Can an Arab Ally of the U.S. Reverse the Coup in Sudan?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the surface it appears that U.S. President Joe Biden’s strategy to reverse Monday’s military coup in Sudan has been to pressure and isolate the new regime until it allows Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to return to power. The U.S. suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan this week. On Thursday, Biden released a statement touting a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the military takeover.
Beneath the surface, however, the White House is working with the United Arab Emirates to broker a deal. U.S. and Arab diplomats have told me that Brett McGurk, the coordinator for Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, has worked closely with Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirati national security advisor, to negotiate Hamdok’s return to power with the Sudanese Army general now in charge of the country, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
In an interview Thursday, Sudan’s ambassador to Washington, Nureldin Satti, told me he was aware of the efforts by the UAE as well as a similar effort from Egypt. “We appreciate the role the United Arab Emirates are playing,” he said. “They are trying to help us resolve this problem.”
While nothing has been agreed to yet, the outlines of a deal would require the military regime to accept Hamdok back in power with an understanding that some members of his cabinet would be replaced. The military regime would also have to release the members of the government it has detained since Monday.
The transitional government that was toppled on Monday included a major role for al-Burhan and the military. He chaired the government’s powerful sovereignty committee, where the military holds six seats and civilians hold seven. The chairmanship of that council was scheduled to go to a civilian leader next month.
Also, many Sudanese military officers feared that a special commission to investigate military atrocities committed during the 2019 revolution would land them in prison or worse. Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the civilian Sudanese government has wrestled with “how to account for the atrocities committed in the early stages of the revolution” since its inception.
In addition, he said, the prospect that al-Burhan would lose the chairmanship of the sovereignty council could open the door to divesting the military of its considerable financial holdings inside the country. “This was the impetus behind the coup to seize power,” he said, referring to the prospect of tribunals and divestment.
Satti agreed. He said that the prospect of tribunals for military leaders was “one of the triggers” of the coup. “They worry if they hand over power to the civilians then the issue of accountability will come back in full force,” he said.
At the same time, Satti acknowledged that some of the civilian leaders of the transitional government overplayed their hand by failing to address the military’s concerns. “If you have someone holding a gun, you cannot take it out of their hand unless you give him an alternative,” he said.
Even if the Emirati diplomacy works with al-Burhan and the generals, the resolution to the crisis in Khartoum will be bittersweet. The transitional government was designed to share power initially, then eventually lead to full civilian control of the government. If the military can stage a coup to stop the prosecution of its atrocities, it sends a powerful message about which institution holds the real power in Sudan.
For now Satti is optimistic that the transitional government that he served can be pieced back together. “Either you find a solution out of this mess and stop the killings, or you allow them to continue,” he said. “There has to be a way of putting an end to the crisis and engaging in talks to help us move forward.”
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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