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Sudan's balancing act amid anti-US protests

Government needs to balance situation by keeping a lid on protests without losing the support of protesters.
Last modified: 18 Sep 2012 13:50
Protesters in Khartoum shout slogans against an amateur film mocking Islam [AFP]

It was a revealing match of diplomatic ping-pong which took place between the Americans and the Sudanese in the wake of the embassy attacks in Khartoum. One that showed the expected politesse of a rule-bound game, but where both players were keeping their eyes fixed on their home audience.

On Friday the US embassy had been surrounded by thousands of angry stone throwing protesters. The day after, the US requested permission to send in more marines to boost its security.

The Sudanese Foreign Minister responded by politely declining the request, saying the government was quite capable of keeping all its diplomatic missions - including the US - safe in line with its international obligations.

A State Department statement swiftly followed saying it had accepted both public and private assurances that the Sudanese government could indeed do this, adding that they had requested additional security precautions. This statement made no mention of a request for more marines but the US did later announce that non-essential staff and families were being withdrawn from both Sudan and Tunisia, which had also been affected by protests.

Then on Sunday in Khartoum, as if to underline this public commitment to contain the violence, another protest, this time planned by students, did not take place.

The rawness of last week's events in Libya in which the US saw its ambassador killed along with three colleagues, means the US administration simply cannot countenance any further risk to any diplomat anywhere.

President Barack Obama has an election coming up, and his Republican rival Mitt Romney would leap on the chance to expose any lack of caution. Hence the attempt to send in more marines: for the home audience they are a symbol of American virility overseas. That is probably also why the Sudanese government refused to have them: it is wary of having more foreign troops on its soil – it already has thousands as peacekeepers in Darfur.

Yet, if more marines (it has a few here already) were really essential to security it seems unlikely the US would have backed down so swiftly.

Khartoum's American embassy, unlike the images of the burnt-out US Benghazi consulate, which looked like a holiday villa, is a modern purpose-built fortress. Only recently completed, it is set back on the road in a wasteland on the edge of town. There is something bleak and prison-like about it – albeit one designed to keep people out, not in.

The physical protection already provided by the embassy building may be the reason the US did not push the issue of marines. And doing so would have come with the risk of further stressing an already complex relationship.

Tense relationship

In diplomatic terms, Sudan and the US do not enjoy "normal relations". Since the late 1990s Sudan has been under a wide range of US sanctions. This status means it only has a charge d'affaires in Khartoum, not an ambassador, and it is a non-family duty station for diplomats.

The relationship between the two countries has soured over South Sudanese independence last year. The US had promised to normalise relations, implying sanctions would then be lifted, if the Sudanese government let the South secede. It did. But relations were not normalised. Instead, the goal posts were moved: the peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan first must be implemented in its entirety. And this could take years.

If the US had stood by its insistence on the marines, and the government had stood by its refusal, the logical next step would have been withdrawing its charge d'affaires. And scaling up, not scaling down, would have pleased no one more than the hardliners amongst the protesters. For this type of showdown is just what some were hoping to see.

One of the groups organising the protests on Sunday called for the expulsion of the US and German ambassadors. (Germany is also being targeted because of a recent public display of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad).

Sudan's government is navigating a delicate path. Like many across the Muslim world – and beyond - the government is outraged by this offensive anti-Islam video and has been vocal in leading the condemnation, calling for peaceful protests.

On Friday, the day of the protests, the Foreign Ministry summoned the US Charge d'affaires and the German Ambassador to tell them of the government's outrage and that the film was crossing a "redline" in the Muslim world. 

But in the wake of the deaths of two protesters, accidently run over by riot police vehicles, the government is under pressure from both parliament and Islamic and other political organisations to explain how this happened.

These protests which brought together different Islamic factions, include much of the government's own support base. One of the key protest organisers was a right-wing party called the Just Peace Forum (JPF) and the protests were promoted in the influential hardline paper Al-Intibaha. Both are run by President Bashir's uncle.

The government has a tricky balancing act to accomplish. For the diplomatic world, it needs to be seen to be keeping a lid on these protests. But for its own political interests, it must do so without losing the protesters' support.