Andrew Natsios is a professor at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs. He served as U.S. envoy to Sudan during the George W. Bush administration.
Sudan is in the throes of its greatest political crisis since independence in 1956, as the rule of Omar Hassan al-Bashir has come to an end, overthrown by a Transitional Military Council exercising tenuous control over the country and facing widespread demonstrations led by civil society organizations demanding democratic reforms. Previous changes of government have not threatened the power of the Nile River Arab elite who have governed the country for so long; this crisis does. If the worst scenarios come to pass, an implosion of Sudan could be worse than the Syrian civil war and could drive millions of refugees to its neighbors, including Egypt and Ethiopia — important allies of the United States — which are already under serious internal stress themselves.
Sudan, with more than 40 million people, is much larger in geography, population and ethnic complexity than Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan; any implosion in Sudan would “unlock the gates of hell,” as one African diplomat once told me.
It need not be so.
Despite Bashir’s 30 years of authoritarian rule, Sudan’s political culture has a number of assets that make it better suited to a transition to democracy than many other countries in the region. It has maintained a vibrant civil society, which has been on the vanguard of the protests that toppled Bashir and continues to oppose both the remnants of his regime and the military junta that stubbornly clings to power. Sudan has a highly educated and sophisticated elite, lawyers and doctors associations, women’s groups and business community. It also has a history of democracy — albeit one interrupted by coups and dictatorships — that has allowed political parties to maintain constituencies and develop organizing capacities to a degree nearly unprecedented in the Arab world or the Horn of Africa.
It will take many years and skillful leaders to bring Sudanese institutions that have been compromised by Bashir’s Islamist coalition under control, but now is the time to begin that process. The Forces for Declaration of Freedom and Change, the umbrella organization representing the Sudanese demonstrators, has rightly called for a three-year transition to allow time and space for secular political organizations to consolidate their positions and compete in credible elections. They will need solid foundations to combat the Islamists who have a long and violent history in Sudan, the brutal security services and outside actors with less altruistic agendas that are attempting to control the Sudanese political transition.
The Trump administration should take swift, sustained action to ensure the ruling military junta cedes power to civilians immediately. While this will, by necessity, require negotiations with the junta, U.S. Embassy officials are perceived as having spent more time with the military council’s No. 2 — a commander of the Janjaweed militia that perpetrated mass atrocities in Darfur, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti — than with any of the democratic, secular leaders who represent the next generation of Sudanese. It should be exactly the opposite.
Hemeti is the successor to Musa Hilal, who was accused of war crimes in Darfur by the U.N. and human rights organizations. Given that Hemeti has deployed thousands of Arab Darfuri militia (who are not loyal to the Nile River Arab elites) to the capital in Khartoum and to other cities, he must be dealt with carefully; that can be done only by isolating him internationally and financially. Some of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are his sponsors , and the Trump administration should urgently dispatch a senior diplomatic troubleshooter with credibility in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to work with these governments to end their support.
The United States and its Persian Gulf partners share a common interest in a stable Sudan that does not resuscitate a security and economic alliance with Iran, which had been central to Bashir’s foreign policy until just a few years ago when Saudi Arabia purchased Sudan’s loyalty and support with generous economic aid to prosecute its war in Yemen against Iran’s proxies. Under Bashir, the Iranian navy had unlimited access to Port Sudan, and Khartoum was the operational headquarters of Iranian intelligence service’s operations in Africa.
Backing a military junta in which a Darfuri warlord is the most powerful member — as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have done to date — is, however, provoking a backlash within the population and increasing the likelihood of the very scenario that these Gulf states fear most: anarchy and a fertile environment for an Islamist putsch. A more considered course would be for the United States to convene an international coalition that includes its European allies, the African Union and Gulf states in pursuit of a shared blueprint for a civilian-led transition to democracy. That would be the best way to move the country away from Islamist and Iranian influence.
The African Union’s courageous decision to suspend Sudan after the military junta massacred protesters on June 3 is a step in the right direction. Having welcomed this decision, the Trump administration should now provide the center of diplomatic gravity to ensure that the junta cedes power. Crucially, the United States has the unique leverage to coordinate the economic aid of diverse actors — the Gulf states, European donor governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — to deal with Sudan’s massive economic crisis so that a road map is in place to incentivize and support a civilian transition and so there is adequate burden-sharing across the international community.
The disappointments of the Arab Spring have led to pessimism. But Sudan is not Egypt or Libya or Syria; its history suggests that the Sudanese people are ready to seize a once-in-a-generation moment if the United States does its part to mitigate the damaging impact of regional machinations. A successful transition in Sudan would not only lift the yoke of oppression and violence that its people have endured for decades but serve as a beacon in the Horn of Africa.