Since Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir was forced out of office in April after months of popular protests, a struggle has played out between the country’s generals and civil society leaders seeking a full democratic transition.
The Trump administration has encouraged that democratic transition. On May 8, for example, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan toldthe chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, to “move expeditiously toward a civilian-led interim government,” something el-Burhan had initially promised to do in negotiations with the democratic opposition.
In the last several weeks, however, the generals have reneged on their promises. Some military units have fired on protesters. Negotiations to share power between civilians and the military have stalled. On Tuesday, the opposition called for a general strike. As a headline in Foreign Policy put it, Sudan is now in the midst of a “counterrevolution.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. A well-timed visit to Khartoum from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can stop the momentum for a counterrevolution and get Sudan back on the right path.
First, Pompeo should meet publicly with leaders of the Sudanese Professionals Association, the group that began the anti-Bashir protests in December, and the allied Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change. Meeting these activists first will help counter the pseudo-legitimacyconferred in the last week by America’s Arab allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. All three countries have hosted leaders of the transitional military council.
Srdja Popovic, the executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, a group that helps train democracy activists in civil resistance, told me he was worried about the lack of a firm policy among Western allies. “The only outside players right now in Sudan are the ones who want to cement military rule,” he said.
Popovic was one of the founders of Otpor, the Serbian movement that ended up unseating Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. From his perspective, the next few weeks are crucial as both the military and democracy activists vie for international recognition.
This is where Pompeo’s second message comes in. Before December’s protests, the State Department was in negotiationswith Sudan to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, an international scarlet letter that dogged Bashir’s regime beginning in 1993. Pompeo should tell the transitional military council that there is no way Sudan will be removed from the list if it does not yield to a civilian-led transitional government.
A joint statementlast week from Norway, the U.K. and the U.S. implied as much, but failed to spell it out. It said any outcome that doesn’t lead to a civilian-led government will “complicate international engagement, and make it harder for our countries to work with the new authorities and support Sudan’s economic development.” Pompeo should make that threat explicit.
Finally, Pompeo should send a message to the Egyptians, Emiratis and Saudis, all of whom rely on U.S. military and diplomatic support. The U.S. has not pressed these autocratic allies to take up democratic reforms. The least they can do is refrain from thwarting a democratic transition in Sudan.
The secretary is of course a busy man, with many crises and issues that demand his attention on several continents. In the grand scheme of things, Sudan is not as important as containing Iran, keeping Chinese technology out of Europe’s 5G network or negotiating with North Korea.
And yet in Sudan’s crisis is an opportunity to help show that nonviolent democratic change is possible in the Muslim world. There is an alternative to dictatorship. The Sudanese people have done the hard part. Pompeo can help ensure that their gains are lasting.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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