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The coup in Sudan could threaten U.S. influence in a strategically important region

Sudanese protesters lift national flags as they rally on 60th Street in the capital Khartoum, to denounce overnight detentions by the army of government members, on Oct. 25, 2021.
Sudanese protesters lift national flags as they rally on 60th Street in the capital Khartoum, to denounce overnight detentions by the army of government members, on Oct. 25, 2021.

For two years, Sudan had looked to be on the path to democracy — leaving behind decades of violent military dictatorship to become a pocket of stability in the turbulent but strategically important Horn of Africa region.

But Monday's military coup d'etat has turned that on its head, taking U.S. officials by surprise and sparking fear that a failure of democratic transition there could encourage coups elsewhere and lead to a loss of U.S. influence in the region.

Since the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019, a transitional government composed of civilians and military had worked together under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to move the country toward elections in 2023.

Now, with Hamdok in detention, the military in full control and security forces opening fire on protesters, the Biden administration has suspended $700 million in aid as the U.S. State Department calls on the military to release Hamdok and restore the civilian government.

The U.S. knew of "tensions" between between the camps, said Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Concerns about a military takeover had been expressed in recent weeks, with a failed coup attempt in September.

Still, Feltman told NPR, he did not "[see] this coming."

In an interview Monday, Feltman said he had been in Khartoum over the weekend working to address the crisis and "revive the partnership" between the military and civilian leadership.

He left Khartoum early Monday "feeling mildly encouraged" by those discussions — a feeling that turned to disappointment once he read news of the coup upon landing.

"If the transition is essentially a patient that has an illness, you find the therapy that addresses the illness. You don't use medicine that kills the patient, which is what the military seems to be trying to do," Feltman said.

The U.S. government had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and economic support to Sudan to help its transition to democracy — money that has now been put on hold.

"We were very explicit that a military takeover of the civilian institutions would trigger a reevaluation of the types of commitments we have," Feltman said.

From a 30-year dictatorship to the start of stability

Until 2019, Sudan was ruled by a military dictatorship led by Omar al-Bashir, a military officer who led a coup d'etat in 1989 that ousted a democratically elected government.

Over three decades, al-Bashir's brutal Islamist regime was accused of corruption, violence, harboring terrorist groups and stealing billions of dollars. He oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Darfur at the hands of government-aligned military groups.

He was finally toppled two years ago when pro-democracy protests gained enough steam that the military agreed to remove him from power.

At that time, Sudan's military agreed to share power with the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. The agreement called for a transitional government to last through 2022, with Prime Minister Hamdok, a civilian, overseeing a council composed of both civilians and military leadership.

Their goals were mutual, they said then — stabilization, improvements to its economy and putting Sudan on a path to democracy, with elections scheduled in 2023.

"Sudan has a strategic position bordering seven countries. If we get it right in Sudan, this has an extremely strategic impact and effect in the entire region," Hamdok told NPR in an interview in late 2019, in which he made the case for greater U.S. support of Sudan.

Under his leadership, Sudan had been making strides toward those goals.

Its removal from the U.S. State Sponsor of Terrorism list in December 2020 opened the country to foreign investment and paved the way for a massive debt relief deal with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Sudan also agreed to pay U.S. victims of the USS Cole incident and bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, and took steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.

Now, much of that progress is in question, as the military leadership tossed out the former agreement and detained civilian leaders in the coup Monday. The military says they still intend to hold the 2023 elections.

The coup comes as a blow to U.S. strategic interests in northeastern Africa

Some 30% of the world's shipping containers travel through the Red Sea each year on the way to and from the Suez Canal, the shortest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the eastern U.S.

Sudan, with more than 400 miles of coast, has long represented potential strategic promise to world powers like the U.S., Russia and China — especially as its neighbors in the region, including Ethiopia, have descended into internal warfare and instability.

"Today's coup is both a reflection of the limits of the U.S.' leverage and its ability to shape outcomes in this region, but also a measure of the rising influence of Russian and Gulf State actors who were never fully supportive of the democratic transition in Sudan," said Cameron Hudson, who served as the National Security Council's Director of African Affairs during the Bush administration.

If elements of the previous regime are able to retake control of the country, Hudson warned, Sudan could "again emerge" as a hub for weapon smuggling and human trafficking.

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