A Primer - What’s going on in Sudan?
Country follows post Arab Spring template: Either civil war or tyranny
Sudan has become the latest Middle Eastern country to fail to transform from tyranny to democracy. Before sunrise on October 25, Sudan’s military arrested top civilian leaders, including the prime minister, ministers, and members of the Sovereign Council (an interim parliament). The putschists also fired all deputy ministers, leaving ministries in the hands of directors general.
Between December 19, 2018 and August 17, 2019, a series of massive protests rocked Sudan and were coupled with civil obedience. Protests brought to an end 26 years of the rule of Omar al-Bashir and his internationally isolated rogue regime.
After coming to an agreement with protest leaders, the military abandoned Bashir and entered into an interim governing arrangement that saw the creation of the Sovereign Council and a government headed by Abdullah Hamdok, a civilian. The agreement gave the generals three posts: An interim president, which went to General Abdul-Fattah al-Burhan, in addition to the ministers of defense and interior (police).
The agreement seemed to work. Sudan stabilized. World capitals took it off their lists of states that sponsor terrorism. The international community also wiped out much of Sudan’s debt and offered it aid and credit lines. Last but not least, Sudan started normalizing its ties with Israel.
Stability, however, proved to be short-lived. Among the interim organizations was a so-called Committee for Ending Entrenchment, created to purge pillars of the Bashir regime. The committee seems to have gone a step too far, going after judges with ties to the military. Tension rose between civilian revolutionaries and the military as both sent their supporters to the streets, over the past few weeks. On October 25, the military executed their coup. Partisans of the civilian leaders took to the streets. The army shot live rounds killing a yet-unknown number people. Some tribes (armed) announced their support for the civilians. If the crisis is not settled, the Sudanese military might find itself at war with the tribes.
The result of a possible war in Sudan cannot be predicted. Either the military wins and establishes interim President Burhan as the de facto ruler, or the country plunges into a bloody protracted conflict. If the military wins, Burhan will hold rubber stamp elections to legitimize his rule, and will maintain close ties with the West.
Unfolding events in Sudan show that the country has followed the “change template” as seen in other Middle Eastern countries. Starting in 2003, when the US toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, change of regime has taken place in half a dozen predominantly Arab countries.
In Iraq, Washington tried to foster the rise of a democratic state. Shiite parties used interim organizations to go after their Sunni rivals. The result was a civil war, followed by the current state of tentative peace.
Lebanon was the second country to follow. In 2005, over one quarter of the population took to the streets to eject the forces of Syria’s Assad, which had been occupying the country since 1976. Change unleashed a race for power that ended with Hezbollah winning and dominating. Hezbollah, however, proved unable to govern. The economy went into free fall as rounds of civil violence flare up every now and then.
In 2011, revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. After an interim rule that saw partnership between the military and civilians (mostly Islamists) in both Egypt and Tunisia, Egypt’s military chief (then defense minister) Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi led a coup in 2013, and has been in power since. Tunisia’s president Qais Saayyed followed suit in 2021.
After Sissi’s coup, the Obama administration said it would review its $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt. The review ended without changing America’s policy on Egypt. However, after a similar coup in Sudan in 2021, the Biden administration announced the suspension (not review) of $700 million in aid to Sudan, saying it will only release the money when the military releases the civilian leaders. Cairo seems to be more strategically important than Khartoum is the only explanation for the discrepancy between how America treated the Egyptian putsch and how it dealt with the Sudanese one.
Meanwhile, Libya and Syria followed a course that was different from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. Civil war broke out in Libya and Syria right after their 2011 revolutions. In the case of Syria, over half a million were killed and six million displaced. With enormous support from Russia and Iran, Syria’s dictator beat his opponents — including by using chemical weapons. Assad has been isolated since 2011, but the Biden administration now seems to be leading an effort to rehabilitate him, which also begs the question: Why is it ok for Assad to rule as a tyrant but not ok for Burhan?
Change in Arab countries has proven to be impossible in the absence of a popular culture that can sustain the building and maintaining of a modern state.
Change has come to predominantly Arab countries in different shapes and forms, including though the US invasion of Iraq, the peaceful transfer of power in Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, and civil war in Syria and Libya. The result in all these countries, however, has been the same: Either civil war or the reestablishment of autocracy.
Yours truly has been an advocate of all kinds of change, including the Iraq War and revolutions in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. However, given the Arab inability to lead change or build democratic states, and given America’s hangover from the Iraq war and the policies of decolonization and anti-imperialism that isolationists are imposing on Washington, there is no clear pathway from Arab tyranny to Arab democracy. The choices are from tyranny to war or to autocracy.
It is unfortunate that the Arabs can only choose between autocrats, not between autocracy and democracy. They will get better choices when they change from the inside and stop blaming imperialism, Islamophobia, Israel and all kinds of imagined conspiracies for the misery that they have been suffering for centuries.