America Played a Big Role in Sudan’s Coup

By Patrick Fox

Sudanese army officers attend a 2011 training session in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: Jonathan K. Reitzel/DVIDS

This past Monday, October 25th, Sudan’s military overthrew the recently installed government put in place after an earlier coup in 2019. 

Sudan’s top general, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, led the takeover and arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok along with other civilian politicians. In an effort to suppress the protest that immediately followed, the new military regime arrested key pro-democracy political leaders and temporarily shut down the internet.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok had led the first civilian government of Sudan after decades of authoritarian rule under Omar Al-Bashir. In January of 2021, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made an unprecedented visit to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum as Sudan signed the “Abraham Accords” diplomatic agreement.

Under the deal, Sudan recognized and normalized relations with Israel in exchange for access to $1 billion in financing from the World Bank. To accomplish this, Mnuchin met with both Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. 

A month prior to this meeting, President Donald Trump approved congressional legislation which allocated $700 million in aid to Sudan. The Trump administration had also previously announced that Sudan was normalizing relations with Israel in October of 2020. 

Notably, however, Hamdok faced wide criticism for this and even expressed significant apprehension at accepting these terms. The government led by Prime Minister Hamdok and General Al-Burhan is transitional, and had previously stated that they were postponing any decisions relating to ties with Israel until after the 2022 general elections. 

Despite this, Western officials publicly contradicted this position. The Israeli intelligence chief stated that normalization of relations was “part of the agenda” and a Sudanese foreign ministry spokesperson acknowledged secret diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan. 

All of this came in stark contrast to the attitudes toward Israel established by the Al-Bashir regime, which had turned Sudan into the primary state sponsor of Islamist groups. Al-Bashir himself had come to power through political rallies where he held the Qur’an in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. 

Massive protests in Palestine soon arose after a normalization deal was signed between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Attitudes in Sudan have historically been distrustful of Israel, and despite Hamdok’s technocratic roots, his apprehension toward this foreign policy shift were representative of a larger Sudanese sympathy for pan-Arabism and sympathy for Palestinian movements. 

However, the deals were signed and Sudan began normalization talks. The timing on this move lacked any subtlety, as President Trump pushed for results in time to effectively influence the 2020 US presidential election. 

This coup may indicate that US pressure to achieve domestic goals ultimately eroded trust in the transitionary government in Sudan. This may have been a shrewd political move by the military, where Gen. Al-Burhan attempted to sabotage popular support for PM Hamdok’s technocratic faction while also angling for the Israeli government to lobby for military oversight in Sudan’s transitionary period. 

This plan seems to have gone over less smoothly than expected, as thousands of Sudanese protestors took to the streets and the US government paused the $700 million in aid to Sudan. 

Because of this, Al-Burhan and military elements have been forced to backtrack and negotiate due to international refusal to allow the military to oversee the transition. After detaining Hamdok, the military released him into what appears to be house arrest. Hamdok has since said that he will refuse to willingly step down. 

To attempt to ease tensions, General Al-Burhan has promised to appoint a civilian prime minister in the coming weeks who will be entrusted with creating a new civilian government, but he has yet to provide any list of candidates or indication of his intention to pursue this option on any accelerated timeline.

There are many regional and international actors at play in Sudan, most of whom are supporting Gen. Al-Burhan in the hopes of gaining influence in a potential new regime. There is credible evidence already that the bordering country of Egypt has been supportive of the Sudanese Armed Forces. 

Egypt has maintained ties with Sudan for many years, as Al-Bashir had originally risen to prominence by fighting for Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur war before returning to the Sudanese military. Al-Bashir had deep connections to the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces and was supportive of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who had reasserted military control over the country after the pro-democracy 2011 Arab Spring revolution. 

Sudan never had such a revolution, as the military directly overthrew Al-Bashir and organized the new government through private negotiations. 

Egypt is not the only regional actor at play. Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom ran a story alleging that high-ranking Israeli officials had promised to support Gen. Al-Burhan if he took over the country, believing that he was more likely than Prime Minister Hamdok to normalize relations. An unnamed Israeli official was quoted as saying that because the military is stronger than the civilian government, the coup would stabilize Sudan and strengthen their ties with Israel and the United States. 

Similarly, Al-Burhan had courted powerful royal families in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, posturing for the possibility of installing a new military regime in Sudan under his control. Promises of regional support encouraged Al-Burhan’s coup. 

As a report from the International Crisis Group indicates, effective implementation of democracy in Sudan requires pressuring Arab powers to back down and allow popular demand to force real change. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have historically represented American interests in the region in opposition to geopolitical rivals like Iran. It’s no coincidence that this is the group working to subvert democracy in Sudan today.

The primacy of Sudan’s military in its political affairs is not a coincidence by any means. It was arms sales from the United States that transformed Sudan into what it is today. In a bid to create a regional ally during the Cold War, the US provided $1.4 billion in arms to Sudan between 1977 and 1985. This was the single largest commitment of American military resources to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

This move sent shockwaves through the surrounding regions, influencing Egypt’s negotiations with Syria, intimidating the recently victorious Soviet-aligned Ethiopian regime and more. Sudan, however, was permanently changed, even as US military aid dropped sharply in the 1990s with the rise of Al-Bashir’s regime. 

With this army built and designed through massive US military funding, Sudan fought brutal wars against the now separatists in the south of the country, where the vast majority of Sudan’s oil was drilled. This fighting lasted from 1955 until 1973 with an estimated 500,000 deaths, then reignited in 1983 until 2005 with another 2 million deaths. This is the highest civilian toll of any war since World War II. 

It’s hardly a coincidence that the period of massive US funding coincided with a buildup before the war with southern separatists that became four times deadlier than it had been previously. As concessions were finally made to allow for an independence process in South Sudan, Al-Bashir and the Sudanese military launched a new offensive in the region of Darfur with upwards for 400,000 civilians killed in what has been described by many international organizations as a genocide. Violence in Darfur still occurs today.

The United States has a far longer relationship with Sudan than often admitted. Washington has both directly and indirectly influenced the crisis that has occurred over this past week. A truly restrained foreign policy must not only limit direct armed interventions but also interference in regional power struggles and excessive military funding.

Patrick Fox is a regular writer for the Review. He majors in International Relations at Syracuse University, where he is president of the Syracuse John Quincy Adams Society.

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