Oct 18, 2021 - World

U.S. envoy to visit Sudan as "most dangerous" crisis intensifies

The sit-in in Khartoum. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty

U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will visit Khartoum this week amid what Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has called the “worst and most dangerous" crisis of Sudan’s transition to democracy, two sources with direct knowledge tell Axios.

Driving the news: Roughly 2,000-3,000 people had joined a sit-in in Khartoum as of this afternoon, per Reuters, after protesters massed over the weekend to call on the military to bring down the government. The protests came just four weeks after a failed military coup.

  • Larger pro-democracy protests are expected on Thursday.

The big picture: After a mass uprising toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir in April, 2019, a joint military-civilian council took power to preside over a 3½ -year transition toward democratic elections.

  • But the current turmoil is exposing tensions between the civilians and the generals, and endangering that transition.
  • Leadership of the ruling council is due to pass from Gen. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to a civilian in the coming months, though the exact timeline is disputed.
  • A blockade in Eastern Sudan led by a tribal leader who is also demanding the government be dissolved is further fueling the crisis.

The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind Hamdok and the civilian leadership, with Secretary of State Tony Blinken tweeting in support of Hamdok on Saturday and national security adviser Jake Sullivan calling the prime minister after the coup attempt and issuing a warning to those seeking to thwart the transition.

  • Feltman will arrive in Khartoum later this week for his second visit in three weeks. He also called Hamdok and Burhan last week to stress “the importance of adhering to the transitional order.” The State Department declined to comment for this story.
  • The U.S. removed Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list after Bashir's ouster and has promised aid and to help re-integrate the former pariah state into the global economy — all of which gives Washington leverage.

The other side: Key regional actors oppose the democratic transition.

  • Egypt has been deepening its engagement with the Sudanese military, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia are allied with the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group that is also vying for power in Khartoum, says Yezid Sayigh, who runs the Carnegie Endowment’s program on program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States.

Behind the scenes: The divisions aren't just between the civilians and the military, but within those camps.

  • "The coup attempt opened the door for discord, and for all the hidden disputes and accusations from all sides, and in this way we are throwing the future of our country and people and revolution to the wind,” Hamdok said on Friday.
  • "It's the tensions, lack of consensus on really personal and ideological grounds between the civilians that have contributed to this opening," says Joseph Tucker, a Sudan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The bottom line: Sudan is having the most open and vibrant debate since independence about the roles of the state, of religion and of the armed forces in politics and the economy, Tucker says. 

  • “I think there is still consensus among Sudanese that there is no going back to the way things were under the Bashir regime,” he adds. 
  • But the path to whatever comes next is still deeply uncertain.
Go deeper