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What does it take for power grabs in the Arab world to be condemned?

Chairman of Sudan's Sovereignty Council General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan meets United States Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin in Khartoum, Sudan on January 06, 2021 [Sudanese Presidency/Anadolu Agency]
Chairman of Sudan's Sovereignty Council General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan meets United States Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin in Khartoum, Sudan on January 06, 2021 [Sudanese Presidency/Anadolu Agency]

Sudanese General Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan has become the de facto head of state following his dissolution of the 11-member Sovereignty Council of Sudan last month and the ouster of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was appointed for the 39-month transitional period, scheduled to end in November next year. Al-Burhan's move has been described by many countries, international bodies, and experts as a coup d'état. The US, UN, and the EU strongly condemned it and called for Al Burhan to immediately hand over the power to a civilian government.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a press statement on the day of the coup in which he made it clear that "The United States strongly condemns the actions of the Sudanese military forces. We firmly reject the dissolution of the civilian-led transitional government and its associated institutions and call for their immediate restoration… These actions have the potential to derail the country's transition to democracy and are a betrayal of Sudan's peaceful revolution."

According to US President Joe Biden's Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, the "military take-over of the transitional government" in Sudan contravenes "the Constitutional Declaration and the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people and is utterly unacceptable." This was echoed by White House Deputy Spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre.

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Events in Sudan were condemned as a "military coup" by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Twitter. "There must be full respect for the constitutional charter to protect the hard-won political transition. The UN will continue to stand with the people of Sudan."

The European Union condemned the ouster of Hamdok as a "betrayal of the revolution." High Representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell commented on the "betrayal of the revolution, the transition, and the legitimate requests of the Sudanese people for peace, justice, and economic development." The EU, he added, will continue to support those working for a democratic Sudan with a fully legitimate civilian government. "This remains the best guarantee for the long-term stability of the country and the broader regions."

The ambassadors of the US, UK, and Norway met Al-Burhan on Tuesday and told him that civilian leadership must be restored in Sudan. "We underscored the need for restoration of the Constitutional Document, and of Prime Minister Hamdok to office, as the basis for discussions on how to achieve a civilian-military partnership and civilian-led transitional government," they explained.

This is all well and good. However, just a few short months ago, Tunisian President Kais Saied also carried out a coup as he dismissed the government approved by the freely-elected parliament. He also suspended parliamentary activities and assumed all executive and legislative powers, and imposed a state of emergency. The US, UN, and EU have not issued any statements of the kind noted above about Sudan.

When Saied imposed his "emergency measures" on 25 July, it was condemned and described as a coup by many within Tunisia and beyond. Not, though, by the US, UN and EU, even though it was a civilian government which was ousted and members of parliament were democratically-elected. The US simply called for a return to the "democratic path". There was no mention of a coup or defence of the parliament and civilian government. Blinken only said that he was afraid that Saied's measures "run counter to the constitution."

The secretary of state said his department, "encouraged President Saied to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights that are the basis of governance in Tunisia." He urged Saied "to maintain an open dialogue with all political actors and the Tunisian people, noting that the United States would continue to monitor the situation and stay engaged."

The UN called on all parties in Tunisia "to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and ensure that the situation remains calm." UN spokesperson Farhan Haq was reported by Al Jazeera as saying that, "All disputes and disagreements should be resolved through dialogue." Haq declined to comment on whether the UN viewed the situation in Tunisia as a coup or not.

Dialogue was also called for by Europe, along with respect "for the Constitution, its institutions and the rule of law." A spokeswoman for the European Commission added that "We also call on [all Tunisians] to remain calm and to avoid any resort to violence in order to preserve the stability of the country."

Sudan's military seized power and arrested Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok

Sudan's military seized power and arrested Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

With their similar responses to what happened in Tunisia, the US, the UN, and the EU convey the impression that they back the anti-democratic measures taken by Saied. Or at least don't regard them as a coup against the Constitution.

John Hursh, the director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), made an unambiguous comment on the lack of action and condemnation over what happened in Tunisia. "President Saied has now made clear that his actions are neither temporary nor tied to any actual national emergency, but simply a power grab to seize control of the country from its democratically elected institutions," he insisted.

Hursh reiterated that stopping short of condemning Saied's undemocratic measures encourages him to proceed with his coup. "By not calling these actions a coup… President Biden is giving Saied the implied backing he wants to solidify his power and make his coup permanent."

In the immediate aftermath of the coup in July, it was pointed out that the lack of action by the US and EU could have regional implications. "If the United States and European Union don't really step up and give a red light to a coup, [Gulf states that support the coup, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates] will come in and make sure the coup happens, if they aren't already involved," Sharan Grewal, a professor at the College of William & Mary and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post. "The US under this administration should be out there vocally making clear that we support Tunisia's democracy and that we will do what we can to support those actors who are trying to keep it on track."

OPINION: The Sudanese coup

And yet such unequivocal support for democracy has not been forthcoming, in the way that it has in Sudan. It is fairly obvious that there is a degree of hypocrisy involved in the US, EU, and UN response to Saied's "emergency measures". National interests, it seems, take precedence. Washington, Brussels, and the UN aren't particularly bothered whether they are protected by democratic or autocratic means.

Joe Biden said in his first press conference as president that, "It is clear, absolutely clear… that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies." However, he refused to describe Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as a dictator before his regime fell in 2011, simply because he was a bulwark of US geopolitical interests in the region. "Look, Mubarak has been an ally," explained the then Vice President Biden. "I would not refer to him as a dictator."

The US then went on to back the coup which ousted the freely-elected President Mohamed Morsi, although officials couldn't bring themselves to refer to his ouster as a coup. The c-word was taboo in Washington. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi led that coup and is now President of Egypt, and he is Washington's man because it serves US interests.

When looking to determine what it takes for the US, EU, and UN to condemn coups d'état it seems fairly obvious that such interests are the major factor. Democracy doesn't get a look in.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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