How will the US navigate Sudan's post-coup future?

6 min read
Washington, D.C.
03 November, 2021

In October 1961, US President John F. Kennedy welcomed Sudanese President Ibrahim Abboud, hosting him for a three-day state visit to the White House.

Kennedy said that the Sudanese leader had “set an example of a country with eight neighbours, all of whom live at peace with you and with each other. You have set a standard for your continent and indeed in that sense for the world”.

In his own speech, Abboud said to Kennedy, “We shall always remember that you and the American people have readily shown to Sudan, even before they achieved independence, sincere friendship and fraternity…”

“The US has a very long and deep relationship with Sudan. This should be a priority,” Mark Choate, an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, said, recounting the two countries’ history as well as Sudan’s track record of a strong civil society that has inspired the world since its independence.

"There's not yet a consolidation of power. That's why I think the US and others are hoping some mediation can occur and take things back to civilian rule"

A more complicated era for US-Sudan relations?

Some 60 years later, the US appears to have a more complicated relationship with its long-time ally.

On Sunday, 24 October, Jeffrey Feltman’s visit to Sudan as the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa was followed hours later by a military coup the next day, a development that apparently caught him off guard. In fairness to Feltman, his job entails much more than just mediating between two sides, also having to carefully navigate between a multitude of political entities with various interests.

In a conference call with journalists on Tuesday, he stopped short of saying he was lied to, though he clearly felt misled.

Feltman told reporters that they “seemed to be talking to us in bad faith, because they were talking to us about how to address the concerns they had through constitutional means and instead, as soon as we left, they decided to just turn over the entire negotiating table in favour of a military takeover”.

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The change of guard was swift, as the military took over institutions that had for the past two years been jointly run by civilian and military bodies following the 2019 revolution after 30 years of rule by alleged war criminal Omar al-Bashir.

In response to the coup, the US, along with the European Union, the African Union, and other major powers, condemned the coup and cut off $700 million in aid to Sudan. Is this a strong enough message to help reverse the country’s military takeover?

There appear to be more obstacles than existed back when Kennedy welcomed the newly independent country’s head of state. Since then, Sudan has split into two different countries, it has seen border disputes with its neighbours (most recently Ethiopia), it has experienced 16 attempted coups, it has endured around 30 years of drought, and it has developed new relationships outside its traditional Western alliances of years past.

Sudan's popular uprising in 2019 toppled Omar al-Bashir's 30-year autocratic regime. [Getty]

Business and political interests from the Gulf have brought Sudan closer to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (in the years prior to the 2019 revolution, the two allies competed together for influence in Sudan against Iran and Qatar); Israel (which has remained silent on the coup) has grown closer to Sudan since its deal in the US-sponsored Abraham Accords; Turkey and Russia are currently looking at setting up military bases in Sudan.

“Without support from some foreign groups, the military would not have had the confidence to stage this coup,” Pamela DeLargy, professor of global studies at Arizona State University, tells The New Arab.

Though foreign influence is generally not overt, it has long been a way of life in Sudan. This is especially the case with the country’s major industries, mainly gold, wheat, and livestock.

“Sudan at this point is operating as a cartel country,” Bakry Elmedni, associate professor in public administration at Long Island University and president of the Sudan Studies Association, tells TNA.

"Without support from some foreign groups, the military would not have had the confidence to stage this coup"

This is not to say that a diversified set of alliances is inherently problematic, or that a close relationship with the US is necessarily beneficial. Many countries that have put themselves in America’s corner have not faired well. What it does mean is that the US likely has less leverage in Sudan than it might have once had.

Furthermore, cutting off aid has the potential to hurt regular Sudanese civilians, rather than the military leaders it is intended to affect.

Continued demonstrations amid a humanitarian crisis

The level of poverty in Sudan is difficult to overstate. According to the World Population Review, the poverty rate stands at 46.5 percent (with its next-door neighbours at similar levels). This is being exacerbated by state-imposed phone and internet outages, making it difficult for people to account for casualties and arrests.

Elmedni, who was last in Sudan less than two months ago, has had difficulty reaching his family since the coup, and his closest friends are in prison.

“Right now, we don’t know how many people have been arrested, how many are in prison, and how many have been killed,” says Elmedni. “My gut feeling is when we see the information, it’s going to be a large number.”

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One stunning glimmer of hope for the return to joint civilian rule is the response of many Sudanese civilian leaders who are taking a stand against the new order. The minister of information is continuing to support civilian rule through newspapers. The Sudanese ambassador to the US is also refusing to resign.

“There’s not yet a consolidation of power. That’s why I think the US and others are hoping some mediation can occur and take things back to civilian rule,” says DeLargy. “A lot of countries that are in the midst of struggling for civilian rule are looking at Sudan.”

On the other hand, she believes, authoritarian governments are also looking on with their own concerns.

"In spite of everything, people are in the streets marching, organising and striking. Spirits are high. Eventually, the will of the people will prevail"

“It’s an inspiration in the Arab world I think, and perhaps also a threat – especially for the monarchies and for those who don’t support civilian rule.”

Meanwhile, demonstrators across the country, and in cities around the world, are out in full force. Every day, regular Sudanese – many of them led by women – are taking to the streets to demand a return to civilian rule.

Will any of these efforts make a difference? For now, they are at least inspiring hope.

“In spite of everything, people are in the streets marching, organising and striking,” says Elmedni. “Spirits are high. Eventually, the will of the people will prevail.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews