Sudan’s Chaos Reflects the Creeping Erosion of U.S. Influence

Nearly three months since the military coup, U.S. mediation efforts are flagging, and the crisis has been overshadowed by the resignation of a U.S. envoy

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A demonstrator in Khartoum waving a Sudanese flag during a protest against the October coup on Thursday.
A demonstrator in Khartoum waving a Sudanese flag during a protest against the October coup on Thursday. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The instructions to protesters in Sudan from their leaders were clear: These are nonviolent protests. Don’t clash with the security forces and stop anyone who is acting violently.

Demonstrators were also advised not to wear jewelry or watches and not to carry cellphones, cash or anything else of value, lest the security forces rob them.

Also, organizers urged people with rickshaws to station them near the demonstrations so wounded protesters could be taken to the hospital quickly if needed. Sudan’s protesters have learned the lessons of demonstrations in Iraq and Egypt, where the authorities deliberately delayed the evacuation of the wounded by ambulances.

So far, 63 people have been killed in the protests that began in October. The demonstrations were a mass response to a coup led by Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council. Burhan also ousted and arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, dissolved the government and imposed military rule. Since then, scarcely a day has passed without demonstrations, arrests and casualties.

On Wednesday, the security forces deployed in larger numbers than usual to prepare for the “march of millions” announced by the protest leaders, known as the resistance committees. Stores in central Khartoum were closed by police order, overpasses and roads were blocked, and car owners were stopped for questioning and inspection.

People attending the protest Thursday.Credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

But then the committees announced that the demonstrations had been postponed for a day until Thursday. The reason isn’t clear, but Sudanese journalists quickly reported that the protest movements had managed to confound the security forces.

This rejoicing was premature. The army remained on alert and ready for the next confrontation.

The resistance committees are also known as “committees to coordinate the resistance organizations,” and both are vague terms. Committee members include activists from civil rights groups, members of opposition parties and representatives of professional associations including doctors, lawyers and engineers.

The committees currently lack an agreed leadership that could negotiate with the army in their name, or with the foreign countries and international organizations trying to solve the country’s deep political crisis. All the committees agree that the army must be ousted from the country’s leadership, but they’re deeply divided over what kind of country Sudan should be.

Radical religious groups and the Muslim Brotherhood want Islamic law to apply to everything. Human rights groups want a liberal democratic country that will advance the status of women, freedom of expression and individual rights. The unions want a welfare state. And young self-employed people want to help draft economic reforms.

This week, the newspaper Aljareeda, which is fiercely critical of the military government, reported that the resistance committees are expected to release the main points of the new covenant they seek “within 24 hours.” This document would detail their main conditions for ending the protests. Since then, well over 24 hours have passed, but the document hasn’t yet been released.

The paper’s sources said the drafters still need to discuss “two or three points” before they can unveil the covenant. But it’s a safe bet that the number of unresolved issues is much higher, and many more revisions will be needed before the document is released. The big question is who the document will be presented to and whether it has any chance of being accepted when the military government remains in complete control.

Sudan's Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, center, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok holding documents reinstating Hamdok a month after October's coup, Khartoum.Credit: AP

The cautious UN

The United Nations’ special envoy for Sudan, Volker Perthes, is now in the country, but he’s wary of being seen as dictating developments or proposing a UN-approved solution. He stressed that he didn’t come with any concrete proposal and merely seeks to study the problems.

Still, his mission has been received with great suspicion by the protesters. They fear that any UN proposal will include a compromise with the army, leave Burhan in power and delay the transition to civilian government.

Burhan has promised that elections will be held in the second half of 2023, and until then, he plans to form a government based on a 2019 agreement that divided power between the army and civilians. But that’s exactly what the opposition groups oppose. They don’t trust Burhan and demand the army’s immediate removal from civilian politics.

That’s also why they opposed Hamdok’s reappointment as prime minister after his release from detention – they viewed this as a capitulation to the army, especially since his powers were curtailed. Hamdok was forced to resign in early January, and since then, the government has been under Burhan’s full control, aided by the acting prime minister he appointed.

Like the United Nations, the United States and the European Union also seek to reinstate the 2019 agreement and reestablish the Sovereign Council that ran the country before the coup, with the same division of power between the army and civilians – five representatives from each side led by a civilian prime minister. The council was supposed to spend 21 months with Burhan as its temporary chairman and then 18 months with a civilian chief.

The coup occurred a month before Burhan was supposed to transfer the reins to a civilian leader, so it’s hard to imagine any agreement to reinstate the 2019 deal without solid international guarantees that the protesters’ demands will be met.

Washington midwifed the 2019 agreement toward the end of the Trump administration and contributed further by removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and pledging $700 million in aid. But it has no plan or coherent policy for solving the crisis. The promised aid has been frozen, and with it the loan application that Sudan submitted to the International Monetary Fund.

Protesters against the coup and the deal that reinstated Hamdok, December.Credit: Marwan Ali / AP

Bickering Americans

The Biden administration is deeply divided between its special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, whom Joe Biden appointed, and the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Molly Phee. Their dispute was first reported by the website of Foreign Policy magazine.

According to that article, Feltman demanded sanctions on Burhan, but Phee opposed them, saying they wouldn’t help. Later, Phee rejected Feltman’s proposal that his deputy join her on her visit to Sudan to meet with Burhan.

Feltman’s stance is unsurprising. On the eve of the coup, he met with Burhan and Hamdok and discussed ways to stabilize the Sovereign Council and the government, which was contending with demands for its resignation. Burhan didn’t even hint at his plans to carry out a military coup the next day.

For Feltman, this was a resounding slap in the face, as well as a resounding intelligence failure. And it undermined his position in Washington’s corridors of power.

The Sudan problem isn’t the only one fraying the nerves of American diplomats. They have also seen the National Security Council and Biden’s special envoys crudely encroach on their turf on other issues.

From the start of his term, Biden has surrounded himself with special envoys for regional issues. In the best case, they have coordinated with U.S. ambassadors or State Department officials. But in many cases, they have acted as free agents reporting only to the president or the National Security Council.

Foreign Policy quoted an email Phee sent to State Department officials and Feltman on October 15; she wrote that “there will inevitably be instances of overlap and lane sharing, so I ask everyone to be as charitable and generous as possible in working through those occasions. … This is not a zero sum game. There is more than enough work for all of us.” But this generosity of spirit apparently wasn’t enough to build effective cooperation with Feltman.

The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, in Khartoum in May. He's stepping down this month.Credit: Marwan Ali / AP

Feltman has since announced his resignation. He will be replaced by David Satterfield, an experienced and talented diplomat who served as ambassador to Turkey and navigated the bitter dispute between Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.

Senior State Department and National Security Council officials are trying to maintain the facade that everything is fine between them. But the Sudanese example shows the extent to which diplomatic solutions depend not just on rational positions supported by reliable intelligence, but often also on personal rivalries, ego wars and organizational knife fights disguised as principled positions.

The crisis in Sudan isn’t a subject of great-power rivalry like U.S. relations with Russia and China or the negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran. Thus, it can wait.

Yet this conflict, of secondary importance to U.S. policy, has revealed the administration’s weakness precisely because it’s one where diplomatic and economic pressure could have been applied to produce a solution.

Nor is Sudan an isolated case. It’s also hard to decipher Washington’s policy on the crises in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. So far, it seems to consist of nothing but soothing statements about the need for conciliation and diplomacy and efforts to achieve cease-fires.

In Sudan, the administration hopes to at least reestablish a Sovereign Council able to receive American aid to prevent a humanitarian disaster, as long as Washington can ensure that the aid will be used for its intended purposes rather than for funding arms purchases. In the meantime, nothing is urgent. Or as the administration puts it, the solution is in Sudan’s hands.

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