Sudan’s Military Rulers Are Hated by Their People but Coddled by the West
Two months since the October 25 coup, protesters are in the streets of Sudan demanding restored civilian rule. But military leaders’ success in “normalizing” ties with the US and Israel is helping to entrench them in power.
In 1967 the Arab League met in Sudan and issued the Khartoum Resolution. The statement came in response to the Six-Day War and the Israeli grab of territory that the international community — and international law — still insists must be restored to Palestine.
The League’s resolution was simple, organized around the “Three Nos”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations. Often misrepresented even today as expressing some sort of innate hostility to Israel or Jews — rather than a logical response to the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians — the Three Nos provided the basis of Arab policy on Palestine for a generation.
Sixty years later, the Three Nos are back. But they come with a twist. This time around, the Three Nos are being used in the city where they were first proclaimed — as part of the ongoing revolutionary process in Sudan, now in its third year.
Sudan’s current Three Nos relate to the struggle between the country’s burgeoning democratic transition, and military figures in a government that has encroached ever more upon civilian rule. In the two months since the October 25 coup, this has also meant restoring vestiges of the Omar al-Bashir dictatorship, toppled by protests in 2019.
Those demonstrations themselves met with massacres perpetrated by the army. This was what led the protest movement — fronted by an umbrella group called Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) — to agree to transitional power-sharing between civilian and military leaders, purely to avoid more loss of life. Yet almost three years on, the Three Nos again being heard in Sudanese streets send a simple message: there can no negotiations, no partnership, and no legitimacy for the military wing of the administration.
The 2019 massacres did temporarily silence the protest movement — but as is so often the case with brute force, they didn’t achieve this goal in any lasting way. The issue now is that the most prominent albeit precariously positioned member of the civilian wing of the transitional government — prime minister Abdalla Hamdok – has become useful to the military wing fronted by former al-Bashir loyalist Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The military’s determination to get its way was made clear this fall with the abduction of the prime minister. Lines of control have become blurred, and the government’s veneer of respectability is left resting problematically in one man.
In this situation, the United States and the West clearly have leverage to encourage a better outcome — one that upholds the legitimacy of the protest movement rather than an unpopular government and obviously compromised prime minister teetering on the brink of resignation. But that’s not what they’re choosing to do.
The Israeli Connection
Westerners had, indeed, celebrated the revolutionary struggle back in 2019, when an image of a woman leading protests atop a car hood went suddenly and beautifully global. “How Sudan’s Women Brought Down a President,” read the Financial Times headline.
The problem for the Sudanese protest movement is that the regime is still in place, and many erstwhile enthusiasts abroad seem to have lost interest. More than that, those Western institutions that are paying attention — without significant domestic interests holding them to account — seem content to see the return of business as usual, with the structure of the old regime retained but with new figureheads.
Given the origins of the Three Nos, it is grimly ironic that events in Sudan last year foreshadowed the emergence of the West’s real priorities. These specifically centered on the Palestine question.
In the final months of the Donald Trump administration, with its monumental pressure to have ties with Israel normalized across the Arab world, the Sudanese transitional government, including a reluctant Hamdok, was strong-armed by Washington into recognizing the Israeli government in West Jerusalem. This was a move that Khartoum, like much of the pro-Palestinian Arab world, had always chosen not to make, pending a just resolution in Palestine. On the other side of the Sahara, Moroccans were likewise made to accept such a decree from their monarch, then banned from protesting it, while the dispossessed population of Western Sahara was “given” by Trump to Rabat as a bounty for the Israeli recognition.
As ever, the bloated US finger on the scales was financial in nature. Sudan would be removed from Washington’s list of states that are sanctioned for supporting terrorism, if only it made the deal on Israel. Investment could flow, capital transfers would be eased, export restrictions and onerous licensing lifted. Though it was a huckster policy done with Trumpian swagger, decried by Democrats at the time, the Joe Biden administration’s willingness to follow in the same footsteps starkly illustrates the feebleness of whatever progressive current might be claimed to exist in US foreign policy.
In a threefold action, the United States first showed how meaningless, politicized, and divorced from any actual threat its “terror” designations are; second, underlined its lack of commitment to a democracy movement in Sudan; and third, helped consolidate Israeli apartheid, while also making it further synonymous with the political gangsterism of US military hegemony and the massacre of protesters in Sudan.
Whether one’s concern is for justice in Palestine, or that the legitimacy of a “Jewish State” should, for the good of Jews everywhere, not be associated with this sort of cheap and brutal politicking, the military-brokered deal with Sudan, over the heads of civilian leaders and the protest movement, was the sort of moral disaster that United States foreign policy is no stranger to.
Yet there was one faction happy with this arrangement: the military component of Sudan’s transitional government. For the military, the steamrolling-through of normalization meant opening Sudan to global markets and US investment flows, and enabled them to depict themselves as having helped undo Sudan’s isolation. The action consolidated these military leaders’ structural position, however domestically unpopular, and however debasing — of Sudanese democracy, Israeli legitimacy, and Palestinian justice — the maneuver itself.
Racism as Foreign Policy
This might all have seemed like a done deal — but now, the Sudan protest movement is back with a vengeance. Protesters are once more facing down tear gas, stun grenades, and live ammunition to decry the coup, with people finally refusing the medley of military power, corrupt economics, and compromised civilian faces. While the United Nations reports on abuse of protesters including sexual violence against women, the United States is struggling to recalibrate, especially now that it has already gone the extra mile to lock-in the illegitimate power of the recent Khartoum regime with its wider regional apparatus.
As the instant and lavish UAE and Saudi sponsorship of the 2013 al-Sisi coup in Egypt clearly demonstrated, the United States and its clients need to create a buffer of authoritarian movements around the Gulf dictatorships and Israel. Saudi and Emirati money also flowed into Sudan after the departure of al-Bashir; the strings attached leave little to the imagination. More recently, barely concealed Emirati glee at Kais Saied’s coup in Tunisia shows a constant vigilance against the threat of democracy, one that goes way beyond the Gulf and indeed can be found anywhere from Khartoum to Kairouan.
For Washington, any democracy in the lands of West Asia, the language of Arabic, or Muslim-majority countries is feared as something simultaneously inevitable but equally an existential threat to US power systems in the Gulf states and in Palestine.
On Sudan, we are again hearing familiar concerns about democracy and dialogue; US aid has been suspended, and the coup condemned. But for all its noises, the Biden administration appears content to go against Sudan’s public outcry, providing junta-washing instructions to the military by treating restoration of the compromised Hamdok as if this alone were an acceptable mark of civilian rule. Even as protesters demand Hamdok’s exit and he himself promises to resign, he has clearly been used for Washington’s all-important political task of conferring legitimacy where there is none.
As a warning of where this sort of United States–backed tokenism winds up, similar constitutional derangements can be found at the heart of the perma-crisis in Lebanon, where a constitutional convention of a Maronite Christian president, Sunni prime minister, and Shia parliamentary speaker is purported to guard against sectarianism, but in reality (along with US sanctions) locks it in, in defiance of people’s material interests or the quality of their daily lives. Likewise threatening in the Sudanese case is the role — played by Hamdok or a military-approved successor — of a legitimator-in-chief who makes military power appear civilian. In disregarding Sudanese concerns and seemingly staking everything on Hamdok, the United States risks entrenching a technocratic appointee who was once endorsed by civilian groups but has since lapsed ever closer to the military, particularly since they abducted him in October.
Whether it is malice or incompetence that keeps leading Washington into positions such as this, the results are disastrous, prioritizing a warped sense of procedure over the necessities of people’s lives, and are better considered as straightening a corpse than supporting a country or its people.
The starting assumption of Washington’s policy — that Sudan and countries like it can only hope, at best, for a “managed democracy”— has left openings for far worse things to emerge, including massacres and the co-option of a revolution that the United States and entire Western world so recently applauded. By analogy with what has happened in Sudan, it is beyond impossible to imagine the United States or its allies encouraging Emmanuel Macron to share power with the army to appease military figures who recently signed an open letter against the direction France was heading and heralded the prospect of civil war.
As the years and lives sacrificed from the first protests in 2018 to the present demonstrate quite clearly, the people of Sudan are not going to give up on achieving real democracy. The question, then, is whether those in power overseas will continue to condemn their hopes.
(c) 2021. Jacobin