The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The coup in Sudan represents a direct challenge for the U.S.

A Sudanese boy draped in the national flag stands during a protest in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 26. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Monday’s apparently successful military coup in Sudan comes after weeks of spiraling political tension — and growing signs of a potential breakdown in that country’s democratic transition. A popular uprising toppled the dictatorship of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019, whereupon the country’s military and civilian leaders formally agreed to share power until free and fair elections in 2023. Yet officers and militia leaders, with murky ties to the ousted regime, have steadily undermined the process. An attempted coup on Sept. 21 failed, but destabilization of Sudan continued, through orchestrated protests in the capital, Khartoum, and strategic Port Sudan on the Red Sea — until Monday’s putsch, led by army chief Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

The military has arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his cabinet; shut off the Internet; and, most ominously, fired on some of the thousands of civilians who took to the streets in protest of the putsch. Four deaths and 80 injuries have been reported. All of this occurred just a few weeks before a Nov. 17 deadline for the military to hand over control of the civil-military provisional government to Mr. Hamdok. More bloodshed can hardly be ruled out, given the Sudanese military’s record, and that of allied militias, which includes killing100 protesters during the 2019 upheaval. Civil war is perhaps the most extreme risk; others include deepening economic hardship and, of course, a permanent reversion to dictatorship, despite Gen. Burhan’s promise that the 2023 election will still take place.

For the United States, the coup represents a direct challenge. It came just two days after the Biden administration’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, had visited Khartoum to warn military leaders that they were risking the aid and diplomatic legitimacy Sudan had regained by embarking on democratic change and — after Mr. Bashir’s ouster — paying compensation to American victims of terrorism and joining other Arab nations in recognizing Israel. The Trump administration had removed Sudan from the list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, removing a key obstacle to international aid and loans.

Transitional authorities in Sudan had also accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which accuses Mr. Bashir of genocide in Darfur, where pro-government forces killed 300,000 people between 2003 and 2008, according to the United Nations. Sudan’s military was balking at extraditing Mr. Bashir to the court, in part because of what a trial might reveal about the officer corps’s wider culpability in that horrific episode. That issue might have motivated the coup on Monday.

All the more reason that the United States was right to make good on Mr. Feltman’s warnings by suspending $700 million in economic aid. In denouncing the coup, the Biden administration found itself in sync with top officials of the European Union, African Union and Arab League, as well as United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. This is encouraging, but the United States needs to sustain unequivocal international rejection of the coup — including by Khartoum’s erstwhile friends and sponsors in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, yet another democratic bright spot might be wiped from the map.