The week before Sudan’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, arrested his country’s prime minister and seized power in a coup d’etat, U.S. President Joe Biden finalized the invitation list for his upcoming Summit for Democracy. The summit, claimed administration officials, aimed to counterbalance powerful autocracies such as Russia and China, and “galvanize democratic renewal worldwide.”
The world is a far cry from anything resembling democratic renewal. To the contrary, democracy is threatened on multiple fronts: not only by illegal seizures of power by military strongmen, as in Sudan, but by more subtle power shifts that subvert the will of the people. While Sudan did not make Biden’s summit guest list, countries such as Poland and the Philippines were included, despite experiencing dramatic democratic backsliding in recent years.
Biden’s effort to shore up democracy ignores at its peril that democracy is threatened not only by the pull of authoritarian great powers such as Russia and China, but also by the toleration of the international community at large. Subversions of democracy are flourishing, in part because they are justified with democratic ideals—and because onlooking democracies worldwide have given those out to subvert democracy plenty of room to maneuver.
Notably, Burhan, like many coup leaders, claimed that his recent takeover was in support of Sudanese democracy. Going even further, he claimed that his army’s arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and subsequent dissolving of the civilian government was not a coup, but an attempt to “rectify the path” to democracy, which began with the 2019 revolution that toppled long-ruling former President Omar al-Bashir. Burhan claimed the army took over in an attempt to avoid a civil war. Meanwhile, the internet has been shut down, and the military has violently suppressed anti-coup protesters.
The coup is the culmination of long-brewing tensions in Sudan, including the approaching deadline for the military to hand over power to the civilian government, large demonstrations in support of both the military and civilian factions in Sudan’s hybrid transitional authority, and advancing investigations by the civilian authorities under Hamdok into military finances.
The military takeover not only paused Sudan’s slow-burning transition to democracy, but also marked the fourth successful coup—and at least eighth attempt—on the African continent in 2021. Burhan has joined an even larger fraternity of military leaders who have seized power on the continent over the past decade, almost all spouting democratic ideals as they did so. Indeed, the day before Burhan’s coup d’etat, he traveled to Egypt to secretly meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who himself came to power in a 2013 coup.
In September, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres traced the resurgence of coups to “geopolitical divisions [that] are undermining international co-operation.” It is true that international competition for influence between rising and great powers emboldens many potential coup leaders by fueling their sense of impunity. However, the divisions among great powers that Guterres points to are not the only geopolitical factor creating opportunities for assaults on democracy. Support from outside states often provides enough cover for those who have seized power undemocratically to weather the storm of any international sanctions they do face.
Biden’s effort to shore up democracy ignores that democracy is threatened not only by the pull of authoritarian great powers, but also by the toleration of the international community at large.
In Sudan’s case, it speaks volumes that Burhan met the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, mere days before overthrowing his country’s transitional government. During this meeting, the U.S. warned the Sudanese military against attempting to seize power. Within 48 hours, it did just that. The U.S. has since condemned the Sudanese military and paused $700 million in aid to the country. However, the effectiveness of these measures is uncertain. Clearly, Washington’s threats were not enough to deter Burhan from halting Sudan’s burgeoning democracy in its tracks.
Burhan’s confidence, like that of other coup leaders in Africa, stems in part from his backing by autocratic allies on the continent and beyond—in his case, Egypt, which has a strategic interest in maintaining a Sudan friendly to its perspective, particularly in light of its standoff with Ethiopia over the Nile waters. The military junta that seized power in Mali is rumored to have struck a deal with the Russian military contractor Wagner Group, as France’s long-running counterinsurgency operation in the country draws to a close.
But the confidence of coup leaders and other subverters of democracy stems not only from support offered by fellow autocracies, but also from the placid acceptance of their behavior by democracies worldwide. It is easy to call out Russia and China for their willingness to engage with autocratic countries, either through plausible deniability or non-interference. But if the world is no longer safe for democracy, the fault lies with other democracies, too.
Take Egypt. Despite Sisi’s coup and his subsequent brutal suppression of human rights as civilian president, the country remains a key U.S. security partner in the region. That illustrates the tension the U.S. faces between democracy promotion and security. In Egypt’s case—as in the cases of other allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere—security won out. There is no reason to suppose Sudan will be any different.
Coups are all the more devastating when they emerge, as they often do, out of mass waves of mobilization against long-standing repressive regimes. The military’s decision about whether or not to intervene on behalf of protesters is often the conclusive determinant of whether a revolution succeeds or fails. In cases when revolutions do succeed, however, the military’s greed is often the reason why they are so often short-lived.
Meanwhile, coups are not the only way in which democracy is being subverted in Africa and beyond. The guest list for Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which includes semi-authoritarian regimes masquerading as democracies, is revealing of how the toleration of anti-democratic but elected governments is increasingly a feature even of democracy promotion. The U.S., as well as regional and international organizations, increasingly values elections that are “bloodless and calm” over “free and fair,” another reflection of the democracy-security tradeoff.
There is evidence to suggest that the outset and duration of coups can be influenced by international reactions, meaning that regional organizations and prominent democracies like the U.S. have a role to play in condemning undemocratic takeovers and holding firm against democratic backsliding in nominal democracies. If they fail to do so, there is no reason to be optimistic about Biden’s announced democratic renewal. It, like Sudan’s coup, will be democratic in name only.