A few weeks ago, American diplomats thought Sudan was on the verge of a breakthrough deal that would advance its transition from military dictatorship to full democracy, delivering on the country's soaring promise of revolution in 2019.
Sudan has become a critical test of President Biden's core foreign policy goal of strengthening democracy around the world, which in his view weakens corrupt leaders and allows countries to more adeptly stand as a bulwark against the influence of China, Russia and other autocratic powers.
But on April 23, the same American diplomats who had been embroiled in negotiations in Sudan suddenly found themselves closing embassies and fleeing Khartoum on secret helicopter flights at night as the country plunged into potential civil war.
Biden administration officials and their partners are now struggling to get the two warring generals to stick to a tenuous truce and to end hostilities, as foreign governments evacuate civilians amid fighting that has left at least 528 people dead and more than 330,000 displaced. The actual toll is almost certainly much higher than the Sudanese government's toll.
A pressing question at the heart of the crisis is whether the United States miscalculated how difficult it would be to introduce democracy in a country with a long history of military rule, and the risks of negotiating with strongmen who talk of democracy but never succeed.
Critics say the Biden administration, rather than empowering civilian leaders, is prioritizing working with two rival generals, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan., head of the Sudanese army, and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan, a paramilitary chief, even after they staged a joint military coup in 2021.
Senior American diplomats “made the mistake of coddling the generals, accepting their irrational demands and treating them as natural political actors,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, an adviser to Sudan's ousted prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok. “It feeds their lust for power and their illusion of legitimacy.”
And some analysts ask whether US officials have a clear approach to implementing Mr. Biden's global push for democratic resilience.
The violence in Sudan is creating a power vacuum that Mr Biden's aides hope to avoid. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group are among the players already trying to fill the void, US and former US officials say.
“If this battle continues, there will be a great temptation among outside actors to say, ‘If these people are going to fight to the death, we better get in there, because we'd rather this person, or this institution,' win,' said Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former US envoy to the Horn of Africa who worked on negotiations for civilian government.
“If you don't reach a ceasefire, not only will you experience the misery of these 46 million people,” he added, “you have a higher temptation for outsiders to start escalating the fighting with direct intervention.”
Mr. Hamdok have said civil war in Sudan will make the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya look like “little games”.
The State Department and White House declined to comment.
White House Africa strategy paperreleased in August, asserted that “by reaffirming that democracy delivers tangible benefits,” the United States can help limit “negative” influence outside states and nonstate groups, reduce the need for costly interventions, and help Africans determine their futures Alone.
For the United States, trying to prevent Sudan's potential return to despotism is an unlikely role after decades in which the country was widely known for mass atrocities and as a haven for terrorists, including, for nearly five years in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden. . In 1998, President Bill Clinton even ordered a missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum that he said Al Qaeda was using to make chemical weapons, though that intelligence was later questioned.
It wasn't until October 2020, a year after the revolution, that President Donald J. Trump officially revoked the country's status as a state sponsor of terrorism after Sudan normalized its relations with Israel.
“Today, it was the wonderful people of Sudan who took responsibility,” Trump said. “The new democracy is taking root.”
Feltman and other former and current US officials say that supporting democracy must remain a cornerstone of American policy in Sudan, given the aspirations expressed in the protests that led to the 2019 overthrow of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, dictator for 30 years. . Congressional leaders are now calling on Mr. Biden and the United Nations to appoint a special envoy to Sudan.
The setback in Sudan follows other democratic disillusionments in north Africa, including a military counterrevolution in neighboring Egypt a decade ago; nearly 10 years of political anarchy in Libya, another neighbor of Sudan, after its dictator, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, was overthrown; and recently returned to one-man authoritarian rule in Tunisia after a decade as the only country to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring with a democratic government.
Mr. Fall al-Bashir four years ago caused jubilant performances from Sudanese who hoped that democracy could take root in their country even though it failed elsewhere in the region. After several months of junta rule, Sudan's military and civilian leaders signed a power-sharing agreement that created a transitional government led by Mr. Hamdok, an economist. The plan envisages elections after three years.
However, a council set up to help manage the transition is “a bit of a fig leaf,” as it has more military than civilian members, Susan D. Page, former US ambassador to South Sudan and a professor at the University of Michigan, he said in a post on his school's website. Important civilian voices were excluded, an issue that will persist well into this year's negotiations.
After the October 2021 military coup, the United States froze $700 million in direct aid to the Sudanese government and suspended debt relief, while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund froze $6 billion in direct aid and planned to write off $50 billion in debt. Governments and other institutions, including the African Development Bank, are taking similar steps.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman at the time, said that “our entire relationship” with the Sudanese government would probably be reevaluated unless the military restored the transitional government.
Even as rumors of a coup circulated in October, American officials had warned General Hamdan that he would face “special consequences” if he seized power, a former senior US official said. But after the coup, American diplomats under Molly Phee, the department's top Africa policy official, decided to try working with the generals rather than confronting them.
US officials declined to detail the proposed sanctions against General Hamdan but said they were broadly targeting his personal fortune, much of it kept in the United Arab Emirates, a war chest that experts say is vital to building the military power unleashed in the current battle.
Pressure to punish the generals came from senior members of Congress. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee on African affairs, co-authored on Foreign Policy articles in February 2022 it is the Biden administration must impose “a comprehensive set of sanctions against the coup leaders and their network” to weaken their grip.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to East Africa with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in November 2021, a senior State Department official said the generals had indicated they were willing to return to sharing power with civilians. The official, who insisted on anonymity to talk about negotiations, said withholding aid may not be enough to pressure the generals, and so the government has appealed to their esteemed sense of personal heritage, among other things.
Cameron Hudson, who served as chief of staff for successive US presidents' special envoys to Sudan, called the approach a mistake.
“They believe too much in what these generals tell them. These people have been telling us what we want to hear since they agreed to a civilian government” after al-Bashir's ouster, Hudson said. “There is supreme confidence within the State Department that we are on the brink of a breakthrough agreement.”
Washington's willingness to negotiate with the generals after the coup had the effect of legitimizing them, said Mr. Hudson.
The United States also failed Mr Hamdok before the coup, he added, when bureaucratic inertia slowed the disbursement of economic aid meant in part to demonstrate the benefits of civilian rule.
That made Pak Hamdok too vulnerable.
The coup made Mr. Feltman felt betrayed. The generals personally assured him hours before they arrested Mr Hamdok that they would not usurp power, he said.
But even if the United States imposed sanctions on them, “I'm not sure it would make much difference,” he said. “The two generals see this as an existential fight. If you're in an existential battle, maybe you get distracted by the sanctions, but that's not going to stop them from going after each other.”
The first breakthrough following the coup came in December 2022, when the United Nations, African Union and regional blocs brokered a deal to transition Sudan to civilian rule in a matter of months.
But big issues have yet to be resolved, particularly how quickly General Hamdan's Rapid Support Force will be combined with the regular military, and who will report to the civilian head of state. The job of bridging those differences has largely fallen to the dominant foreign powers in Sudan: the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Although Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are authoritarian monarchies, they claim to want democracy in Sudan.
But as the negotiations progressed, the gap between the two generals grew larger. Military reinforcements from both sides began to enter Khartoum.
In late March, American and British diplomats presented the generals with a proposal meant to bridge their biggest differences. Instead, the plan appears to have sharpened tensions. A few weeks later, on April 12, General Hamdan's troops took control of the air base 200 miles north of Khartoum, in the first public sign that years of diplomacy were culminating in the war.
Three days later, the battle started.