When a post-colonial country with little or no democratic tradition escapes a brutal dictatorship, it rarely becomes a democracy. Instead, it is likely to be confronted by political chaos and foreign actors jostling for strategic advantage. This occurred in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and in Libya after Muammar el-Qaddafi was ousted. Is Sudan destined for the same fate?
So far, the answer seems to be yes. When longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed in a military coup in 2019, the same foreign powers that have made Libya their strategic playground saw an opportunity to gain a foothold at the crossroads of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
To be sure, a Sovereignty Council was quickly established to lead the country through a transition to civilian leadership. But last month – just over a year before the transition would be complete – Sudan's military chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, dissolved the Sovereignty Council and had the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, arrested.
The coup's perpetrators all served under Bashir. Moreover, Burhan has ordered the release from prison of high officials from Bashir's now-dissolved National Congress Party, as well as Islamist leaders. This has raised fears in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that Sudan's new leadership shares the fallen dictator's sympathies for their nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood – a friend of Qatar and Turkey.
Yet military coups are rarely driven by ideology. Instead, they are usually bids to protect corporate and economic interests. Sudan's military leaders were probably focused on safeguarding their gold-mining, construction, and oil businesses. The coup-makers are probably also hoping to shield themselves from international war crimes charges. After all, Burhan was among the architects of the Darfur genocide.
But this does not mean that countries like Egypt can rest easy. Turkey's relationship with Bashir brought major strategic benefits, including a 99-year lease on Suakin island, strategically located on the Red Sea.
While Turkey has repeatedly claimed that it plans only to restore Suakin for tourism purposes, the establishment of a military outpost on the island seems likely. Burhan's government will not only uphold that lease, but also add to it, leasing vast amounts of Sudanese land to Turkey for agricultural development.
Russia also has its eye on Sudan's Red Sea coast. Last year, it signed a deal with the Sovereignty Council that would allow it to keep up to four navy ships at Port Sudan. Russia, which has not had a naval base in Africa since the end of the Cold War, is keen for any Sudanese government to reaffirm the agreement.
One country that seems largely to have lost interest in Sudan is China. Unlike Libya, Sudan is not a major oil producer. It lost that position when South Sudan seceded in 2011, taking 80% of the country's proven oil reserves with it. This probably explains why, from 2011 to 2018, China granted Sudan just $143 million in loans – far less than the nearly $6 billion provided, largely for power and transport projects, between 2003 and 2010.
In fact, China's interests in Sudan overlap significantly with those of the West. Given the Horn of Africa's strategic location, both sides would prefer to see Sudan become politically stable and economically self-reliant.
Then there is Israel, for which Burhan's takeover is good news, at least in theory. Last year, it was Burhan and his associates in the military who backed the agreement to recognize the State of Israel and establish formal diplomatic ties, making Sudan the fifth Arab country to do so.
Sudan's nationalist civilian leaders were less than enthused about the deal, though the promise from US President Donald Trump's administration to remove Sudan from America's list of state sponsors of terrorism undoubtedly sweetened it. And Sudan's warring parties remain acutely aware of Israel's value as a conduit to America's heart and wallet.
This awareness began with Bashir. Despite being a friend of Israel's nemeses, Hamas and Hezbollah, he also courted Israel. He believed that diplomatic normalization would win him US support and perhaps halt his indictment by the International Criminal Court. Libya's rebel warlord, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, has reportedly now also approached Israel, with similar intentions.
But America's interests in Sudan extend well beyond securing support for Israel, and far exceed its interests in Libya. For starters, following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, the US is under pressure to avoid another resounding defeat for democracy abroad. And the consolidation of a Russian and Turkish – and, potentially, Chinese – presence in the strategically sensitive Horn of Africa is the last thing the US needs.
Moreover, whereas the conflict in Libya has done little to erode stability in the Maghreb, a war in Sudan would upend a precarious regional order. Neighboring Ethiopia is already mired in a civil war that threatens to morph into a border war with Sudan, which would disrupt oil exports from South Sudan. And Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile represents an existential threat to Egypt.
To avoid a regional conflagration, the US must use its leverage to harness the support of Israel, Egypt, and the UAE for a transition to civilian leadership in Sudan. This would require reining in the Muslim Brotherhood and ensuring that any Sudanese government respects the agreement with Israel. To secure a resolution over the Nile waters' dispute, the US has already threatened to withhold development funds to Ethiopia.
Sudanese civil society is doing its part, mounting a powerful resistance campaign, despite brutal repression by security forces. This mobilization has much in common with that which triggered Bashir's fall. (No such campaign can be seen in Libya.)
Sudanese protesters are not alone. The African Union has ramped up political pressure on Burhan, and Western countries and the World Bank have suspended aid. But more must be done. Only with the West – led by the US – on its side can Sudan avoid Libya's fate and resume the path toward civilian rule.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.