Sudan coup demands more than mild outrage from US
Abdel-Fattah Burhan, who seized power in Khartoum on Monday, seems to be under the impression that Donald Trump still lives in the White House and Benjamin Netanyahu on Balfour Street. The Sudanese general evidently is counting on the foreign-policy obsessions of the previous U.S. president and opportunism of the previous Israeli prime minister to let him get away with his coup. It’s up to President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to let him know he’s wrong.
Former President Trump cared little for democracy anywhere, never mind in what he infamously described as “shithole countries” of Africa and the developing world. To the extent that he was at all interested in Sudan, it was as a signatory to the Abraham Accords intended to normalize relations with Israel, a late-term idée fixe he shared with Netanyahu.
After a pro-democracy movement ended the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir two years ago, the Trump administration dragged its feet on taking Sudan off the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors, which had prevented the impoverished sub-Saharan nation from accessing vital aid and investment. Even when a transitional government led by the former United Nations economist Abdalla Hamdok pulled off a series of extraordinary social and political reforms, it received little credit from Washington.
But when Trump wanted more ballast for the Abraham Accords, he sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Khartoum with an unsubtle message: The terror-sponsor designation would stay until the Sudanese recognized Israel. The transitional government succumbed to the pressure, and most U.S. sanctions were duly withdrawn.
The lesson Burhan learned can easily be deduced from the fact that, no sooner had he taken over Monday, he committed himself to the international accords signed by the government he had overthrown. The clear message to Washington, and to Jerusalem: Sudan will stay in the Abraham Accords, don’t worry.
Under previous management in both places, this reassurance might have been sufficient cause to look away from the developments in Khartoum. The onus is now on Biden and Bennett to demonstrate that the U.S. and Israel won’t look kindly upon the general’s power grab.
The bigger part of the burden lies with Biden, who has promised to distinguish himself from his predecessor by nurturing and protecting democracy around the world. Having already fallen short of those standards in Afghanistan, the U.S. president can hardly afford backsliding in Sudan.
Bennett made no extravagant promises about his foreign policy, but Sudan represents an opportunity to show that friendship with Israel is about more than simply signing accords. Siding with the Sudanese people at this hour would go some way toward overcoming widespread skepticism about the Abraham Accords among ordinary Arabs.
The two men should start by condemning the coup in much stronger terms than the “deep alarm” expressed by Jeffrey Feltman, Biden’s special envoy to the Horn of Arica. Feltman had visited Khartoum over the weekend and met both Burhan and Hamdok; he apparently had no forewarning that one of his interlocutors would imprison the other in short order.
There are signs that the people-power movement that brought down al-Bashir is now regrouping to protest against Burhan’s takeover. Already, security forces in Khartoum have fired upon demonstrators, reportedly killing at least three. Biden and Bennett should give the protesters their full-throated backing, and make it clear to the Sudanese security forces that violence against peaceful demonstrators won’t be tolerated.
The U.S. and Israel should also persuade the other countries that have influence in Sudan — its neighbor Egypt, and its key sources of financial assistance, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — to press for the restoration of the transitional government, under Hamdok and other civilian leaders.
Biden has other levers he can pull. The U.S. is Sudan’s largest humanitarian donor, and State Department has said it will suspend $700 million in emergency aid pending a review of Monday’s developments. The U.S. also can threaten economic sanctions and exercise its veto on assistance from the International Monetary Fund. But these measures risk penalizing the country for Burhan’s coup.
With coups, as with murder investigations, the first days after the event are crucial. By quickly demonstrating that they are cut from a different cloth from their predecessors, Biden and Bennett have the chance to end the crisis of democracy in Khartoum.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.