People’s power

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Demonstrators in front of the military headquarters in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on April 14. Photo: Ahmed MUSTAFA/AFP

President Omar al-Bashir in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, on January 25, 2017. He is currently under house arrest at an undisclosed location. Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the new interim head of state. Photo: AFP/Handout/Sudan TV

Anti-government protests in Sudan have led to the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir after more than 30 years in power, but the protest will not end until the military gives up its hold on power to a civilian government.

SUDAN'S capital, Khartoum, and other major cities in the country have witnessed massive street protests from the beginning of the year demanding the ouster of the long-ruling military ruler, President Omar al-Bashir. The protests started gaining momentum after the government hiked the prices of basic food necessities at the end of last year. This was before the Algerian people started their movement against the entrenched political establishment there. The success of the Algerians in forcing their political establishment to make significant concessions, including the removal of the long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has no doubt inspired the Sudanese masses.

All the political parties, ranging from the Islamists to the communists, were united in their demand for the ouster of the government headed by Bashir. The protests were led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) with the support of the opposition parties, but it was the youth who were at the forefront. Their rallying cry was “the regime must go—full stop”. Another popular slogan was “Just fall, that’s all”. Despite the imposition of martial law and curfew, the protesters staged sit-ins and rallies in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum. More than 50 people have died so far as a result of firing by paramilitary forces loyal to the ousted President.

The army-backed government sought to retrieve the situation by conceding to the immediate demand of the street by sacking General Omar al-Bashir in the second week of April. The army has said that it disobeyed orders from Bashir to fire on the civilians protesting in front of the army headquarters. It was also announced that he was being put under house arrest at an undisclosed location. The news was greeted with jubilation, but the euphoria vanished when it became apparent that the army had no real intention of ceding power. After the interim head of state Gen. Awad Ibn Auf announced that the caretaker government would continue in office for two years, the anger among the Sudanese public became even more palpable.

Defying curfew

The SPA issued another call to the Sudanese people to protest against the new military takeover. “Stay put and guard your revolution” was the Twitter message the SPA sent out to the Sudanese public. Tens of thousands of protesters defied the night-time curfew ordered by the military and went to the military headquarters demanding the immediate restoration of civilian rule. Less than two days after the ouster of Bashir, the military leadership was once again forced to backtrack. Gen. Auf is a protege of Bashir’s and was his Defence Minister. Most Sudanese viewed the replacement of Bashir with a close associate as match-fixing. The military did a quick volte-face and replaced Gen. Auf with a more palatable military face.

The new interim head of state is Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is seen as one of the friendlier faces in the military. When the protests were taking place in front of the military headquarters, he came out and talked to the crowd. He has, however, reiterated the military’s position on handing over power to a civilian government within two years. In his first address to the nation, al-Burhan said that he would talk with all parties and civil society groups to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian rule. His deputy is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary forces. He was among the few top army officers to urge dialogue with the protesters immediately after Bashir was ousted.

In another victory for the protesters, the much feared and hated chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Lt Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, has also resigned. The former Intelligence chief was close to the governments of the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was reputedly the second most powerful man in the country. The military council has now given an assurance that the NISS will be restructured and made more accountable.

Gen. Omar Zein Abideen, the head of Sudan’s provisional military political council, earlier said that the military had “no ambition to hold the reins of power”. He said that the military was willing to step down within a month’s time if a civilian government was formed. Abideen gave an assurance that the transitional government would be run by civilians. At the same time, he warned against any more demonstrations, stating that the army had “zero tolerance for any violation”.

The SPA and the opposition parties were quick to “vehemently reject” the conditions laid down by the army, which included a three-month state of emergency and a two-year transition period to civilian rule, and called on the people to reject the conditions. The SPA statement said the reality on the ground continued to be the same. “What happened was that the masks merely changed; it is the same regime that the people revolted against, seeking to remove it from its roots,” the statement said.

Another umbrella group that played a key role in the events of the last few months, the Alliance for Freedom and Change, said in a statement that the military takeover was “a coup carried out by the regime”. Thousands of Bashir’s political opponents languish in jail. The last thing the Sudanese want after more than 30 years of authoritarian rule is yet another military dictator presiding over their destiny.

The authoritarian governments in the region have been rattled by the developments in Algeria and Sudan. These two countries may be on the periphery of the Arab world, but the example the people there have set will no doubt inspire their fellow Arabs, especially in those countries where the democratic gains of the Arab Spring revolution were brutally snatched away from the people. There is still a long way to go in both Algeria and Sudan. The experience of the Egyptian people has been an example for those striving to get rid of the shackles of authoritarian rule in Sudan and Algeria. They want iron-clad guarantees that the army will stay away from politics in the future. The SPA and the opposition political parties are not satisfied with the range of concessions given by the military so far. They have called for the demonstrations to continue until a civilian government is in place in Khartoum. Ominously, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have issued statements supporting the transitional military council.

Hassan al-Turabi

Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989 and was one of the African continent’s longest ruling strongmen. In the first decade of his rule, Bashir worked in tandem with the charismatic Hassan al-Turabi, who held the post of the Speaker of the Sudanese parliament. Turabi was the leader of the National Islamic Front, a party with a close relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Turabi was viewed as the real power behind the throne at the time. The falling-out between the two took place in 1999. Bashir then emerged as a strongman riding roughshod over the opposition. Turabi reinvented himself as an opposition leader leading a broad front that included the Sudanese Communist Party. Interestingly, Bashir had overthrown the democratically elected government led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, Turabi’s brother-in-law. Mahdi recently returned from exile and is once again active in Sudanese politics.

The Sudanese military became heavily politicised soon after independence (January 1, 1956) and started intervening in politics. Bashir’s coup, aided and abetted by the Islamists, came in the wake of a failed communist-inspired coup in 1985. After that coup attempt, Left-leaning army officers and politicians were ruthlessly purged. Sharia law was introduced in northern Sudan. The civil war pitting the Muslim north with the Christian and animist south intensified after Bashir took over.

But it was under Bashir’s rule that the south finally seceded. The George W. Bush administration played a key role in negotiating a peace settlement to end the civil war in 2005 and in persuading Khartoum to allow the south to secede. The war claimed more than a million lives. Most of Sudan’s oil deposits are in the south, but in his eagerness to get U.S.-imposed sanctions lifted, Bashir allowed the breakup of the country. The new state of South Sudan was formed on July 9, 2011.

The brief oil boom that Sudan enjoyed ended after its division. The civil war that started in South Sudan soon after it gained independence further impacted the north’s economy as the pipelines for the transportation of oil from the south remained unused for years and deprived the government in Khartoum of much needed revenue. Many Sudanese had warned the Bashir government that the south was not prepared for independence. Because of the civil war and the policies of the government in Khartoum, the south was underdeveloped and riven with tribalism.

Meanwhile, Bashir had to deal with a new group of secessionists in Darfur and the Nubian mountains. The war in Darfur put Sudan once again in the international spotlight. The U.S. had already put Sudan on its list of “terrorist” countries by the late 1990s for briefly hosting Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s after his falling-out with the West. After terror attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salam, Tanzania, in 1998, the U.S. attacked a pharmaceutical factory near Khartoum with cruise missiles, claiming it was a factory that produced chemical weapons for bin Laden. Bin Laden had left the country two years before the attack.

The West’s attitude towards Bashir and his government mellowed substantially after South Sudan became independent. The U.S. removed its “terror” tag from the government, though the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 2009 designation of Bashir as a “war criminal” for alleged crimes against humanity during the military campaign in Darfur continues to stand. One of the reasons Bashir was reluctant to leave office voluntarily may have been because he feared prosecution by an international court.

The military junta that has taken over has said that it will not allow Bashir to be extradited to The Hague to face trial on genocide charges. He will most probably be facing charges in a Sudanese court instead. Most observers of the Sudanese political scene expect Bashir to finally find refuge in Saudi Arabia like other deposed heads of state from the region have. Bashir had aligned with the Saudis in the genocidal war in Yemen. Sudanese troops and mercenaries are fighting in the Saudi proxy war there. Saudi Arabia, like the U.S., is not a signatory to the treaty establishing the ICC. The Donald Trump administration in fact banned an ICC fact-finding team from visiting the U.S. to enquire into possible war crimes committed by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.