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Sunset over the Blue Nile river and downtown Khartoum with its Corinthia hotel and GNPOC Tower, Khartoum, Sudan.

Sunset over the Blue Nile river and downtown Khartoum with its Corinthia hotel and GNPOC Tower, Khartoum, Sudan. (Photo: Arik Alojants)

Sudan's Democratic Revolution is Being Undermined by the United States

Economic recovery from decades of autocratic misrule is critical for Sudan. The U.S. is maintaining sanctions, effectively punishing the country for the sins of the dictatorship the Sudanese people overthrew.

Stephen Zunes

 by Inside Arabia

Last year's nonviolent pro-democracy revolution in Sudan which brought down the brutal 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir and the subsequent military junta inspired the world. Few popular uprisings in history faced such extremely difficult circumstances and few displayed the kind of courage, tenacity, and effective strategy by pro-democracy activists which led to their victory.

Unfortunately, the United States has been pursuing policies which almost seem designed to destroy Sudan's fragile democratic experiment.

Since August 2019, Sudan has been ruled by a sovereign council made up of six civilians and five members of the military, along with a cabinet of liberal civilian technocrats headed by Prime Minister Hamdok, a former economist with the United Nations. Elections are scheduled for 2022 to give time for civil society, decimated under the Bashir regime, to reemerge and strengthen. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and other rights have been restored.

For the democratic revolution to succeed, the civilian-led government must have legitimacy in the eyes of enough Sudanese.

The Sudanese people have twice before—in 1964 and then again in 1985—risen up in unarmed civil insurrections which toppled dictatorships and established democratic governance only to have the military again seize power several years later. Few people believe the military will not try again. For the democratic revolution to succeed, the civilian-led government must have sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of enough Sudanese for the people to be willing to defend it if threatened. Even if the military is unable to completely overthrow the civilian leadership, chronic economic problems could lead autocratic elements in the armed forces to further assert their influence within the ruling coalition.

A critical factor will be whether the civilian-led government is able to revive the economy which, even prior to the pandemic, was struggling with inflation, a weakening currency, and a foreign debt more than twice the country's annual GDP.  Jonas Horner, a Sudan specialist with the International Crisis group noted, "If the civilians within the government look like they are unable to respond to Sudan's myriad problems, that leaves space for other actors to pour into the vacuum."


The single biggest obstacle to Sudan's economic recovery is the continued U.S. economic sanctions.

The single biggest obstacle to Sudan's economic recovery is the continued U.S. economic sanctions, which—as is the case with U.S. sanctions against Iran—not only impacts trade with and investment from the United States, but from other countries and multilateral entities as well. Despite Sudan now being led by secular civilians inexorably opposed to terrorism and Salafist extremism, Washington still officially lists Sudan as a "state sponsor of terrorism." Most absurdly, the United States is holding Sudan's transitional government responsible for crimes committed by Al-Qaeda, not only when al-Bashir was providing the terrorist group sanctuary in Sudan between 1991 and 1996, but for terrorist attacks which took place in 1998 and 2000 after they had been expelled.

Prime Minister Hamdok, in an address before the U.N. General Assembly this past fall, noted: "The Sudanese people have never sponsored, nor were supportive of terrorism. On the contrary, those were the acts of the former regime which has been continuously resisted by the Sudanese people until its final ouster. These sanctions have played havoc on our people, causing them untold misery of all types and forms. We, in the transitional government, call on the United States of America to take Sudan off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and not to continue punishing the Sudanese people for the acts committed by that vicious regime, especially that our people have been victims of and courageously resistant to."

Sudan's inclusion as a state sponsor of terrorism requires the U.S. to block loans from international financial institutions.

In addition to prohibiting any economic assistance, Sudan's inclusion as a state sponsor of terrorism requires the United States to block loans and other assistance from such international financial institutions as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, prohibits U.S. citizens from engaging in financial transactions with the government without approval of the Treasury Department, denies individuals or companies tax credit for income earned, and bans duty-free imports, among other restrictions.

Furthermore, if a country is on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, they no longer have diplomatic immunity from families of terrorist victims who file civil lawsuits in the United States. U.S. policy is that the civilian government of Sudan must pay billions of dollars in compensation to these families in order to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism regardless of the fact they no longer sponsor terrorism. The paradox for Sudan is that they can't be immune from being sued as long as they are on the list and they can't be removed from the list unless they pay damages from the lawsuits.

Sudan agreed to pay $30 million USD to the families of sailors on the USS Cole killed in a 2000 Al-Qaeda attack.

In one step toward getting themselves removed from the list, the government agreed to pay $30 million USD to the families of sailors on the USS Cole killed in a 2000 Al-Qaeda attack on the Navy destroyer in Aden Harbor, along with wounded survivors. More significantly, the United States has demanded that the civilian-led government pay up to $10.2 billion USD in compensatory and punitive damages for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, though negotiations are under way that could significantly lower the amount Sudan would need to pay.

Despite desperate needs in health, education, and infrastructure, as much as 70% of the country's budget went to the armed forces.

Sudan's projected budget revenue for 2020 is only $12.63 billion USD. The civilian-led government has few options, however. The International Monetary Fund ranks Sudan as the world's 14th poorest country out of 186 nations. (Meanwhile, the United States—the world's wealthiest country—refuses to pay compensation for crimes committed by its government against Iraq, Vietnam, or other countries, including Nicaragua, which the International Court of Justice ruled in 1986 that the United States needed to pay reparations for damages from attacks against its civilian infrastructure.)

Despite desperate needs in health, education, and infrastructure, as much as 70% of the country's budget while under military rule went to the armed forces. With a huge backlog of domestic needs now facing the civilian government and a foreign debt more than twice its annual GDP, Sudan is still required to repay. It is hard to imagine how Sudan could afford to give this kind of money to the United States.

Punishing Sudanese for the crimes of others is nothing new. Following the 1998 embassy attacks, the United States bombed a large pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum North, falsely claiming it was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Al-Qaeda. While no one was killed in the precision nighttime missile attack, the destruction of the facility—which produced over half of Sudan's vaccines and antibiotics—likely contributed to thousands of deaths in the subsequent months.


A critical factor in stabilizing civilian rule in Sudan is ending the rebellions in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions.

A critical factor in stabilizing civilian rule in Sudan is ending the rebellions in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and South Kordofan regions where tenuous ceasefires are now in place but frequently threaten to break down. There are many complicated factors to be worked out, but peace will also cost hundreds of millions of dollars in order to demobilize and reintegrate rebel fighters, reform the security sector, and provide economic support for these desperately poor regions, which the previous military regime spent huge sums to suppress but almost nothing to develop. Meanwhile, there are more than two million displaced people from these conflicts needing assistance. According to Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, "The great risk is that Sudan cannot even afford a peace process."

Most immediately, ongoing U.S. sanctions have made it difficult for the Sudanese to fight the coronavirus. In April, the World Bank approved a $1.9 million USD emergency fund for 25 developing counties along with plans to spend as much as $160 billion USD through mid-2021 to fight the pandemic. However, the U.S. policy of vetoing international financial institutions from providing even humanitarian support forced the World Bank to exclude Sudan from this critical funding effort to fight the pandemic.

The U.S. policy of vetoing humanitarian support forced the World Bank to exclude Sudan from its funding effort to fight the pandemic.

Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council has noted lifting the sanctions is a "crucial ingredient in Sudan's long-term recovery and in its hopes of ushering in a civilian-led, democratic regime." However, according to Hudson, the process of removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism "involves an interlocking network of legislative processes, legal rulings, financial settlements, intelligence assessments, and, most of all, politics, to unwind this ultimate tool in America's sanctions arsenal."

To further punish Sudan's efforts for a democratic transition, the United States announced in February that it was ending migration visas from Sudan, effectively making immigration from that country impossible.

Even prior to Trump, the United States has long supported autocratic regimes in both the Middle East and Africa.

Even prior to Trump, the United States has long supported autocratic regimes in both the Middle East and Africa and has maintained particularly close relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are strong supporters of the conservative military officers who ruled Sudan between Bashir's ouster and the August 2019 agreement allowing for a civilian-led government, and whom many believe would still like to see the military regain control. A large bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress supports sending $1.7 billion USD annually to prop up the Sisi dictatorship in Egypt and supports large-scale subsidies for arms transfers and military training to the wealthy absolute monarchies in the Gulf, while refusing to provide any relief for the impoverished democratic Sudan.

The Sudanese not only suffered over 30 years of brutal dictatorship, the United States is effectively punishing them further for having overthrown that dictatorship. The Sudanese people are being held responsible for the crimes of a military regime against which millions struggled for decades at enormous sacrifice and finally succeeded in removing last year. The resulting economic crisis is crushing the optimism Inside Arabia reported on just a few months ago, on February 26.

It's unclear why there is so much hostility coming out of Washington for Sudan's democratic struggle. Trump's fondness for authoritarians is well-known. Depicting Arab, African, and Middle Eastern countries as chronically violent and teeming with angry extremists with a propensity toward terrorism helps reinforce the perceived need for the United States to intervene militarily and to back authoritarian governments and occupation armies. Though there's no direct evidence to suggest this is conscious policy, downplaying pro-democracy movements and undermining democratic governments does play a function in justifying such policies.

Perhaps acknowledging Arab, African, and Muslim peoples embracing a passionate desire for freedom and democracy doesn't fit the Western narrative.

During a background briefing at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum back in January, this writer got the strong impression from officials there that they assumed Sudan's democratic experiment would fail, essentially seeing the country as too poor, too divided, and with too many problems to overcome through democratic governance. This underscores that perhaps acknowledging Arab, African, and Muslim peoples having agency, thinking strategically, engaging in effective nonviolent action, and embracing a passionate desire for freedom and democracy simply doesn't fit into the Western narrative. Regardless of the motivation, the United States seems to be doing what it can to get this remarkable democratic experiment to fail.

It may be difficult to mobilize public opinion in the United States to force a change in policy amid the pandemic and ongoing struggles against racial injustice and other inequities domestically, yet international solidarity in support of the Sudanese people is no less important now than it was during their struggle against dictatorship.

© 2020 Inside Arabia
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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