What Happens in Sudan Doesn’t Stay in Sudan

Will Khartoum Become the Center of a New African Order or an Appendage of the Gulf?

Sudanese demonstrators wave flags at a rally in Khartoum honoring fallen protesters in July 2019 Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / REUTERS

It’s the end of an era in the Horn of Africa. After three decades in power, Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir fell in April. Mass antigovernment protests erupted, and a military coup soon followed. Now the remnants of Bashir’s security state are locked in a protracted standoff with an indefatigable pro-democracy movement over control of the country. The governing Transitional Military Council has cracked down violently, killing more than 100 protesters in a wave of repression that began on June 3. But it has also promised to facilitate a transition to civilian rule as part of a tentative power-sharing agreement with the Forces of Freedom and Change, an umbrella organization representing the demonstrators.

The upheaval in Sudan comes at the same time as Ethiopia’s reform-minded prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is dramatically expanding political space in his country, while battling an attendant surge in ethnic violence. Together with subtler stirrings in Eritrea and elsewhere, the historic transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia could change the trajectory of a volatile corner of Africa for decades to come. The question that now hangs over the region is what the next era will bring: Will it usher in a new, more democratic order built on a shared foundation of national sovereignty and collective security? Or will it bring a closed, authoritarian order that is beholden to extraregional powers? Sudan, in particular, is a microcosm of this broader struggle to reshape the regional order, as well as a likely harbinger of its outcome. On one side of that struggle is a coalition of African states, bound together by the African Union and an important East African regional bloc. On the other are the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf.


The Horn of Africa has remained steadfastly authoritarian since the dying days of the Cold War, during which the United States and the Soviet Union vied for dominance by arming the region’s despots. Much of Africa transitioned to competitive political systems in the 1990s, but not the

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