US, Europe warn Sudan’s military as democratic transition unravels

(WASHINGTON) — With Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy derailed, the United States and Europe have issued a stark warning to the Sudanese military against appointing a new government “without the involvement of a broad range of civilian stakeholders.”

“Unilateral action to appoint a new Prime Minister and Cabinet would undermine those institutions’ credibility and risks plunging the nation into conflict,” Norway, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the European Union said in a joint statement Tuesday. “In the absence of progress, we would look to accelerate efforts to hold those actors impeding the democratic process accountable.”

Sudan has been seen as a powerful example of democratic hope after a 2019 revolution forced the military’s overthrow of the Islamist regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an alleged war criminal and former military officer who seized power of the North African nation in 1989. The popular uprising was marked by iconic images of protesters, especially women, going viral on social media and garnering support from celebrities around the world. After al-Bashir was ousted, Sudanese military and civilian leaders came together to form a transitional government and agreed on a 39-month process to return to democratic, civilian rule.

That progress came to a grinding halt on Oct. 25, 2021, when the military took power, dissolved the transitional government and expelled the civilian members. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was appointed by the transitional government in 2019, was placed under house arrest along with a number of other senior politicians. Mass protests as well as pressure from the international community, including the U.S. government withholding $700 million in economic aid, ushered in a deal that reinstated Hamdok as prime minister on Nov. 21, 2021.

But Hamdok resigned on Sunday, after the military refused to loosen its grip on power.

“I tried as much as I could to avoid our country slipping into a catastrophe, and now our country is going through a dangerous turning point that may threaten its entire survival if it is not remedied soon,” Hamdok said in a televised national address. “The major crisis today in the homeland is primarily a political crisis, but it is gradually changing to include all aspects of economic and social life and is on its way to becoming a comprehensive crisis.”

“The key word towards a solution to this dilemma that has persisted for more than six decades in the history of the country is to rely on dialogue at a round table in which all groups of Sudanese society and the state are represented to agree on a national charter and to draw a roadmap to complete the civil democratic transformation,” he added.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and other cities across the country to denounce the military takeover and demand civilian rule. Sudanese security forces have used violent means to disperse protesters, killing at least 57 of them and injuring hundreds of others since October, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee, which is part of the pro-democracy movement.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has expressed grave concern about reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment against women and girls by Sudanese security forces during protests in December.

The U.S. government has repeatedly called for accountability in the wake of the reported atrocities but has yet to penalize the Sudanese military. When asked why the Sudanese military hasn’t been sanctioned, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Tuesday: “We don’t preview sanctions designations, but we are exploring all available options to support Sudan’s transition.”

However, some analysts argued that now is the time for action, not more warnings and threats.

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., said the U.S. government “must move beyond tired bromides claiming to ‘stand with the people of Sudan’ and unabashedly throw its weight behind the country’s pro-democracy movement in tangible and meaningful ways that will begin to swing the balance of power more in the protesters’ favor.”

“Sudan’s formal transition to democracy is over, even though its revolution lives on in the hearts of millions of peaceful pro-democracy protesters,” Hudson wrote Monday in a post for the Atlantic Council’s blog. “Washington and its international partners have now lost the final pretense of what allowed them — for too long — to frame their engagement in terms of supporting a ‘civilian-led transitional government."”

“With no political agreement or civilian leader left to undermine, Washington and its allies should now pursue a more hardline approach toward the military that holds it accountable for the October coup and the deadly response to peaceful protests since then,” he added before noting “that should mean sanctions.”

It remains unclear whether freezing the assets of Sudanese military leaders would have any impact, especially since allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to back them and Sudan previously found a way to manage under nearly 20 years of U.S. sanctions.

Some analysts argued that regional allies have little to gain from an unstable Sudan. Camille Lons, a Bahrain-based research associate for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, said the “spill-over effects — such as economic repercussions, refugee flows, terrorism threats and arms smuggling — are perceived as highly problematic.”

“Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Egypt, continue to favour the military in Sudan. But that does not mean that they view the coup positively,” Lons wrote in an analysis posted on Nov. 16. “Several Gulf and Egyptian diplomats and officials have privately expressed their surprise and concern over what they see as a reckless move.”

“But as the US shows growing signs of disengagement in the region,” she added, “Arab Gulf countries will increasingly have to take care of their own regional security and stability, albeit with more pragmatism.”

In the absence of assertive pressure from the international community, the situation in Sudan is becoming dark and uncertain. In the war-torn Darfur region, where a genocide sparked global outrage, escalating violence has displaced thousands of people since November. There have also been “alarming reports” of villages being destroyed, sexual violence and livestock rustling, according to the United Nations.

Moreover, Sudan under al-Bashir had concerning ties to terrorism that include giving safe haven to al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and being implicated in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for which al-Qaida claimed responsibility. But Hudson said the Sudanese military “appears intent” to keep the country off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. After being added in 1993 over its links to al-Qaida, Sudan was officially removed from the list in 2020.

“The military, for all its faults and abuses, has been a reasonably reliable ally in the fight against terrorism and has its own reasons to be concerned by jihadists taking up residence in Sudan,” Hudson told ABC News on Wednesday.

But diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and others to pressure Sudanese military leadership may be complicated by the departure of a senior U.S. diplomat.

Reuters, citing sources, reported Wednesday that the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, is leaving his post at the end of the month amid the growing chaos in Sudan and neighboring Ethiopia, and that he will be replaced by David Satterfield, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Turkey. The U.S. Department of State declined ABC News’ request for comment.

Hudson told ABC News that Feltman’s departure would not be “particularly surprising, as he was only there as a stopgap to help the administration respond early on to the unfolding crises in Ethiopia and Sudan.”

“Most critical now is that the U.S. maintain a strong and consistent level of diplomatic engagement in the region at this critical moment,” he added, noting that an announcement of a replacement for Feltman would suggest that “this will be the case and should be welcomed.”

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