Three decades ago this month, the world was stunned as the youth of the most populous country in the world took to the streets for change. The events of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the Chinese government's brutal response are seared into the collective memory of freedom-loving and freedom-seeking people in every corner of the world. History, as it tends to do, repeats itself today in Sudan as pro-democracy protesters fill the streets of Khartoum and face repression by their government. As it did in China in 1989 and Egypt in 2013, hope for democratic rule hangs by a thread in Sudan. The international community failed the people of China in 1989, employing purely cosmetic "pressures" that would soon be weakened, and if it stands by today, Sudan will go the way of China and Egypt toward future atrocities and repression.
Anti-government protests in Sudan began to gain momentum earlier this year. Omar al-Bashir had ruled Sudan since 1989, coming to power in a bloodless coup. For thirty years, he recklessly abused the human rights of his own people and destabilized the Middle East. During his reign, Sudan harbored international terrorists (including Osama bin Laden), waged a civil war in the country's south, and deployed child soldiers to fight in Saudi Arabia's disastrous war in Yemen. Most notably, a warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court for the arrest of Bashir in 2009 for his role in the war crimes and genocide that took place in Darfur.
For a generation, Bashir escaped international and national accountability for his actions by forging alliances with his security forces to prevent a coup and by cracking down on dissent and protests. Yet he was finally toppled by a coalition of military and security forces in April as mass protests against his rule took over Khartoum. Toppling a government was one thing, but building a democracy proved to be another, as is often the case. Once Bashir was removed from office, talks began between the activist groups leading the revolution and the de facto government, the Transitional Military Council (composed of security forces and militias).
As these talks progressed, protesters continued to demonstrate to try to pressure the TMC to accept some kind of democratic transition. The TMC did not take too kindly to this and warned in late April that security forces would not tolerate continued nonviolent civil disobedience. Undeterred, Sudanese opposition activists participated in a peaceful sit-in in Khartoum as negotiations continued into June. On the morning of June 3, the transitional regime began a brutal and violent campaign of terror, firing live ammunition indiscriminately at protestors and medical workers, killing at least 100 and injuring 700 more. The architects of this crackdown, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), also reportedly raped female demonstrators, assaulted civilians, and dumped the bodies of their victims into the Nile River. Formerly known as Darfur's infamous Janjaweed, the RSF are led by wannabe tinpot strongman Lt. Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemeti, who is simultaneously the biggest threat to both peace and democracy in Sudan.
While Hemeti may parade around the outskirts of Khartoum to applause and declare himself the nation's savior, he is no democrat and he is no hero. Instead he is a hapless punk and a wannabe dictator whose ruthlessness is matched only by the despots he calls his friends, including the former President Bashir and Saudi Arabia's Mohammad bin Salman. Yet it is becoming more and more difficult by the day to imagine a scenario in which Hemeti's violence and obstruction backfires. This is because in recent days, he has reneged on previous deals between the opposition groups and the junta and the Sudanese government has shut down the internet for weeks at a time. The TMC also retains the support of its most crucial allies, the autocratic Arab states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Regional stability is in the interest of these parties and they would be unlikely to impose sanctions on Sudan. But domestic stability also plays a role, as pro-democracy activist Iyad El-Baghdadi notes. The fears of bin Salman and Co. are that "should a major Arab country transition to democracy, it would lead to upheavals at home." For these reasons, these allies (call them the Axis of Oil Plus Egypt) provide strong political and financial support for the TMC.
However, there is also the chance that the Arab allies may be setting their own traps. While they hope for Sudan to end up like Egypt after its uprising, with a military government supportive of their interests, there are major problems with the approach even beyond their support of repressive, unelected authoritarian regimes. While Egypt had a well-established, unified, professional military, Sudan post-bashar does not. If the current alliance in the TMC falls apart, a power vacuum could emerge in which various rival groups vie for supremacy and the outcome is a civil war. Betting the house on authoritarianism in hopes of stability could inadvertently bring regional instability.
Naturally, the world will wonder what is next for Sudan. In this geopolitical crisis with its great deal of ambiguity, one thing is for certain: the TMC generals cannot be trusted to oversee a democratic transition and the elections they have promised (and delayed). This group of former Bashir confidants, warlords, and military elites cannot be allowed to rollback the triumphs of the Sudanese people in democratization. The international community has taken some steps to reprimand and condemn the massacre, such as U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton's condemnation of the attacks and the African Union's decision to suspend Sudan from the body until it installs a civilian-led democratic regime, but these actions alone cannot create sufficient pressure to enact change.
It was not tanks and bombs that brought down Bashir that fateful April day. It was not a court opinion or a foreign assassin's bullet. It was not merely politicians or bureaucrats, mercenaries or gangs. The overpowering force that took down a strongman who ruled for decades was citizen action. It was activism. It was organizing. It was doctors and students, mothers and grandmothers who toppled Bashir, a big coalition of people longing for liberty. It is therefore evident that there is no absence of civilian leadership that could manage the transition. The United States and its allies should strengthen the political power of this coalition and assist them with their democratic transition should they seek assistance, while eventually helping coordinate internationally monitored elections that are ensured to be free and fair.
Preventing future human rights abuses and the prospect of a civil war is in the interest of the United States because the international community has condemned and punished time and time again the perpetrators of the heinous crimes in Sudan over the years. Formulating a strategy that yields the desired outcome of a civilian-run transitional authority will require the coordination of several international institutions and the most powerful nations in the international system, but the role of the United States is as integral as any of the others. As the U.S. has close military and diplomatic ties with Sudan's allies in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo (for better or for worse), it is in the unique position to both lead a coalition of liberal states calling for true democracy and pressure Sudan's illiberal allies to deny support to a potential military dictatorship in Sudan. In particular, as the three Gulf states are recipients of large amounts of U.S. military aid and thus need the U.S. more than they do Sudan, threatening to cut that aid (and following through on the threat) could extract concessions on the issue.
Even if Sudanese allies side with the military leadership over the U.S. and its allies, there are still unilateral actions the U.S. can and should take to force the TMC leadership out. The U.S. could invoke the Global Magnitsky Act and impose targeted sanctions against the RSF, Hemeti, and their accomplices for human rights abuses. Delisting Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism should be on the table as well. Tying SST delisting to a certification of civilian leadership and a commitment to not host terrorism may inspire military leadership to step down and would lay the groundwork for cooperation in the future on counterterrorism. Delisting is long overdue, as the State Department's latest Country Reports on Terrorism not only fails to implicate Sudan in harboring terrorists, but also praises the country for its "continued pursuit of counterterrorism operations alongside regional partners, including operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.” Acknowledging this while tying delisting to political change would benefit both parties, as the U.S. would get a stable liberal democracy and counterterrorism partner in North Africa and Sudan would get a rehabilitated public image and American foreign aid and investment to counteract the economic hardships of recent times.
As important as stability and democracy, however, is accountability. Those who committed the atrocities of June 3 should be brought to justice, and the international community should call on the generals to condemn the perpetrators and hold them accountable for their actions. Secondly, with the Bashir regime gone, the U.S. and the international community have an opportunity to seek some measure of justice for its many victims. As Bashir is the first sitting president of a nation to be wanted by the ICC and the first person ever to be charged by the body with genocide, his case sets a major precedent regarding the power of the ICC and whether Responsibility to Protect (R2P) extends to the international justice system. Thus the U.S., despite its long history of hostility towards the ICC, should demand that Bashir have his day in court at The Hague. Secondly the assets acquired by Bashir through terror and crimes against humanity should be frozen by the international community and used to pay reparations to the victims of his brutality and their families. Third, the international community should strongly urge the civilian transition group to embrace transitional justice efforts to hold former government officials and military officers accountable for their crimes. Prosecuting the crimes of the prior regime and fostering truth and reconciliation in the population would show the world that Sudan is serious about acknowledging and moving beyond the sins of its past and that it is serious about democratic values.
It was Elie Wiesel who once wrote that, "Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must-at that moment-become the center of the universe." In 1989, China was that place, yet the world failed China. The responses to Tiananmen Square continue to shape the course of history today, as the international community stands by and refuses to confront China on its treatment of the Uighurs for fear of missing out on the Chinese market. Because the world failed China in 1989, it can act with impunity towards its own people today. The disappointments of 1989 and the Arab Spring have given us many reasons to be pessimistic. Yet the incredible resilience of a people who toppled one of the world's premier despots without so much as a shot fired suggests that Sudan is no Egypt or Tiananmen, if only the international community stands with the citizens in the streets of Khartoum. Today, Sudan must become the center of the universe. For all those who suffered under the Bashir regime and all those who fought to topple it, for those who continue to dissent and stand up for human rights after the massacre, it is beyond time for the world to do what is necessary for Sudan to give democracy a chance.
Photo courtesy M. Saleh, Wikimedia Commons