On June 3, the eve of the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody dispersal of demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Sudan’s military authorities launched their own massacre of unarmed pro-democracy protesters. State-linked paramilitaries attacked a peaceful sit-in in the capital, Khartoum, claiming, without proof, that it had been infiltrated by drug dealers and criminals. More than 100 people were killed, according to doctors’ groups in Khartoum. Scores of bodies were dumped into the Nile River, women were reportedly raped and hospital staff attacked as they tended to the injured. That the atrocities echoed those conducted in Darfur for more than a decade was hardly surprising; the perpetrators were the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, a successor militia to the infamous Janjaweed that was accused of genocide in Darfur. In the days that followed, the authorities rounded up protesters, deported political leaders and cut off internet services.
The massacre coincided with a deadlock in negotiations between the leaders of the popular movement whose protests hastened the end of Omar al-Bashir’s three decades in power and the military that finally ousted him in April. Civilian representatives, organized under a coalition known as the Forces for Freedom and Change, failed to persuade the Transitional Military Council that has been in charge since Bashir’s fall to give them majority representation in an interim presidential council that would organize elections. While talks dragged on, the RSF commander and vice president of the military council, Mohammed Hamdan Daqlou, known as Hemeti, unleashed his forces on the protesters, who had vowed to camp out until the military gave up power.
Now, hopes of a successful democratic transition seem dashed. A pall of fear hangs over Sudan, and any trust the civilian negotiators might have had in the military has evaporated. The Transitional Military Council, which admitted ordering the onslaught, has blood on its hands. The violence has also exposed divisions within the civilian protest movement. Some of those who risked their lives on the street accused the Forces for Freedom and Change of disowning them during the negotiations. A general strike called in the wake of the violence failed to hold beyond two days.
In the aftermath of the attacks, attention turned to the actions of powerful authoritarian regimes in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and neighboring Egypt. All three governments have become important diplomatic and financial backers of Sudan’s supposedly interim military rulers, even hosting them in the runup to the massacre. Hemeti met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in late May in Jeddah, where he reportedly reaffirmed Sudan’s support for Saudi Arabia’s interests in the Gulf, including its provision of troops—thought to include many RSF fighters—for the Saudi coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Saudis said they had transferred $250 million into Sudan’s Central Bank.
Others have been less supportive of Sudan’s junta. The U.N. Security Council overcame more than a week of objections by Russia and China to issue a statement condemning the violence in Khartoum. More significantly, the African Union announced the suspension of Sudan until a civilian-led transition took place, and sent Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Khartoum to talk with both sides. The United States dispatched its most senior diplomat for Africa to Khartoum, and the State Department announced the appointment of Ambassador Donald Booth as special envoy to Sudan, reprising a role he played between 2013 and 2017.
Optimism is in short supply in Sudan, but there are fragile signs that a diplomatic opening is still possible.
Going forward, swift action is needed to restart negotiations between protesters and the military, empower Sudan’s civilian representatives and contain the risk of more violence. The U.S. can help by offering practical assistance to the democratic forces, backing African-led mediation and corralling international partners—particularly allies from the Arab world—to dial back support for the military council. One priority will be to keep Sudan’s various revolutionary elements united. They form an uneasy partnership that includes professional associations, opposition parties, armed groups and student activists. The coalition must broaden further still to include important constituencies that have so far been sidelined, including Islamists and even representatives from parties formerly aligned with Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party.
At the same time, pressure must be applied to the junta to approach negotiations in good faith. In their public statements, the U.S. and its allies should push back against attempts by the generals to impose a nine-month transition that does not allow enough time for credible elections to be organized. It must not relent in its demands for an independent investigation into the violence in Khartoum and elsewhere, rather than the internal inquiry the military council claims it is conducting. U.S. officials should threaten individuals in the junta with sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act unless they take steps to curb the violence, prevent arbitrary detentions and resume internet services. At the same time, they must balance their demands with a pragmatic approach that tries to keep the fragmented security forces invested in the negotiations and acknowledges—as the June 3rd events tragically underlined—their potential to sabotage the process if they feel their core interests are threatened.
Optimism is in short supply, but there are fragile signs that a diplomatic opening is still possible. The Saudi government expressed concern about the loss of life in Sudan, a day after its deputy defense minister received a call from a senior State Department official. Ethiopia’s Abiy appears to be a capable mediator who is building trust with both the protesters and the military brass.
Yet despite these glimmers of hope, the overall outlook remains bleak. The murderous assault on peaceful protesters in the center of Khartoum occurred because the men with guns felt emboldened. Sudan’s young revolutionaries were the casualties of Arab governments’ cynical opposition to democracy and the rest of the world’s indifference to their struggle, beyond well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless statements of support on Twitter. Now that blood has been spilled and the military authorities have painted over the pro-democracy slogans that festooned the main protest camp in Khartoum, the diplomatic gears have begun to turn. But it may already be too late to save the revolution.