Biden’s cautious approach to Sudan’s democratic transition.

U.S President Joe BidenU.S President Joe Biden

Almost two months after Sudan’s military usurped control of the state the anti-coup resistance remains strong.

Across Sudan, men and women have been taking to the streets, demanding the restoration of civilian control of the government to put the democratic transition back on track.

But the military’s grip seems to be increasingly entrenched, albeit challenged with each passing day. Clashes between security forces and protestors have resulted in the death of several dozen citizens.

Military and civilian leaders last month signed a political agreement that reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. He is to head a new technocratic cabinet until elections, planned for 19 months down the road.

However, for most Sudanese people this reinstatement merely gives a civilian face to a military coup and does nothing to reverse the events of 25 October. Ultimately, the agreement is about whitewashing the military’s power grab.

It is no secret that the backsliding of Sudan’s democratic experiment does not concern certain states in the region. This is particularly true regarding counterrevolutionary regimes that feared how Sudanese democracy could inspire populations across the Middle East and Africa.

For states like Egypt, Israel, and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, military-backed authoritarianism is far preferable to democracy in Sudan.

“Sudan constituted a threat of a good example of an Arab nation where the people had agency, they thought strategically, they employed strategic non-violent action effectively, and were able to bring down a long-entrenched autocratic regime and to make important pathways towards democratic self-governance,” said Dr Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, in October.

The project aimed at democratising Sudan following three decades of a brutal dictatorship was “obviously something [officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt] did not want to see succeed. They would find it very much in their interest to see it fail,” affirmed Dr Zunes.

“Whether they actually played a role in this coup, I have no idea, but there is no question that [those regional powers are pleased at these developments.”

The Biden administration responded to the events of 25 October by firmly denouncing the incident and calling on the Sudanese military to respect civil liberties and restore civilian leadership.

Washington also put on hold $700 million of aid to try and pressure the generals in Khartoum into reversing the coup.

At times, the US seems satisfied with a partial solution that restores critical socio-economic aid to Sudan and re-establishes its international relations but does not meet the demands of the Sudanese people for a faster civilian takeover of government.

Experts such as Cameron Hudson, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, believe that the West will probably not apply much pressure on the generals in the country.

In general, the US and other Western governments seem to be attempting to pretend as though Sudan’s transition only temporarily veered off course.

As Hudson put it, there increasingly seems to be an intention on the part of Western states to “minimize its losses” and “preserve investments” in Sudan, which ultimately means accepting the coup with the minimal requirement that at least some civilian leaders will be in the regime.

At the end of the day, Biden’s team is acting cautiously while avoiding bold moves or any significant actions against Sudan’s rulers post 25 October, despite initially withholding most of the aid.

The White House does not want to become heavily involved in Sudanese affairs, especially when they likely see the Ethiopian conflict as a higher priority.

In part, this might be an effort to avoid actions that could push Sudan closer to China and/or Russia’s orbits of influence. Within this context, the US administration has been trying to increasingly rely on two of its close Gulf partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to influence Sudan’s situation in ways that do not require heavy US involvement.

 

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