Coming just two years after Sudan’s historic democratic transition, the October 25 coup by the Sudanese army has halted the country’s faltering steps toward stability. In the weeks since seizing control of the government, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, has dissolved civilian institutions and kept deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other leading politicians under detention. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sudanese have courageously taken to the streets in protest and staged a general strike amid food shortages and rampant inflation.

As significant, however, may be what Burhan’s actions mean for U.S. diplomacy in the region. In contrast to his predecessor, President Joe Biden has made the Horn of Africa a priority, appointing a special envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, to develop and implement a strategy to bring peace to the troubled region. The United States had also supported Sudan’s nascent democracy with financial aid, loan guarantees, and assistance to institution building and security-sector reform. Yet the coup caught Washington seemingly by surprise, occurring just hours after Feltman met with Burhan in Khartoum and stressed Washington’s strong commitment to the existing agreements between the civilian and military leaderships.

As a direct snub to the United States, Burhan’s power grab has further called into question U.S. influence in an already unstable neighborhood. Burhan was likely emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s repudiation of U.S. efforts to end the war and humanitarian crisis in that country. Now, the general threatens to undo yet another fledgling democratic government that had been supported by the United States, to the not-so-secret satisfaction of Russia, China, and would-be autocrats around the world.

Such an outcome, however, is hardly predetermined. In contrast to other fragile aspiring democracies across the greater Middle East in recent years, Sudan maintains a strong diplomatic relationship with the United States. Crucial to Washington’s leverage is whether key allies in the region—Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are onboard. Whether the Biden administration is prepared to take rapid action to restore Sudan’s democratic transition will be a crucial test of its ability to shape political outcomes in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea arena and of Biden’s increasingly vulnerable democracy agenda worldwide.

“This Is Not a Coup”

Adopting the familiar stance of Sudan’s previous military dictators, Burhan has sought to project an image of strength and stability. Among the confusing things the general said on the morning he took power was, “This is not a coup.” His claim has been that as both head of the Sudanese Armed Forces and chairman of the Sovereign Council—a kind of collective presidency—he is already de facto head of state. In the tradition of nationalistic army officers stepping in to save the nation from crisis—which has happened three times in Sudan’s 65-year history as an independent state—Burhan asserts that he is the legitimate guardian of Sudan’s transition and that the civilians have failed.

Few inside or outside Sudan have been fooled by this posture. As the Sudanese public have vigorously protested, the African Union has suspended Sudan’s membership on the grounds of an “unconstitutional change of government.” Nor has Burhan offered a credible solution to any of Sudan’s many pressing challenges, including stabilizing the economy, completing efforts to bring the two largest rebel groups into last year’s Juba Peace Agreement, and meeting popular demands for a swifter transition to democracy.

In fact, there is a much simpler explanation for Burhan’s seizure of power. According to the 2019 Constitutional Declaration, which is the road map for Sudan’s transition to democracy, Burhan was due to step down from his chairmanship of the Sovereign Council on November 19, handing it over to a civilian leader. Clearly, he was unprepared to take this step. But he also seems to have been unprepared for the extent of popular hostility to his takeover.

Burhan’s power grab has further called into question U.S. influence in an already unstable neighborhood.

Faced with the prospect of renewed military rule, large numbers of Sudanese have been determined to preserve the country’s remarkable first steps toward public freedom and accountable government. Driving the protests has been the Forces for Freedom and Change—the broad coalition of professional groups, political parties, and civil society organizations, as well as neighborhood committees, that organized the nonviolent protests that brought down the former regime of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. This capable and resilient democracy movement has repeatedly shown itself to be unbowed by the military. Following a massacre by the armed forces of more than 100 protesters, two months after the fall of Bashir, the FFC mobilized a “march of the millions” that forced the generals to negotiate. And on October 30, just five days after the coup, the FFC defiantly staged another “march of the millions” that brought out hundreds of thousands of protests in cities across Sudan, despite an Internet shutdown imposed by the military. The FFC is also behind the general strike.

The protesters’ central demands are an immediate return to civilian rule and the removal of the army from the political leadership. Hamdok, who had earlier been criticized for his harsh austerity measures and his preference for consensus building that has veered into indecision, has also gained new support since the coup. Though he remains under house arrest, he has refused to back down on his call for a restoration of the pre–October 25 governing formula, and he has emerged as a unifying figure among the protesters and the central player in efforts to negotiate a reversal of the coup.  

If the FFC and its supporters succeed in restoring Hamdok to office, they will be urging him to take radical steps to dismantle the power of the military. Two years ago, Burhan buckled under the combined pressure of street demonstrations and U.S.-led international pressure. Sudanese democrats are hoping that the same combination will work today. But this time the generals are proving to be a tougher nut to crack.

Between a Strongman and a Hard Place

In theory, the United States has strong tools at its disposal to push for a reversal of the coup. Burhan’s biggest weakness—and Washington’s greatest strength—is that Sudan desperately needs money. The general can turn to the Gulf states for temporary support, but the amounts needed to salvage the economy are far larger than what the Saudis and Emiratis are ready to provide. Already, the Biden administration has decided to “pause” $700 million in aid in response to the coup. But it also can use a much bigger financial rescue package as leverage. Rescheduling Sudan’s $70 billion debt, for example, will require the cooperation of the United States, which with its European allies has a controlling stake in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Cut off from Western donors, Burhan could sustain his regime on sales of gold, the profits of military-owned companies, and deals with Russia to provide mercenaries. But the United States could respond with financial sanctions: should the Biden administration invoke the Global Magnitsky Act, these activities could quickly be shut down. The United States can also speed up plans to uncover illicit flows of minerals that are ferried out of the country through the Khartoum International Airport. A bipartisan bill has been tabled in Congress, whose members have called on the U.S. secretary of state to “immediately identify coup leaders, their accomplices, and enablers for consideration for targeted sanctions.”

Sudan’s history shows that a strong authoritarian leader does not mean a strong, stable country—in fact, quite the reverse.

More difficult may be persuading important U.S. allies in the region to oppose military rule. Despite the African Union’s firm stand against the coup, several governments are more comfortable with Burhan than with the civilian leadership. Hours after Burhan met with Feltman, he flew to Cairo and received final approval for a military takeover from Egyptian President (and former General) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an old friend. And Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also habitual supporters of military strongmen, even in a case like Sudan’s, in which the military has close ties to Islamist groups, whereas the democrats are strongly anti-Islamist. Israel dealt directly with Burhan over the negotiations for Sudan to establish diplomatic relations in 2020.

Feltman’s diplomacy has focused on getting these Middle Eastern allies to align with the United States in not recognizing the new government. So far this has been moderately successful. Under U.S. pressure, no Arab country has come out in support of Burhan, and the Arab League—in an unusual divergence with the Egyptian government—has condemned the coup.

Paradoxically, Sudan’s perilous economy gives Burhan a card to play: he can dig in and invoke the likelihood of a food security crisis and the collapse of the Juba Peace Agreement if aid is not forthcoming. Burhan’s “back me or things may get worse” argument is superficially plausible because of the threat of an economic meltdown bringing civil disorder. But Sudan’s history shows that a strong authoritarian leader does not mean a strong, stable country—in fact, quite the reverse.

The Shadow of Bashir

Many Sudanese see the coup as a counterrevolution—a return to the days of Sudan’s longtime strongman president, Omar al-Bashir. Not only did Burhan and the army leadership hold prominent posts under Bashir, they also profited from the “deep state” that he used to perpetuate his rule. Under his regime, networks of military officers and Islamists ran shadowy businesses that included arms manufacturing, gold trading, and money laundering, in addition to controlling a slew of legitimate companies that won lucrative construction and import-export contracts. Hamdok’s moves to dismantle these networks may indeed have spurred the takeover. Since seizing power, Burhan has released some of the leading figures of the former regime from prison, where they were awaiting trial on corruption charges. He has also appointed old cronies to key posts controlling finance, oil, and minerals.

To anyone who lived through the earlier era, these are ominous moves. Bashir lasted three decades in power through skillful management of the country’s various factions. His constituencies included the Islamists, who over the years traded their radical principles for the comforts of crony capitalism; military and security officers, who profited from corrupt dealings; and provincial chiefs and militia leaders, who were paid off to make their fiefdoms pliant to the will of the government. Instead of engaging with the legitimate demands of southern Sudanese, Darfurians, and other groups suffering from notorious inequalities in wealth and power, Bashir turned Sudanese politics into a bazaar in which rival members of the elite jockeyed for personal rewards.

As well as the future of Sudan, the credibility of the U.S. commitment to democracy is at stake.

Meanwhile, the grievances of the general population festered and grew. In southern Sudan, local warlords paid by the government to suppress discontent ended up siding with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army and supporting secession. In Darfur, the most powerful paramilitary commander—General Mohamed “HemedtiDagolo—brought his troops to Khartoum, where he has become a key power broker. And with the army and security gobbling up as much as 60 percent of government spending, economic crisis was inevitable.

Even after 2019, with a new civilian leadership installed in Khartoum, rural Sudan remained governed by the army, paramilitaries, and tribal chiefs. Under Burhan and Hemedti, new violent conflicts have unfolded between Arab and non-Arab groups in Darfur and other outlying regions, with more than 400,000 people displaced this year.

With his unconvincing talk of stability, Burhan seeks to resurrect the politics of the Bashir era. If the soldiers are allowed to set the terms of a compromise deal with the civilians, we can be sure that Sudan’s bloated military budget will not be touched and the deep meddling of the military in the economy will remain, strangling the free market and nourishing corruption. Provincial strongmen will prosper. Left untouched, the Burhan regime could take Sudan back to its darkest days of kleptocratic militarism and endless conflict.

Finding a Way Out

A better outcome is still achievable. In the second week of November, a promising compromise formula for reinstating Hamdok at the head of a new civilian cabinet fell apart owing to Burhan’s intransigence. The general refused to relinquish control over the strategic assets of the economy and reinstate the civilian committee that had been dismantling the corrupt capitalism of the previous regime. By showing Burhan’s true colors, however, these actions also provide a strong rationale for the United States and its allies to take decisive action against the military’s finances, including targeted sanctions.

At the same time, Burhan cannot afford to lose popular support completely and knows that the use of force against protesters—who now include broad cross sections of the population—would spell ruin. Hamdok and the FFC can offer some modest compromises for Burhan to save face and also strengthen Sudan’s transition—for instance, by establishing the long delayed legislative assembly with a balanced representation of political parties and perhaps even some military representatives. Sending Bashir to the International Criminal Court in The Hague is a divisive step; as part of a political settlement, he could face justice in Sudan instead.

In the weeks since the coup, the United States has also suggested it is open to some degree of compromise. In a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace on November 2, Feltman emphasized that Washington’s driving priority is stability. In a statement the following day, the “quad” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom also stressed that any government in Sudan must be committed to the 2019 Constitutional Declaration and the Juba Peace Agreement “as the foundation for further dialogue about how to restore and uphold a genuine civil-military partnership. . . .” This falls short of an unequivocal demand to restore civilian rule and ducks the question of Burhan handing over power this month.

If the United States hopes to put a halt to Burhan and give support to Sudan’s beleaguered democracy movement, however, it must act quickly. Using its main instrument for pressing Burhan—finance—Washington can, with support from its Middle Eastern and European allies, put the generals in a hard place. At the same time, by building a unified international diplomatic front to back the African Union’s principled opposition to an unconstitutional change of government and support the demands of the Sudanese people for civilian rule, the United States can bring Burhan back to the table. Without such engagement, however, Sudan risks losing all of the progress it has made. As well as the future of Sudan, the credibility of the U.S. commitment to democracy is at stake.

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  • ALEX DE WAAL is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.
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