Sudan coup: How the West has a historic opportunity to do the right thing
Sudan's quest for democracy has entered its third year. The struggle started on 19 December 2018, following a hike in bread prices that made securing a meal unaffordable. Within months, protesters deposed of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir – who is still wanted by the International Criminal Court on accounts of war crimes and genocide – despite few observers believing it was possible.
Rather than stop at Bashir, protesters continued to oppose the military generals who assumed power. Fed up with mounting calls for civilian rule, Sudan's Military Transitional Council violently dispersed a sit-in outside the defence ministry in the capital of Khartoum on June 3, 2019. That morning, at least 120 people were massacred.
The horrific violence – coupled with ongoing demonstrations – compelled the international community to pressure Sudan's junta into inking a deal with a loose coalition of civilians known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).
The partnership ushered in a civilian-military government, which was supposed to guide Sudan to its first election in more than 30 years. Yet while the global community and political elites celebrated the deal, grassroots activists warned that the security forces could not be trusted.
"By taking the bait, western powers are ratifying a coup and betraying popular aspirations for democracy"
Fast-forward to October 25 of this year, which saw Sudan's junta arrest prime minister Abdallah Hamdok and detain several FFC ministers. A three-week internet blackout ensued, while hundreds of thousands of protesters braved bullets, teargas, and stun grenades to denounce the coup and reaffirm their demand for civilian rule.
Despite the awe-inspiring resolve of protesters, western leaders have failed to heed their demands. They have instead welcomed a flawed agreement that the junta inked with Hamdok while he was under duress on November 21. That deal is nothing more than an attempt by coup leaders to obtain global legitimacy and aid through reinstating a toothless prime minister. By taking the bait, western powers are ratifying a coup and betraying popular aspirations for democracy.
The coup in Sudan follows a troubling trend in Africa, which has seen military takeovers in Chad, Guinea, and Mali this year. The lack of a firm and coordinated international response to these power grabs may have led Sudan's coup leaders to believe that they would not face consequences if they toppled the civilian wing of the transitional government.
Soon after the coup, the US suspended $US 700 million in development aid, while the world bank paused $US 2 billion in planned disbursements to Khartoum. These punitive measures have starved Sudan's coup leaders of aid, which they need to compensate their rank-in-file and to coopt enough political factions to obtain a veneer of domestic legitimacy.
Two rebel groups from Darfur – The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Movement of Minnie Minawi (SLA-MM) – have arguably the most to gain from the coup.
These groups plotted the power grab with the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a violent paramilitary – to secure a large portion of the foreign aid that was promised to Sudan at the start of the transition.
The November 21 deal now offers a pretext for Washington to resume aid, although most of it would flow directly into the pockets of the coup leaders. The US may even be under pressure from Hamdok, who said in an interview with Al Jazeera that he returned to the office to safeguard Sudan's economic program. From the perspective of the Whitehouse, supporting a powerless Hamdok is surely better than triggering an economic collapse that could destabilize the region.
After all, international assistance is vital for Sudan. About 11 million people are expected to suffer from food shortages in the coming year, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). This number could rise sharply if the coup government struggles to secure basic food imports in the weeks to come.
However, protesters are urging the global community not to support the junta at any cost, fearing that any assistance given will entrench the military in power. Some of that money could also be misused to purchase weapons to repress protesters or resume counterinsurgencies in the peripheries.
Regrettably, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has dismissed those concerns. On December 1, he urged protesters to use 'common sense' by throwing their weight behind Hamdok and the coup government, until elections are held in 2024. In his view, there is simply no scenario where military leaders will give up total power to a civilian government during the transition, which may be true if the global community does not rally behind protesters.
However, Guterres's reasoning also demonstrates a worrying lack of common sense. To claim that the same junta that overthrew a civilian government will now steer Sudan towards democracy is lunacy at best and disingenuous at worst.
A bottom-up approach
Rather than ratify the coup, the global community should back Sudan's resistance committees, which are neighbourhood groups with horizontal command structures that are spearheading protests across the country. While these committees are often framed as a shapeless and de-centralized grassroots movement, they are rapidly evolving into a unified political force.
"The US and its partners must instead make a choice: They can rally behind the street movement or stay on the sidelines. Either way, protesters are ready to die for democracy"
Earlier this month, they announced that they will disclose their political roadmap by January – a sign that they are converting their street legitimacy into political capital. The Whitehouse must engage with this road map, otherwise, it would expose the hypocrisy of US President Joe Biden who recently launched his virtual Democracy Summit this month – an initiative aimed to push back against authoritarianism worldwide.
Sudan presents Washington with a real opportunity to do that by repurposing development aid to resistance committees. With the economy on the ropes, resistance committees could use the money to support the most vulnerable and accelerate the growth of bottom-up democratic structures. Sudan's sprawling civil society has already demonstrated that it can tend to day-to-day affairs in its communities, coordinate across the country to achieve shared objectives, and stamp out corruption on a local level.
The alternative is to restore aid to the government, which risks destabilizing the peripheries. These regions have witnessed a flare-up in communal violence throughout the country's tumultuous transition. Moreover, if the coup government exploits these divisions to coopt new support bases – a tactic that would create clear winners and losers in the new political order – then renewed conflict could follow.
To avoid this scenario, Washington and its partners should not legitimize nor reward the November 21 deal, which has no popular backing. The US and its partners must instead make a choice: They can rally behind the street movement or stay on the sidelines. Either way, protesters are ready to die for democracy.
Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile.
Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.