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America’s Silence on Sudan Is Deafening

Washington has sidelined the country’s long-term interests in favor of short-term gains.

By , the regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa.
Sudanese protesters wave the national flag during a demonstration calling for civilian rule and demanding justice for those killed in crackdowns in the capital of Khartoum on Jan. 24.
Sudanese protesters wave the national flag during a demonstration calling for civilian rule and demanding justice for those killed in crackdowns in the capital of Khartoum on Jan. 24.
Sudanese protesters wave the national flag during a demonstration calling for civilian rule and demanding justice for those killed in crackdowns in the capital of Khartoum on Jan. 24. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

Three years ago, Sudanese people toppled one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators, Omar al-Bashir. The international community intervened, helping to broker a fragile power-sharing agreement that created an 11-member Sovereignty Council of military and civilian representatives to steer Sudan’s democratic transition. This agreement averted immediate instability but left the people’s demands for a civilian-led democracy unmet.

This political agreement was shattered on Oct. 25, 2021, when the military staged a coup, deposing the appointed civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and scrapping the constitution weeks before military leaders were scheduled to transfer power to civilian leadership. The international community, led by the United States, stepped in once more, again prioritizing the country’s short-term stability over lasting democracy.

The deal they crafted to reinstate Hamdok in November 2021 had neither the involvement nor the endorsement of Sudanese political parties and civil society, which saw it as an effort to sugarcoat a rotten regime. It then came as little surprise when Hamdok resigned on Jan. 2, following repeated attempts at compromise with the military and the killings of more than 50 protesters since the coup. The ordeal cast further doubt on the prospects for democracy and peace in Sudan and eroded the Sudanese public’s trust in the international community.

Three years ago, Sudanese people toppled one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators, Omar al-Bashir. The international community intervened, helping to broker a fragile power-sharing agreement that created an 11-member Sovereignty Council of military and civilian representatives to steer Sudan’s democratic transition. This agreement averted immediate instability but left the people’s demands for a civilian-led democracy unmet.

This political agreement was shattered on Oct. 25, 2021, when the military staged a coup, deposing the appointed civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and scrapping the constitution weeks before military leaders were scheduled to transfer power to civilian leadership. The international community, led by the United States, stepped in once more, again prioritizing the country’s short-term stability over lasting democracy.

The deal they crafted to reinstate Hamdok in November 2021 had neither the involvement nor the endorsement of Sudanese political parties and civil society, which saw it as an effort to sugarcoat a rotten regime. It then came as little surprise when Hamdok resigned on Jan. 2, following repeated attempts at compromise with the military and the killings of more than 50 protesters since the coup. The ordeal cast further doubt on the prospects for democracy and peace in Sudan and eroded the Sudanese public’s trust in the international community.

Now, Sudan is at yet another crossroads, and what the international community does next will be key. For decades, the United States and other global actors condemned but did little to stop the Bashir regime’s brutal war crimes in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Broad-based, countrywide sanctions had little to no impact on Sudan’s leaders but harmed average Sudanese people, giving Bashir an easy foil as basic goods and access to finances were pushed out of reach for many.

Even as global actors patted themselves on the back for restoring stability after the October 2021 coup, they looked away as the Sudanese military and armed militias conducted a violent campaign against peaceful protesters; as of late January, at least 72 protesters had been killed and hundreds of activists detained across Sudan. This inaction also emboldened the Rapid Support Forces—the paramilitary group formed from the notorious Janjaweed militia—and pro-coup armed groups, such as Minni Minnawi’s faction of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, to commit severe human rights violations in Darfur without fear of consequence.

There are now more than 250 documented political detainees in the Khartoum capital region alone. Women activists have been targeted in particular—profiled and charged on morality grounds, detained and kept out of contact despite their young age, disabilities, or poor health conditions.

Sudan’s friends and allies now have the opportunity and the obligation to help the country change course. Sudan must reinstate the rule of law and the legislative council of pro-democracy forces and enable a transitional government to lead the country to fair and free elections without further delay. To help Sudanese get there, the international community should take the time to get to know and consult the diverse perspectives of the political parties, trade unions, women, and youth who make up Sudan’s opposition. Failing to do so would send a dangerous message to a society that remains in turmoil.

No mediation between the Sudanese pro-democracy movement and the military will be successful without the release of political prisoners and an end to the military and militias’ orchestrated campaign to kill civilians across the country. A process of demilitarization and demobilization must start immediately alongside security sector reform. For its long-term stability, Sudan’s transition should prioritize a truth and reconciliation process to address the country’s polarization.

This process can only begin once regional and international actors adopt a unified position aimed at securing Sudan’s long-term stability rather than their short-term interests. Mediation efforts should reflect the depth and regional dimensions of the problem. Sudan’s military has largely been emboldened by the legitimacy it has received from regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia through the Abraham Accords and the coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war. These countries must understand the added geostrategic value and security Sudan would offer as a stable and safe country next door. Here, the United States—a close ally of all the aforementioned countries—could play an instrumental role in isolating the Sudanese military to make space for Sudan’s new civilian leadership to thrive.

Across the country, ordinary Sudanese people are organizing resistance committees after enduring years of violence and exploitation at the hands of Bashir and the Muslim Brotherhood. The voices making them up must be heard. These committees represent both me, as a Sudanese human rights activist, and the aspirations I have for my country’s future.

Supporting Sudan’s civil society also creates opportunities for women to lead and forge safe spaces in society. Though Sudanese women have long been leaders both behind the scenes and on the front lines of peaceful protest, we’ve often been reduced to symbolic roles within political organizations, including the civilian-led groups. As a woman, my words and views are often not valued within the sphere of Sudan’s male political elites.

To create a peaceful and stable Sudan, the international community must regain Sudanese people’s trust. 

Just as Sudanese women led the revolution that toppled Bashir three years ago, we are today at the forefront of the movement to fundamentally reform the social and political systems that have for too long relegated us to the margins. The same international community that cheered the viral image of the white robe-clad Sudanese woman standing atop a car during the 2019 protests must now stand up for Sudanese women’s demands for a civilian-led transition, free and fair elections that grant women participation, and equitable policies that will never be attained under the military’s rule. The women within Sudan’s pro-democracy movement are largely responsible for keeping the movement civil and nonviolent. Now, we need to see feminist foreign policy in action when lives are on the line to protect this progress and those who have achieved it.

To create a peaceful and stable Sudan, the international community must regain Sudanese people’s trust. Global leaders must fully acknowledge that Sudan is now operating under a coup—something the United States has not been willing to do so far.

Instead of turning to halfhearted and meaningless rhetoric, there are tools available to the United States and the rest of the international community to hold Sudan’s coup leaders accountable and protect the space for civil society to operate. Only then can Sudanese actualize the change we’re calling for. Targeted sanctions on the coup’s leaders and cooperation with Sudan’s neighbors to restrict their illegitimate extortion of the country’s resources would limit the resources and influence they wield.

There are also legal avenues in the United States and elsewhere to hold those committing war crimes accountable. The international community and U.N. Security Council must insist that Sudan hand over Bashir to the International Criminal Court, as Sudan’s transitional government promised to do in August 2021. Failure to do so sends a dangerous message that the international justice system is incapable of addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In the wake of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Feb. 1 hearing on Sudan, the U.S. Congress has the opportunity to continue its historic role as a champion of the Sudanese people. It can and should push the Biden administration to build on the important step of appointing an ambassador to Sudan.

But no matter what the international community decides, it must work with the Sudanese people to craft a path that meets their aspirations of stability, development, and democracy. Any attempt to normalize the repression taking place will backfire.

The peaceful struggle for democracy is rooted in Sudan’s history and cultural identity. We will eventually succeed. If our voices are heeded now, and supported by smart foreign policy, we will save both time and lives.

Hala al-Karib is a Sudanese women’s rights activist and the regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa Twitter: @Halayalkarib

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