Future of Sudanese regime at stake as protests continue

Key political, security and partisan figures are increasingly keeping their distance from the regime.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the presidential palace in Khartoum, December 31. (AFP)
Bleak forecasts. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the presidential palace in Khartoum, December 31. (AFP)

CAIRO - Weeks of protest in Sudan raise questions about the future of Omar al-Bashir’s regime. The unrest, which was triggered by price increases, evolved into a full-fledged crisis challenging al-Bashir’s rule in a manner unprecedented since his 1989 coup.

Observers of Sudanese affairs said the protests may have changed the rules for Sudan and al-Bashir. The issue is not whether al-Bashir can run for another term in office, even if the ruling National Congress Party and the parliament were to consider constitutional amendments allowing al-Bashir to stay in power, because of the recent cycle of unrest.

The new terms of the debate within the political class are whether saving the regime or Sudan’s stability should take precedence over leaving room for al-Bashir’s political survival considerations.

“Al-Bashir’s political future is now in the hands of the army, which has not yet given up on him, as al-Bashir still has some sway over the heads of most units inside the army since he had made sure to appoint people who were loyal to him,” said Hiba al-Bashbishi, a professor of political science at the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University.

However, senior officers, Bashbishi said, would have to make sure that any role of the military “would have to be carefully balanced against the risk of starting a civil war.”

Protests have left many dead — 19 in the official government count while Amnesty International said 37 had been killed — and scores injured.

Sudan sources said the small ruling circle in Khartoum was looking for a solution that may not necessarily preserve al-Bashir’s status as the unchallenged leader. They said al-Bashir has become a liability even for his supporters. “He was good at jumping over internal hurdles but the economic hurdle had presented him with an impossible challenge,” said one source.

Al-Bashir seems to have lost many of his assets even at the heart of power. Key political, security and partisan figures are increasingly keeping their distance from the regime after it failed to quell unrest despite bloody repression.

Al-Bashir’s shrinking power base was reflected in a statement from 22 parties close to his regime, which, under the banner of the “National Front for Change,” called for him to step down.

The opposition, accused of opportunistically riding on the upheaval, has co-opted the street protests. The upheaval also boosted historical opposition forces that had refused to work with the regime.

Amani al-Taweel, director of the African programme at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that “what has helped the political forces [opposing al-Bashir] is their elaboration of a road map for [political] change and succeeding in convincing the demonstrators to adopt it. This has led a number of parties to abandon al-Bashir’s sinking ship.”

Many factors indicate that a smooth change from within the regime could be an option and could keep power in the hands of the ruling National Congress Party, considered the political arm of Sudan’s Islamist movement.

Experts said the radical wing of the Islamist movement, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, is jockeying for power as the regime is weakened by the protests.

“The demonstrations are fuelled by the Brotherhood and this represents a silent coup against President al-Bashir,” Bashbishi said, adding: “The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the leaders of the units inside the army could decide the continuation or not of the demonstrations at their current intensity.”

She said that “the Islamist forces, in implicit complicity with some of the army leaders, are leaning towards the choice of removing al-Bashir at the earliest opportunity but the possibility of reaching new understandings with al-Bashir might lead them to back off a little.”

Sources in Egypt said wariness about a possible Islamist role in the unrest explains why Cairo has expressed support for al-Bashir. Despite that expression of support, Sudan’s regional and international alliances have weakened tremendously.

Al-Bashir’s wavering stances have led to growing isolation of his government, experts said. He was, for instance, very keen on building closer ties with Turkey but Ankara abandoned him. The Sudanese ruler also failed to take advantage of positive signals from Washington.

Observers of Sudan said a soft transition is the best way to defuse the mounting tensions and prevent the crisis from evolving into a cataclysm that could destroy the country.

Taweel predicted that “the continuation of the demonstrations, signalled by Sudan’s regional weakness, the absence of international support for al-Bashir and the fraying of domestic bases of support, will force the Sudanese leader to make concessions but that won’t be sufficient to keep him in power.