When antigovernment protesters flooded the streets of Sudan in late 2018 and early 2019, they helped achieve a longstanding but elusive goal of the United States: the fall of its corrupt and authoritarian president, Omar al-Bashir. After three decades of repressive rule and near-constant civil war, Bashir was ousted amid the demonstrations in a military coup, bringing the promise of a reformed and more democratic Sudan. Citizens continued their protest movement after the coup, leading to the formation of a transitional government composed of civilian and military leaders that was to rule the country for three years, after which democratic elections were supposed to determine the country’s political future.

But Sudan’s political transition has not gone as planned. For two years, the country’s military and civilian leaders struggled to reconcile their priorities within the transitional government. Then, in October 2021, the military seized full control in a second coup.

Equally dispiriting—and more perplexing—has been the United States’ reaction. Instead of embracing and bolstering the pro-democracy forces that achieved what it could not, Washington has alienated them by appearing strangely deferential to the military leaders, who are intent on preserving the power structures of Sudan’s past. This apparent paradox can’t be explained by shifting U.S. interests in Sudan. Rather, it stems from Washington’s overly personalized approach to the country: after decades of building its policy around pressuring Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP), the United States is both unprepared to deal with the political system he left behind and unable to imagine anything different.


Bashir himself came to power in a military coup, in 1989, and for the next 30 years, U.S. policymakers from both parties considered him a threat to U.S. interests. Bashir’s Sudan was not just a military dictatorship. It was a military dictatorship that supported Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, harbored prominent international terrorists (including Osama bin Laden) in the 1990s, and maintained close ties to Iran until 2015. Its proxy forces enslaved and starved the Sudanese people and persecuted religious minorities. When insurgents rebelled against the government, first in southern Sudan and later in the western region of Darfur, Bashir responded with campaigns that U.S. officials deemed genocidal. Bashir’s foreign and domestic policies shifted and in some cases moderated over time, but while he was in power, Sudan was rightly seen as a malign actor on the international stage.

The United States tried hard to isolate the Sudanese government and pressure it to reform. Washington halted all nonhumanitarian aid soon after Bashir seized power, and in 1993, it designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, cutting off Khartoum’s access to aid from international financial institutions. In 1997, President Bill Clinton imposed sweeping trade and financial sanctions on Sudan at the urging of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. A decade later, President George W. Bush imposed additional targeted sanctions on Sudanese officials and government-controlled businesses involved in the Darfur conflict. These unilateral measures were coupled with joint efforts to isolate Sudan internationally, including at the United Nations Security Council.

By 2009, the year the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for his alleged crimes in Darfur, the suite of U.S. sanctions on Sudan was among the most comprehensive in the world. The Obama administration struggled to pursue multiple objectives in Sudan at once. It sought to support the campaign to bring Bashir to justice while also working with his government to ensure that it upheld an agreement to conduct a credible referendum on southern Sudanese independence, which the United States had helped broker, and to de-escalate conflicts in other regions of the country. Policy was sometimes paralyzed by the fundamental tension between Washington’s desire to delegitimize an abusive, criminal regime and its need to influence that same regime to pursue peace and security in Sudan and beyond. Time and again, the solution was to separate—cosmetically, at least—Bashir the individual from other members of his regime whose cooperation the United States needed to get anything done.


The uprising that began in 2018 seemed to deliver the change that Washington had long sought. Bashir was removed from power the next year and taken into custody, and the transitional government passed a law dissolving the NCP. It also disbanded Bashir’s intelligence service, which had brutally silenced dissenters and protected powerful members of the regime.

Ultimately, however, it was the military—not the broad coalition of pro-democracy protesters who fueled the revolution against Bashir—that exercised the greatest influence over Sudan’s political transition. The transitional government was based on an uneasy partnership between civilians interested in genuine reform and members of the armed forces who had benefitted from impunity and exclusive access to lucrative, often illicit business opportunities under Bashir. It was plagued by infighting as military leaders balked at the planned transfer of leadership to civilian hands and at efforts to recover stolen assets and unwind corrupt deals. Little progress was made toward transforming the Sudanese state or improving the quality of life for the Sudanese people, drawing the ire of protesters who periodically returned to the streets to reiterate their calls for democratic reform.  

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, proved unwilling to share power at all. In October 2021, he deposed the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, arrested him and other nonmilitary members of the government, dissolved the transitional government and unilaterally appointed a new one.

American caution and neglect gave Sudan’s military the time and space to eventually seize power.

The United States’ tepid response to the takeover frustrated many Sudanese pro-democracy activists. The Biden administration refrained from using the word “coup” in its statements condemning the military’s seizure of power and it declined to sanction Burhan and the other military leaders. Instead, it pushed for Hamdok to be released from house arrest and reinstated as prime minister and advocated a return to the dysfunctional power-sharing arrangement—measures that Sudan’s pro-democracy factions viewed as inadequate.

For weeks, U.S. policymakers lashed their hopes to Hamdok’s reinstatement, as if his presence in government could satisfy Washington’s democratic requirements for Sudan even though he was already largely discredited as powerless in the eyes of reformers and democrats. Hamdok struck a deal with Burhan to resume his post in November, but it was clear he could never be an effective civilian counterweight to the military. When he resigned at the beginning of January, no one was surprised. It was painfully obvious that his liberty came at the pleasure of the generals, who continue to kill protesters while resurrecting elements of the old regime.

Even before the latest coup, Washington’s policy toward Sudan’s new transitional government was alienating proponents of genuine democratic reform. Although the United States took Sudan off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and supported relieving some of the Sudanese government’s debts, it was slow to deliver financial support that could have made much-needed structural reforms less painful for the Sudanese people. During the Trump years, Washington was also seen as willing to subordinate Sudan policy to its efforts to normalize relations between Israel, Sudan, and several Gulf states—a policy with dubious popular support in Sudan—and as overly deferential to the democracy-averse Gulf states that saw the military half of Sudan’s transitional government as a potential bulwark against Islamists aligned with Qatar and Turkey.

Rather than capitalizing on the momentum in Sudan for reform and democratization, Washington seemed strangely disengaged from the country during much of the transition, neglecting even to nominate a U.S. ambassador to Sudan until 2022. The October coup did not occur because of anything U.S. policymakers did. But a mix of American caution and neglect over the transitional period gave Sudan’s military the time and space to get comfortable exercising more and more power and eventually, to calculate that it could simply seize it all.


Part of Washington’s problem is that it can focus too much on individual personalities at the expense of systems. Just as the United States’ fixation on a single intolerable leader sometimes hamstrung its policy during the Bashir era, its fixation for critical weeks on a single indispensable one—Hamdok—blinded it to a reality that was clear to the Sudanese on the street: the military simply would not tolerate real civilian control of the levers of power. Perhaps to some U.S. policymakers, Bashir’s ouster was the change Sudan needed, even if the system he built and operated remained largely in place. Leadership changes are far easier to support than structural ones and they are clearer and more certain than democratic transitions with their cacophony of voices, interests, and aspirations.

Bashir’s removal eliminated a powerful irritant to the United States, allowing what replaced him to appear deceptively palatable. Some members of the transitional government were infamously unsavory—most notably the paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Darfur and for the massacre of unarmed civilian protesters in 2019. But others, such as Burhan, were less notorious and seemed to promise stability in a turbulent region. As they had done in the Bashir era, U.S. officials could pick and choose among Sudanese officials to find acceptable interlocutors.

But Sudan was not a problem for the United States for decades because of a handful of toxic individuals at the highest levels of power. Holding those people accountable for their actions is right and just and could even deter future abuses. But doing so will not excise the cancer at the heart of the Sudanese state: the vast system of patronage and impunity that Bashir built and that is very much alive today. This system is contemptuous of popular will, suspicious of dissent and opposition, neglectful or outright hostile toward Sudanese living outside of Khartoum, and deft at manipulating foreign powers so that Sudan’s leaders are always cast as the lesser of two evils.

U.S. policymakers have focused on eliminating a problem rather than building a durable solution.

Regardless of its name or figureheads, this system will never dismantle itself, which is why pushing for a return to the charade of a transitional government based on the previous power-sharing formula is a recipe for failure. No virtuous individual or combination of individuals involved in such a charade can restore the trust of Sudanese people or compel the military to suddenly embrace reform. Thrusting people of integrity into a discredited framework only diminishes them, leaving the old system unchanged and sowing cynicism among supporters of democracy.

Years of seeking change at the top in Sudan has constricted U.S. ambitions. For too long, U.S. policymakers have focused on eliminating a problem rather than building a durable solution. The idea of a democratic Sudan committed to the rule of law has seemed so fanciful for so long that it does not animate any U.S. strategy or planning. This dearth of American ambition proved to be a terrible mismatch with the outsized expectations of the Sudanese people who, having witnessed the fall of Bashir, are demanding systemic change.

But the United States need not assume that Sudan is destined for authoritarianism. Even in the face of consistent and often lethal repression, Sudan’s brave and resilient pro-democracy activists remain a powerful force for change. Washington is already taking steps to deny the military government the debt relief and economic assistance it needs to sustain its patronage networks and it has belatedly stepped up its engagement with the civilian institutions sustaining the protest movement. But it must do more to understand the aspirations and red lines of these organizations and to support their capacity to participate in shaping Sudan’s future. In addition, the United States should refrain from legitimizing dialogues or transitional frameworks that empower the military to dictate timetables, veto or approve civilian appointments, or determine who is included or excluded from the political arena.

But as was true in the Bashir era, the United States does not have sufficient influence to change Sudan’s political trajectory on its own. To effectively constrain the military, Washington would also have to ensure that China or the Gulf states do not come to its aid. That, in turn, would require strong leadership and commitment from the top of the U.S. government, a genuine belief in the possibility of success, and a willingness to accept tradeoffs with other important issues. In the absence of a clear vision for U.S. relations with a fundamentally different Sudan—not just a different Sudanese leader—it will be difficult for the Biden administration to muster this kind of leadership and commitment, despite decades of U.S. efforts to reform the country.

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  • MICHELLE GAVIN is Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was Senior Africa Director at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011 and U.S. Ambassador to Botswana from 2011 to 2014.
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