The once great Ottoman Empire went into a prolonged decline.  Rulers of peripheral territories attempted to make themselves functionally independent.  The most successful of these hustlers was Muhammad Ali, nominally the governor of Egypt.[1]  Among his other ventures, he launched an Egyptian conquest of the neighboring Muslim states south along the Nile.  That territory is called Sudan.  After his death, this “khedivate” went into decline, the British occupied Egypt to safeguard their own interest in the Suez Canal,[2] and an Islamist rebellion in Sudan got out of hand (from the Anglo-Egyptian perspective).[3]  Afterward, things cooked along very unhappily until Britain’s retreat from empire after the Second World War.  Over Egyptian protests, Sudan got its independence in 1956. 

            Independent Sudan has not had a happy history.  For one thing, hardly anyone had any notion of “democracy.”  There have been half a dozen military coups d’etat, but the reality is that two dictators ruled the country, one from 1969 to 1985 and the other from 1989 to 2019.  Army officers have entrenched themselves as the key government institution, raking in wealth along the way.  They aren’t much inclined to surrender their advantages.  Under external pressure they have been willing to make occasional cosmetic gestures toward a “democratic transition.” 

For another thing, British rule had papered over the conflicts between Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arab Muslims dominated the North, non-Arabs occupied the western territory of Darfur, and the South is peopled by Christians and Animists.  Between 1955 and 1972, and then again between 1983 and 2005, civil war pitted North against South.  Overlapping this struggle, between 2004 and—to be honest—the present, the Khartoum government has waged war in the western territory of Darfur.  The North-South war ended with the creation of the new country of South Sudan in 2011.  Both conflicts were deadly in an extreme.  Huge numbers of refugees fled the conflict. 

Under very heavy pressure, the Muslim military leaders agreed to surrender territory to rebels as part of “peace processes.”  As is the case with “democratic transition,” the soldiers don’ttake these commitments seriously over the long run.  In both cases, they are just waiting for some other crisis in some other far-away place to divert the attention of foreign meddlers. 

At the end of 2018, an internal economic crisis led to huge demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum.  In April 2019, the soldiers tossed overboard the long-ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir; in Summer 2019, they struck a deal with civilian opponents of the government.  Since then, Western governments, especially the United States, have been supporting a democratic transition.  Earlier in April 2023, two different factions of the soldiers fell out over who would actually rule. 

Is “Democracy” something that can be established in any culture?[4] The answer to that question rests with the choices of the “men with guns.”  Whether Washington likes it or not. 

[1] On this fascinating, complicated man, see: Muhammad Ali Pasha – Wikipedia 

[2] On their other activities, see: The Perils of Adventure 2 | waroftheworldblog 

[3] The movie “Khartoum” (dir. Basil Dearden, 1966) manages to make the whole thing dull.  The several versions of “The Four Feathers: (dir. Zoltan Korda, 1939; dir. Shekhar Kapur, 2002) are rather better movies without throwing more light on the subject.  See Rudyard Kipling, “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  Fuzzy-Wuzzy by Rudyard Kipling (

[4] Walter Russell Mead, “In Sudan, Another ‘Democracy’ Push Fails,” WSJ, 25 April 2023, is seething. 


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