Having invested time, effort, and treasure in helping to sustain the 2019 political agreement between the Sudanese military and the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change, the United States wants to influence events in Khartoum in the post-coup period. The statements from the White House and State Department, and the executive actions by the administration, indicate that they were surprised that the military chose that route which rendered Washington unhappy about the turn of events in Sudan. But past experience with US responses to subversions of democracy and violations of human rights in the Middle East leaves open the question of whether the United States will remain opposed to the Sudanese coup or will change course to let it stand.
Three current examples of US policy in the Middle East indicate that the Biden Administration may have decided to use Sudan as a case study to send a message that Washington is committed to its declared intention to champion human rights globally. To wit, the administration has not effectively addressed the ongoing repression in Egypt eight years after the 2013 coup; it has not yet properly dealt with the unconstitutional putsch Tunisian President Kais Saied executed against what was a promising, albeit chaotic, democratic experiment; and it continues to ignore Israel’s apartheid policies, grave violations of Palestinian rights, and the continuing expropriation of land by settlers in the occupied West Bank. Indeed, while the administration’s position on Khartoum’s developments so far is welcome, it is the selective, pick-and-choose foreign policy orientation in the Middle East and North Africa that calls for caution in assessing whether Washington will finally do what it has long preached regarding democracy and human rights.
An Encouraging US Position on Sudan
On October 28, President Joe Biden issued a statement that endorsed calls and actions by international organizations condemning the coup in Sudan and calling for the restoration of the transitional government. On October 29, he notified Congress that he is extending a national emergency with respect to Sudan that was originally declared in Executive Order 13067 of 1997, citing the military takeover and the continuing situation in Darfur as justification.
Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, was very surprised to hear of the coup by the Sovereignty Council president, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan. Only a few hours earlier, Feltman was in Khartoum discussing ways to de-escalate tensions between the Sudanese military and its civilian partners in the government that emerged after the 2019 toppling of former dictator Omar al-Bashir. Feltman likened the coup to medicine that kills an ailing patient.
He is now voicing optimism about the return to a military-civilian partnership, citing the fact that security forces have shown restraint while dealing with protesters against the coup.
Feltman is now voicing optimism about the return to a military-civilian partnership, citing the fact that security forces have shown restraint while dealing with protesters against the coup.
Immediately following the coup, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the action as subverting the transition to democracy and announced the suspension of $700 million in emergency economic assistance to Sudan. He also called for a return to the 2019 agreement and the release of detained officials such as Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Blinken continued with a series of telephone calls to interested and involved parties. After Hamdok’s release on October 26, Blinken talked to him by telephone to reemphasize the need to adhere to the 2019 agreement. The secretary also discussed the same issue with his Sudanese counterpart, Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, in an obvious gesture that indicated, at least to the coup’s leaders, that the US government still considers the civilian cabinet as the representative of the Sudanese people. In a similar gesture, Blinken welcomed the African Union’s suspension of Sudan’s membership after the military takeover.
But just as important was the secretary’s call to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and the two men’s statement condemning the coup and calling for a return to the civilian-led transitional government. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had shown a clear preference for Sudan’s military leaders after Bashir’s ouster in 2019 but were forced to bide their time because of the resilience of the opposition regarding military rule in Khartoum. A clear US position on the coup could deliver another message to the Sudanese military’s friends in the Gulf not to support an alternative to General Burhan should he show weakness in resisting the calls for a return to the 2019 agreement. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a very close friend within the military, Rapid Support Forces Commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), who has no qualms about a bloody suppression of any opposition to the military’s rule. It is not difficult to imagine that Blinken pointed out to bin Farhan that continuing to look favorably on the coup may not benefit US-Saudi relations in the long run.
While the Biden Administration’s ultimate concern is to secure a clear example of its intention to be a defender of human rights around the world, its opposition to the coup stems from at least three additional reasons. First, since the days of the Obama Administration, the United States has sought to ease up on Sudan regarding its policies, including previous support of extremist groups and interference in South Sudanese affairs. During the Trump Administration, the openness on Khartoum took on added urgency and purpose, especially after Sudan agreed to normalize relations with Israel along with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. Indeed, that resulted in striking the country’s name off the list of state sponsors of terrorism once Sudan deposited $335 million in restitution to the families of victims of acts of terrorism. Sudan’s normalizing of relations with Israel and joining the international community are considered important goals that US foreign policy would happily endorse under the rubric of civilian rule in Khartoum.
Since the days of the Obama Administration, the United States has sought to ease up on Sudan regarding its policies, including previous support of extremist groups and interference in South Sudanese affairs.
Second, the United States is keen to give the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement a good chance for success because it helps further stability in both Sudan and South Sudan and accountability for the Darfur genocide. On October 3rd, the Biden Administration joined the United Kingdom and Norway in commemorating the agreement on its first anniversary. However, one question worries the United States and may affect the long-term implementation of the Juba Agreement: will Sudan’s military fully agree to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution because of his responsibility for the atrocities committed during the conflict in Darfur? While some in the military may agree to do that, it remains unclear if the institution as a whole would extradite him since many officers were just as involved as he was in that sordid conflict that killed some 300,000 people.
Third, stability in Sudan and the wider east Africa region would be helped by a strong economy that could address endemic poverty and underdevelopment. The Biden Administration seems to be counting on helping Sudan get on its feet following lifting its name off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But Washington is not quite sure that the military is capable of delivering on the economy. This is why it suspended the $700 million of economic assistance, and it is hard to believe the United States did not have a hand in the World Bank’s similar decision to stop delivery of tranches of a $2 billion package for Sudan.
Others That Did Not Make the Cut
Although US criticism of—and active opposition to—the military coup in Sudan is encouraging, there remain serious outstanding examples in the recent history of the Middle East where similar positions appear to have been forsaken for the sake of expedience, outright neglect, or overt complicity. In the following cases, the United States could have made the morally defensible decision that would help it prove to itself and the international community that it truly is a champion of democracy and human rights around the world.
Although US criticism of—and active opposition to—the military coup in Sudan is encouraging, there remain serious outstanding examples in the recent history of the Middle East where similar positions appear to have been forsaken for the sake of expedience, outright neglect, or overt complicity.
First, the United States has avoided making the decision about calling the Egyptian military’s move against President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 a coup. It also has not actively opposed and resisted that coup as it installed a repressive regime that it later normalized under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. To be sure, the American orientation of relations with Egypt since then has been defined by expedience involving strategic considerations, Israeli interests, arms sales, and Egypt’s supposed mediatory role in Palestinian-Israeli affairs, among other concerns. The Obama Administration showed its displeasure in the beginning by imposing limits on arms sales but later resumed them, albeit under some restrictions by Congress. The Trump Administration unreservedly endorsed Egypt’s authoritarian rule not only for the sake of expedience but also because of the ideological affinity between President Donald Trump and Sisi, with the former famously calling the latter his “favorite dictator.” So far, the Biden Administration appears to have taken US policy toward Egypt back to where its Obama predecessor left off, despite President Biden’s announcement that Sisi should not expect “blank checks” from him. Washington’s treatment of Sudan’s putschists has been a far cry from the way it handled Egypt’s generals in 2013.
Second, despite the criticism leveled against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s unconstitutional power grab in July, the United States has yet to call his action a coup. Designating it as such would trigger some executive actions that the Biden Administration has convinced itself may cause great harm to that country. But Saied’s move has taken on a life of its own despite the absence of any justification by the Tunisian constitution. With his announcement in September that he will rule by decree, Saied has aborted whatever semblance of democracy there is left in Tunisia. What is worse is the Biden Administration’s hanging on the hope, voiced by Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi (who was appointed by Saied without parliamentary approval following the president’s dismissal of the Assembly of Representatives); during a visit by State Department official Yael Lempert, Jerandi said that his president would take steps toward democracy to assure partners and friends. Letting Tunisia’s democracy be buried alive without much pressure to the contrary is the ultimate sign of neglect of the United States’ vaunted doctrine that touts the protection of democracy and human rights.
The Biden Administration shows clear signs that it is not interested in criticizing—let alone sanctioning—Israel for its system of apartheid and inequality practiced on Palestinians under occupation and inside Israel.
Third, and finally, the Biden Administration shows clear signs that it is not interested in criticizing—let alone sanctioning—Israel for its system of apartheid and inequality practiced on Palestinians under occupation and inside Israel. Neither is the administration opposing Israel’s declaration that six Palestinian human rights organizations are in fact terrorist outfits; instead, the State Department declared that the United States is seeking clarification from Israel about its move despite widespread condemnation, including by Israeli human rights organizations, of the unjustified designation. Daily Israeli settler attacks and threats of expulsion against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and a continuing siege of the Gaza Strip hardly receive a mention by US officials. Recently, the Biden Administration voiced opposition to an Israeli plan to build more than 3,000 new housing units on West Bank lands; a day later, an Israeli planning board went ahead with the plan with no regard to objections from Washington. These and many other Israeli transgressions and violations against Palestinian rights make whatever commitment President Biden makes on championing democracy and human rights mere rhetoric, one that is belied by realities on the ground.
A Serious Choice to Be Made
It is the contradiction in US foreign policy between advancing geostrategic interests and advocating democracy and human rights that makes the Biden Administration’s behavior suspect. To be sure, such an approach does not deviate from that of other administrations. What the Biden White House has made clear in the Sudanese case is that the United States is capable of pairing its interests with high ideals for best foreign policy results. What is needed now is a determination to do what is necessary to couple the two poles of governance and international engagement.
Indeed, the Biden Administration should decide if it wants narrow interests to be the defining characteristic of its behavior around the world or if it desires to claim a place in the sun for the ideals of democracy and human rights. Looking back, it is obvious that the Trump Administration was more honest about its preferences for protecting interests and coddling dictators and lawbreakers. But it is also evident that President Biden sees benefit in putting the United States on a more ethical footing. As the administration reengages the world on climate change, international peace, and global health, it should also work on changing its chameleon-like foreign policy and asserting adherence to the principles of protecting democracy and human rights, especially in the Middle East.