In Sudan, the military comes before the Islamists
I do not know whether Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was simply following a global trend in giving the military a bigger role or responding to local pressure. Al-Bashir’s strategy is not in the best interest of the Islamist movement in Sudan, to which he belongs.
Right from the beginning al- Bashir relied heavily on the army. He chose General Bakri Hassan Saleh as vice-president and brought several retired officers into political service in his National Congress Party. At the same time, al-Bashir removed from office many important figures of the Islamist movement such as former minister of Foreign Affairs Ghazi Salah al-Deen al-Atabani.
Relations between al-Bashir and the Popular Congress Party, founded by the late Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, are virtually nonexistent. Even though al-Bashir and Turabi were deeply divided, neither dared risk losing support of the wider Islamist base by starting a direct confrontation with the other.
Until mid-2013, al-Bashir behaved as if he belonged to the wider international Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. His political discourse was congruent with the Brotherhood’s objectives and he was a staunch supporter of the group in Egypt. Following the June 2013 popular uprising in Egypt, which removed Muhammad Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power, al-Bashir began distancing himself from the Islamist movement.
Overtly, al-Bashir wanted to have good relations with the new military-backed regime in Egypt. He was careful not to reveal his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and draw Cairo’s ire. After all, there are an estimated 5 million Sudanese living in Egypt and many of them are opposed to his regime.
Al-Bashir covertly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and gave refuge in Sudan to many of its members. He also backed Islamist groups and militias against secular forces in Libya. His regime has been accused of providing weapons and fighters as well training facilities inside Sudan to those groups.
With the rise of regional and international opposition to extremist militant groups, al-Bashir refrained from any actions that might discredit him. He had previously shown a great deal of political flexibility whenever he felt in danger. In 1994, he helped French secret services apprehend the terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Khartoum. A year later, he kicked out from Sudan al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to please the Americans.
Thanks to a keen pragmatic sense, al-Bashir has remained in power for 28 years. He has survived many crises — both inside and outside of Sudan — and wars in Darfur and South Sudan. He has also nurtured excellent relations with many Western countries, enabling him to defy the International Criminal Court and dodge an arrest warrant against him.
A few years ago, al-Bashir seemed to realise that his strong relationship with Iran was going to jeopardise his relations with Saudi Arabia. Ever the pragmatist, he unceremoniously closed Iran’s cultural centres in Sudan and hurried to strengthen his ties with Riyadh by sending troops to the front in Yemen.
Al-Bashir’s transformations have not gone unnoticed by Western powers. They thought he could become useful in the war on terror, with Sudan serving as a strategic link between northern and southern Africa. Al-Bashir can indeed play a key role in pursuing and hunting down terror and extremist groups in Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Central Africa.
Towards the end of his term, former US president Barack Obama promised to lift economic sanctions on Sudan in force since 1994. It was meant to encourage Sudan’s further cooperation in the war on terror. Other countries made investment promises in exchange for Sudan’s help in important regional issues.
Al-Bashir has realised that severing his ties to Islamist movements can be very beneficial. So, to reassure those countries still uncomfortable with his political leanings and manoeuvrings, he started restraining the Islamists in Sudan and giving the army more powers. The Islamists, however, are still a force to be reckoned with and the secular opposition is waiting in the wings.
Al-Bashir wants to have both the army and the Islamists under his control. His solution is to appoint officers with moderate Islamist leanings and start a war on extremist elements and ideologies.