Since the military ouster of Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, early on Thursday, 11 April, after three months of protests, different military factions have been jostling for control of the state. The continuation of protests that began late December has helped reveal the factionalism, as different groups within the state seek to instrumentalise the protest movement. This suggests that protesters still possess some power, despite the army taking charge, if they maintain the ability to mobilise the citizenry. This, however, will likely become increasingly difficult as the military tries to split the movement by negotiating minor concessions while protecting its central role.
In the weeks before his ouster, Bashir had been consolidating control. The size and scope of protests, which had followed the tripling of bread prices, were diminishing and were largely confined to the capital, Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman. Furthermore, his 22 February 2019 cabinet reshuffle, in which military officials were appointed to key positions, seemed to tether the army’s fate to his survival. This, however, began to change on 6 April when protest leaders strategically marched on the military headquarters in Khartoum, which also contained the presidential palace. a week-long sit-in ensued, with personnel of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) clashing with soldiers, as the agency unsuccessfully attempted to violently disperse the protests.
Bashir’s forced resignation was followed by the military’s announcement of the formation of a military council to oversee a two-year transition. The constitution was suspended, a three-month state of emergency declared, and a no-fly-zone instituted, indicating the intention of the security apparatus (consisting of the military, NISS and state-supported militia groups) to protect its interests and oversee a transfer of power to its chosen successor. When Bashir’s resignation did not end protests, the military council head and former defence minister, Lieutenant-General Awad Ibn Awf, and his deputy on the council, Lieutenant-General Kamal Marouf, both resigned on 12 April and were replaced by Lieutenant-General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (also known as Hametti). Burhan is a former inspector-general of Sudan’s armed forces, and was the main liaison between Saudi Arabia and Sudan in relation to Sudanese troops’ participation in the Yemeni civil war. Hametti headed Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force formed out of the notorious Janjaweed militia, which Bashir used in Darfur. Power struggles within the security apparatus also played a major role in the resignations, with Hametti and NISS head, Major-General Salah Abdullah Mohammed Saleh (also known as Salah Gosh) attempting to benefit from Bashir’s ouster. There was thus a twelve-hour period between Bashir’s resignation and the military’s first announcement of its role in the resignation and how it envisaged the situation developing, suggesting that there was a struggle around who should be in charge during the transition. Gosh subsequently resigned, on 13 April; besides being another victim of the factionalism, his leadership of NISS was also unacceptable to the protesters. Because Bashir had relied on the security apparatus (the army and intelligence services) to protect his thirty-year rule, he allowed a balance in their powers; that balance has now been upset, allowing the factionalism to come out into the open. He had also empowered militia groups, especially Hametti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to assist him to consolidate control in outlying areas, including Darfur.
Burhan has been attempting to present a conciliatory front, as someone who is not tainted by past abuses. He vowed to allow opposition figures to be part of the transition process; to release political prisoners; committed to allowing a civilian to become prime minister during the transition; promised not to crack down on protests, apply the night-time curfew, and to repeal restrictions on the media. However, he insists that the military will control the critical defence and interior ministry portfolios during the transition. He also announced that any soldiers who had participated in protests would be fired, called for protests to end, and has not clarified the powers of the opposition in nominating the transitional government or being involved in it.
Protesters, under the banner of the Freedom and Change Alliance (FCA), a coalition of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and older political forces such as the Sudanese Communist Party and the Ummah Party, have vowed to continue mobilising, and have not been placated by the military’s vague promise of protesters having a say in the transitional government. Further, the SPA and FCA have named their negotiating teams, most of whom are little-known professionals. They have called for an immediate transition to civilian rule, said they would allow military officials only minor roles in the government, and want a four-year transitional process. Further, they have called for the disbanding of the NCP, removal of the head of the judiciary and prosecutor general – who was subsequently fired, and expressed concern over Hametti’s growing influence. Clearly, there is still a great distance between the two parties’ stipulations.
Regionally, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to secure their interests by expressing support for a transition and cautioning protesters to consider the ‘national interest’. Gosh’s resignation has upset the plans of both countries Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which together with Israel and the USA saw him as Bashir’s successor since he had been the main liaison between Khartoum and the USA, especially in relation to counterterrorism activities. Nevertheless, it is unlikely they will be unhappy with Burhan at the helm; he has good relations with Saudi Arabia and had been the main liaison regarding Sudanese troops in Yemen. Qatar and Turkey will likely lose influence with the disbanding of the NCP and arrests of a number of Islamists who were close to those states. Further afield, a troika consisting of Norway, Britain and the USA has called for an inclusive transition, while the African Union belatedly responded by giving the military council fifteen days to transfer power to civilian rule, or have Khartoum suspended from AU activities.
With Sudan experiencing its fifth coup since independence, together with three other attempted putsches, and losing around a third of its territory and seventy-five per cent of its oil wealth as a result of South Sudan’s secession in 2010, the problems currently besetting the transitional regime, like those experienced by Bashir, are likely to endure. The resilience of the protesters, however, provides hope for more substantial change. In its negotiations with the military and its attempts to build a new Sudan, the FCA leadership needs to focus on building resilient institutions that can withstand charismatic personalities and allow for smoother alternations of power, rather than allowing mere changes in names and parties at the helm.
The large-scale and wide geographic spread of protests in Sudan over the past few weeks pose a greater threat to the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir than ever before in his thirty-year grip on power. After the mobilisation over the period of weeks, the demonstrations on Thursday, 24 January were possibly the largest that Sudan has ever witnessed since the country’s independence. Sparked on 19 December 2018 by bread price hikes and foreign currency shortages, the uprisings mutated into direct calls for the regime’s downfall and for Bashir’s removal, epitomised in the pithy slogan “Tasqut bas!” (Let it [the regime] fall; enough!).
The protests began in the small town of Atbara, which, like most of the country, has been suffering the ill effects of the government’s austerity measures implemented through its 2018 budget. The budget removed bread subsidies, causing prices to triple from around one Sudanese pound a loaf to three pounds. The currency was also devalued thrice in 2018, and now stands at around fifty Sudanese pounds to one US dollar, down from six pounds to the dollar at the beginning of 2018. Worsening matters, inflation is at seventy per cent, and with shortages of currency, cash withdrawals have been restricted. Significantly, since 2011, Sudan has had to cope with the loss of around seventy per cent of government revenues as a result of the secession of the south to form South Sudan, which produced seventy-five per cent of Sudan’s oil. The economic crisis has been aggravated by economic mismanagement, patronage and wars in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces where the government attempts to militarily suppress dissent in a similar manner to what it previously had unsuccessfully attempted in the south. These combined problems have drained state coffers, and Khartoum is seeking an IMF bailout.
Originally initiated by youth, the protests rapidly grew and escalated to include a broad spectrum of the society; it is currently led by the Sudan Professionals’ Association (SPA), a large organisation with members – mainly engineers, doctors and teachers – in and outside Sudan. The uprising spread throughout the country, including to Darfur, in spite of the government’s heavy-handed response, which resulted in fifty-one deaths and 1 000 arrests to date. Opposition parties, including the influential Umma Party and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) joined the protests. Umma’s Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former Sudanese president, recently ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Sudan from Egypt to participate in the protests. The involvement of these political forces, coupled with the government’s initially repressive approach, contributed to protesters’ demands evolving from economic to political calls for the regime’s ouster.
In addition, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) both suspended peace talks with the regime in an attempt to deliver additional pressure. Significantly, the protests are different to those in 2012-13, which were concentrated in the capital city. The current protests have sprouted in areas outside Khartoum, including in many rural areas, resulting in the regime being unable easily to contain them. Moreover, they are more representative of all sectors of Sudanese society, and the leading organisation, the SPA, is independent, not reliant on the state for political survival, and has much respect in Sudanese society. The SPA has also been able to leverage its links with the Sudanese diaspora, many of whom are professionals with influence in their host countries, as a means of amplifying the protests. The regime’s attempts to contain the protests by restricting the flow of information has thus been rendered largely impotent.
Protest leaders insist that their actions will remain peaceful, and, except for an initial attack on the offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), that guideline is being adhered to. Even JEM leader Gibril Ibrahim, while expressing full support for the protests, said his group will not provide armed protection for the protesters, arguing that the best protection for them was their insistence on peaceful demonstrations.
Slogan on a wall in Sudan: 'You resemble the night when tyrants die and the revolution wins.'
Bashir reacted to the protests relatively quickly, within a week after the protests began. He initially insisted that the grievances were solely economic, and argued that the government would institute measures to mitigate citizens’ suffering. Later, on 31 December, he also tactically criticised the use of live ammunition by security forces, and established a committee to investigate protester deaths a day later. This was his attempt to contain protests, position himself as supporting legitimate demands and to dissuade protesters from advocating regime change. However, he also sought to externalise the reasons for the protests, claiming that they were sponsored by foreigners, and proposing that elections were the only method of initiating political change.
Although the protests indicate that the regime is facing unprecedented domestic pressure, Bashir’s position within the region remains strong, and his position in the international community has not been shaken much. By deploying troops to Yemen he has ensured backing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which also want to ensure that Sudan does not become an Iranian ally. Simultaneously, he receives support from Turkey and Qatar. Relations with Egypt were mended in October 2018, while Bashir’s role in concluding the South Sudanese power-sharing agreement ensures support from regional heavyweight Ethiopia. Even relations with the USA have improved, with the White House in the process of removing Sudan from its list of states it deems as sponsoring terrorism. Ties with Beijing remain warm, and Bashir is an EU partner in the attempt to limit migration from Africa to Europe. Relations with Russia too are good, and it was Russian nudging that persuaded Bashir to visit Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, in an attempt to break his isolation from the Arab world. It is no great surprise, then, that the crackdown on Sudan’s protests have received little condemnation from foreign states, which, in the cases of Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey, have promised aid in fuel and wheat. Significantly, Russian private security personnel, likely sanctioned by the administration, are assisting Bashir to contain protests.
With this weight of external support, a likely scenario moving forward is Bashir’s withdrawing his candidature for the 2020 presidential election. Although the NCP endorsed him as its candidate, and Egypt is insisting he stands, the current protests, coupled with the fact that the 2005 constitution will need amendments for him to run for a third term, will render his candidacy increasingly difficult. The NCP decision caused schisms within the party and the military. Influential figures such as former presidential advisor Amin Hassan Omar and former National Security and Intelligence Services head Nafie Ali Nafie opposed Bashir’s candidature. They might use the protests to force Bashir to step down in 2020.
However, it seems unlikely that there will be enough of a rupture within the NCP to ensure Bashir’s overthrow as an immediate response to the protests, especially since global powers are intent on ensuring regional stability. Events on the ground may however change arbitrarily, as was seen in the 24 January protests in Port Sudan, where military officers clashed with NIS officials, forcing the latter to extricate themselves from attempts to contain the protests. If such intrastate tensions become more widespread, the regime will find it much more difficult to contain the protests. Significantly Al-Bashir instituted a minor purge within the military in September 2018, indicating that he does not fully trust the institution’s loyalty. All of this, however, does not guarantee the sustainability of the uprising. As the uprisings in countries north of Sudan in 2011 showed, loosely organised uprisings with powerful slogans do not necessarily lead to revolutions of regime change.