Opinion | Ruining Sudan’s Chance at Democracy


After the Transitional Military Council assumed power, the Saudis and the Emiratis made their influence soon felt: On April 21, they approved $3 billion in aid to Sudan, in a bid to strengthen the council. Yet in the weeks after, protesters continued to increase the pressure, as the number at sit-in camps swelled even as tense negotiations continued.

In late May, General Hamdan met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and reaffirmed his commitment to a close alliance with the kingdom. General al-Burhan met the Mr. el-Sisi in Cairo and the United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, in Abu Dhabi. They seemed to return home emboldened: They declared the breakdown of negotiations with the Sudanese opposition, rejected calls to hand over power, declared the sit-in camps to be “a threat to the national security of the state,” and banned Al Jazeera from reporting in Sudan.

Then came the June 3 attack on the protesters, which carried echoes of the assault on Bahrain’s Pearl Square protest camp in 2011 and the Egyptian massacre. Videos uploaded on social media by citizen journalists clearly showed Emirati-manufactured military gear deployed by Sudanese militias. Influential Saudi-controlled accounts on Twitter expressed their support for Sudan’s military leaders and warned against the “folly” of popular uprising.

The Saudi and Emirati reactionary role in Sudan and their influence over the Transitional Military Council’s actions was highlighted by the reaction from the United States. After the killings, the under secretary of state for political affairs, David Hale, called the Saudi deputy defense minister Khalid bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, to express concern over the crackdown and to note “the importance of a transition to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates claim that their interventions have been aimed at staving off Islamist extremism and promoting regional stability. But Sudan’s uprising against Mr. al-Bashir is an uprising against political Islamists; the protest leaders who have been negotiating with the military council are not Islamists. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are instead driven by their own fear that should a major Arab country transition to democracy, it would lead to upheavals at home.

With Sudan’s Arab neighbors under Saudi and Emirati sway, with the United States doing little beyond expressing concern, it has fallen to Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to take the lead in mediation between the military council and the opposition. And outraged at the killings in Sudan, the African Union has suspended Sudan’s membership and called for a civilian-led transitional government.

But as long as the military junta has political and financial support from the Saudis and the Emiratis, it have little reason to back down. The protest leaders continue to be committed to nonviolence despite another round of attacks by the Sudanese forces on Sunday to thwart a general strike. Sudan’s opposition is embattled, hurting but defiant.

Iyad el-Baghdadi, founder and president of the Kawaakibi Foundation, a nonprofit working on the future of liberty in Arab and Muslim societies, is co-host of the podcast “The Arab Tyrant Manual.”

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