Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Sudan’s Al Bashir was not a friend of US but few viable options for Washington in aftermath

The transition puts US in a bind as its engagement talks with Khartoum are suspended, and as it seeks stability in the country

Washington may be ill-equipped to deal with the transition of power in Sudan. EPA
Washington may be ill-equipped to deal with the transition of power in Sudan. EPA

From the moment he came to power through a military coup in 1989 until his ouster by another coup in Sudan on Thursday, Omar Al Bashir was not a friend of Washington and has at critical moments undermined its interests.

But despite tense relations, the US government faces a new set of challenges as it tries to navigate its way through the tumult in Khartoum after his ousting. Experts argue that a post-Bashir transition that would guarantee “continuity and stability” may be Washington’s best bet despite the Trump administration’s lavish talk about “democratic elections" and "respect of human rights” in Sudan.

Washington’s dilemma in Sudan is now in seeking a civilian transition while at the same time acknowledging its limited leverage and not alienating the military leadership, the most powerful and known stakeholder in the country.

In its statement issued on Thursday, the US State Department refrained from the using the word “coup” in describing the military overthrow of Mr Bashir. Instead, it highlighted an “opportunity [for Sudan] to set itself on a new path - one that must include legitimate democratic elections, respect for human rights, and a civilian-led government.”

Brownyn Bruton, Deputy Director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, is not in the least surprised that Washington has avoided the word “coup” in describing Thursday’s events. “Omar Al Bashir was never recognised as a constitutional leader by Washington. He came to power via a coup in 1989, which makes what happened a coup against a coup,” Ms Bruton told The National. For the US, she said, “it’s a technical issue”, and one that relates to not recognising Mr Bashir’s power grab in the first place in 1989.

Another reason for the US official language could relate to congressional laws that prohibit funding to countries "whose duly elected leader of government is deposed by decree or military coup.” That was behind former President Barack Obama’s decision in 2013 not to call the deposing of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt a coup either.

In Sudan, Ms Bruton argued that the US will try to balance its interests “in a way that would guarantee continuity and stability.” Despite Washington's tense relations with Mr Bashir, and designating Sudan as state sponsor of terror in 1993 under his leadership, “there was a semi-viable strategy in engaging with the regime to get reforms in the last four years,” the expert said. “This strategy may be upended now.”

Barack Obama’s quiet engagement with Khartoum started in 2015 by loosening some sanctions. In 2017, the Trump administration lifted a 20-year old trade embargo on Sudan, and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) opened an office in the African country.

But now, the engagement process is now put to a halt. The US statement said “we have suspended further Joint Review Committee discussions on Phase II” that was scheduled to start in two weeks from now. The process was designed “to expand bilateral ties with Sudan in six key areas”, which define US interests in Sudan. They are: severing ties with North Korea, expanding counter-terrorism cooperation, resolving internal conflicts, expanding humanitarian access, protecting human rights, and addressing outstanding legal claims related to victims of terrorism.

The rise of General Awad Ibn Auf as the new interim leader of Sudan was also undesirable news to Washington. Mr Auf was sanctioned by the Treasury department in 2007 for his role in human rights violations. “He is a war criminal and he is no better than Bashir, but the US is lacking other options,” Ms Bruton said.

Later on Friday, it was announced that Mr Auf has resigned his position and appointed Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan Abdel-Rahman as his replacement. The resignation came less than 24 hours after Mr Auf took oath.

The lack of alternatives for the US sums up its challenge in Khartoum. “The old regime remains unpalatable but there is no alternative right now, and the military is a known entity,” said Ms Bruton. Continuity, stability, and seeing an interim council that has reformers in it, may be the way forward for Washington.

Ms Bruton saw very little likelihood that western powers would intervene on behalf of the protesters, and added “there are questions about the Sudan Professional Association (opposition group), as to who is behind them, and whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The concern with the Trump administration is it “may be lacking the capacity to address Sudan,” Ms Bruton said. The US has no ambassador representation in Sudan, and she fears Washington is punching above its weight when it comes to rhetoric.

“Calling for quick transition and free and fair elections is not realistic given the current political play that favours the old regime and Muslim Brotherhood, making it hard for the democratic civil forces cannot compete,” she said, advocating instead “a stable interim arrangement,” to guide US policy.

Updated: April 13, 2019 12:27 AM

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