy approach in line with Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s, where dynastic regimes and military leaders are seen as guarantors of stability.

There are other disturbing parallels among Abu Dhabi’s, Riyadh’s, and Washington’s approaches to Sudan, such as a threadbare understanding of the democracy movement, governmental departments at odds over how to handle Sudan, and a focus on broader issues at the expense of Sudanese ones. Simply put, none of these countries has a Sudan policy that is actually concerned with Sudan.

Despite its posture, the United States still has a critical role to play in helping to shape a more democratic outcome in Sudan. But it must now prioritize a more values-based approach—in line with the stated intent of Biden’s democracy summit—if it hopes to break the political impasse in Sudan and position itself on the right side of the democracy movement.

First, Washington should not undercut the efforts of pro-democracy groups by continuing to support objectively unsatisfactory agreements between the military and whichever civilian leader, if any, is installed after Hamdok. The mere existence of an agreement doesn’t mean it can achieve transformational change, nor is such an agreement even helpful in the short term. The one with Hamdok lasted just a few weeks.

A democracy summit is one thing; an actual strategy to support democracy is something else entirely.

Second, the United States should recognize that supporting pro-democracy groups may take only minimal involvement and does not require more funds than already committed. Resistance committees led the 2018 Sudanese revolution without much political or financial support from the international community. Where the United States and other outside powers can create the most impact is by buying the democracy movement time to build a consensus-driven grassroots coalition, especially in the absence of a pro-democracy consensus among political parties. This will require the United States to stop deferring on Sudan policy to its regional allies.

Third, Washington should engage with democracy movements directly and on their terms. Since the coup in Sudan, resistance groups have shown they can adapt their approach according to shifting political needs. They have adjusted deftly to the decreased role of political parties and appointed, for the first time, spokespeople to facilitate engagement and communicate their demands and intentions. Though these groups are the motors of democratic change, they are largely ignored in Washington’s political engagement and diplomatic strategizing.

One of the key concerns among international observers is these groups’ lack of a forward plan for democratic change. The resistance committees say they are working on putting together a political road map, all the more critical now that the country is without a civilian prime minister. All indications are that the military could soon act unilaterally to install its preferred choice in the post. The United States should therefore lead in supporting a civilian road map to the fullest extent possible.

Fourth, beyond diplomatic engagement, U.S. financial support is another key source of leverage over developments in Sudan. Washington should find ways for democracy and governance funding, all of which is now frozen, to be channeled through pro-democracy groups and other civilian structures that will not legitimize the coup. This funding should insist on the creation of spaces to facilitate the inclusion of local pro-democracy voices. With national-level politics and structures notoriously transactional, support should go to local governance structures and processes, including local councils, state parliaments, and locally owned mechanisms for accountability and transitional justice.

Lastly, the ecosystem within which pro-democracy groups can thrive is also in need of support. In the absence of polling and other ways to gather public opinion, mass protests become the only way to gauge the public mood. Media engagement and other forms of public outreach that would scaffold the work of pro-democracy groups and facilitate consensus-building should also be supported, particularly ahead of elections.

With an incomplete revolution and a democratic transition struggling to find new life, Washington’s wait-and-see approach to supporting democracy in Sudan is the opposite of the dynamic process promised last month by the Biden team. A democracy summit is one thing; an actual strategy to support democracy is something else entirely.

Fortunately, in Sudan, there exists a highly mobilized grassroots process ready for the kind of democracy support the United States has teased but not delivered. Now is the time for Washington to match its rhetoric with reality.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a former chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan. Twitter: @_hudsonc

Kholood Khair is a Sudanese political analyst and managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners. Twitter: @KholoodKhair

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