After Sudan’s Attacks on Protesters, Crucial Next Steps for the U.S.

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on the Sudan security forces’ June 3 attacks on peaceful demonstrators and what may happen next. The first article detailed how Sudan’s Transitional Military Council used an authoritarian playbook to plan and execute the massacre, which killed at least 118 people. On Sunday, June 30, Sudanese civil society leaders plan the first large-scale demonstrations since those attacks, amid concerns of further violence.)

By John Hursh

The day after the June 3 attacks, pro-democracy demonstrators sought to show that they would not give up. Protesters participated in scattered and sometimes impromptu demonstrations throughout the capital Khartoum, despite a prohibition by the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and a heavy presence of security forces. At least four people died that day from gunshot and stab wounds attributed to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the group that also had led the previous day’s attacks.

The pro-democracy movement then called for a general strike and civil disobedience campaign, with the goal of forcing the TMC to relinquish power. The general strike began on June 9 and succeeded in keeping most workers at home and shops closed. Protest leaders urged demonstrators to avoid violence, and their civil disobedience tactics have included only benign actions such as building roadblocks to slow the movement of security forces. Since the protests began last December, the demonstrators have succeeded through an unwavering adherence to nonviolence and they remain steadfast in doing so, even as some opposition leaders have had to regroup underground.

The opposition called off the general strike on June 11, after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad visited Sudan to meet with the TMC and the Alliance for Freedom and Change, an umbrella organization of opposition groups pushing for democracy and civilian rule. Ahmad urged the sides to resume negotiations and appointed a mediator to help broker the deal, Ethiopian diplomat Mahmoud Dirir.

Strained Negotiations

Unsurprisingly, resuming negotiations has proven difficult since the June 3 attacks. The opposition has insisted the TMC agree to an international inquiry over the protest killings and to end the internet blackout that followed. In turn, the TMC, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, insists that an army general head the transitional council — the same demand that broke off negotiations before the attacks. The TMC has said it wants to relinquish power to civilians, but has rejected any proposal that does not leave the military in control. The Council also said it would end the internet blackout only after negotiations resumed.

On June 20, the TMC again called for negotiations to resume, but only if the protesters agreed to restart talks without any preconditions. This is a nonstarter for the opposition, as it remains committed to its previous demands and to majority civilian rule in any transitional government. For its part, the TMC does not appear interested in any arrangement that does not allow the military and security forces the final say in government decisions.

On June 23, the civilian opposition accepted a proposal put forward by Ethiopia’s Dirir that featured a transitional leadership council composed of eight civilians and seven military members. Seven civilians would come from the opposition and the eighth would be an impartial member to be agreed upon by the TMC and the opposition. The TMC rejected the deal, saying it must be combined with a separate African Union (AU) plan. While the opposition has agreed to the proposal put forward by the mediators, it still refuses to resume negotiations with the TMC until the TMC meets four conditions: admit responsibility for the attacks; release all political prisoners; end the internet blackout; and remove military and security forces from the streets.

Given the June 3 attacks, the repressive tactics employed by the TMC since then, and the Council’s unwillingness to accept the Ethiopian mediation proposal or honor agreements made with the opposition before the attacks, it is nearly impossible to conclude that the TMC is serious about engaging in good-faith negotiations. The Council instead seems to be stalling while it attempts to consolidate power and weaken the opposition.

In part because of this intransigence, the opposition has called for massive nationwide protests on June 30. The day also marks the AU deadline for the TMC to transfer power to civilian authority. Finally, June 30 is weighted with historical significance: it is the day when former President Omar al-Bashir took control of the government through a military coup in 1989.

These factors risk rising tensions, and with them, the possibility of another civilian attack.

International Support for Democracy in Sudan

The U.S., the United Nations, the AU, the European Union, and several other influential countries all condemned the June 3 attacks. And while this condemnation was both warranted and important, it is not enough. The U.S. and other pro-democracy allies must remain committed to the civilian opposition. They must also persuade the TMC to relinquish power and respect the expressed wishes of the Sudanese people for a civilian-led, democratic government. Such a government will require a strong military, but one that is committed to civilian leadership, the rule or law, and respect for fundamental human rights.

U.S. foreign policy has supported the Sudanese people for two decades, while working to isolate and penalize the Sudanese government for its destabilizing actions and woeful human rights record. Even in today’s deeply divided political atmosphere in Washington, bipartisan support for Sudanese people and their democratic struggle remains strong.

Accordingly, senior U.S. officials said all the right things after the June 3 attacks. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy both took to Twitter to condemn the TMC and insist on civilian rule. But, as noted by Cameron Hudson, a former chief of staff to U.S. presidential envoys to Sudan, tweets cannot make up for an absence of strong U.S. diplomacy. Hudson criticized the U.S. for failing to deploy funding or technical support to aid the pro-democracy opposition so that it would be better prepared to negotiate with the TMC.

Commendably, on June 12, the State Department announced that Ambassador Donald Booth would serve as Special Envoy to Sudan. Booth retired from the Foreign Service in 2017, where he last held the position of Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan. Booth immediately joined Assistant Secretary Nagy on a diplomatic visit to Sudan and Ethiopia on June 12–13. At a press conference in Addis, Nagy called for “an independent and credible investigation” into the June 3 attacks, which he characterized as “just devastating.” On June 27, Booth reiterated U.S. support for a civilian government.

Such public statements are important, but they are not enough.

The most important action the Trump administration can take right now is to persuade Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt to allow a civilian government to take hold. Mitigating any potentially negative influence from these countries will be difficult. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion to Sudan on April 21, which has allowed the TMC to remain in power. And there is little doubt that the TMC would have authorized the June 3 attacks without the backing of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Indeed, following the attacks, U.S. Undersecretary to State David Hale called the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister and the UAE Foreign Minister to express U.S. concerns over the attacks and to underscore the importance of respecting the will of the Sudanese people for a civilian-led government.

Although the United States will not match the financial support that Saudi Arabia and the UAE can provide, it can help level the playing field for the opposition by unequivocally stating that it will not recognize the TMC as the legitimate government of Sudan. The U.S. has followed the AU lead on the diplomatic response to the Sudan crisis. It should continue to do so—as long as the AU itself stands strong—and support the AU position that Sudan will remain suspended from the organization until a civilian-led government is established.

The U.S. also should pressure other states to ensure they do not extend political legitimacy or diplomatic recognition to the TMC. And while the imposition of U.S. sanctions has a complicated legacy in Sudan, U.S. officials should consider targeted sanctions on the members of the TMC until an agreement for civilian rule is reached with the opposition. Finally, the U.S. should do everything it can to pressure the TMC to restore internet service.

The Sudanese people have endured decades of violent repression, endemic corruption, and spectacular misrule. Now, more than ever, the U.S., the AU, and others must take an uncompromising position of solidarity with them by refusing to recognize the TMC for anything other than what it is: an illegitimate military coup threatening to derail the wishes of the Sudanese people as they emerge from 30 years of authoritarianism.

IMAGE: Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Himediti, deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council and commander of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries, waves a baton as he arrives for a rally in the village of Abraq, about 60 kilometers northwest of Khartoum, on June 22, 2019. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

John Hursh

Director of Research at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. Follow him on Twitter (@JohnHursh).