Sudanese Army struggles to keep pace with street pressure after Bashir’s ouster

There is wariness among experts about long military rule and likely attempts by Islamists to keep their hold on power as they have done for last three decades.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Benefit of the doubt. Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdulrahman (L), the new chief of Sudan’s Military Council, speaks with demonstrators outside the army headquarters in Khartoum, April 12. (AFP)
Benefit of the doubt. Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdulrahman (L), the new chief of Sudan’s Military Council, speaks with demonstrators outside the army headquarters in Khartoum, April 12. (AFP)

CAIRO - Sudan’s protest movement pushed General Awad Ibn Auf to step down as head of the military transitional council on April 12, just a day after President Omar al-Bashir was ousted after a three-decade rule.

As the military raced to gain more credibility with protesters, it named as Ibn Auf’s replacement General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdulrahman, a senior figure who seemed to enjoy the benefit of the doubt with protesters with whom he held direct discussions the same day.

The selection of Burhan as new chief of the transitional council was followed April 13 by the removal of Salih Ghosh as head of National Intelligence and Security Service, which had overseen the crackdown on protesters.

The same day, Burhan announced “the restructuring of state institutions according to the law” and pledged “to fight corruption and uproot the regime and its symbols.”

On April 11, the Sudanese Army announced it had ousted Bashir, formed a transitional military council to lead the country and imposed a general curfew.

The measures failed to win over protesters, who saw the developments as a “palace coup” aimed less at satisfying their demands than at maintaining the same political system without Bashir and preserving the interests of the Islamist movement.

The military seemed to struggle with the prevailing notion at home and abroad that Bashir’s ouster was just another military coup. The military council’s political chief, Lieutenant-General Omar Zain al-Abdin, was quoted on state television as saying: “This is not a military coup, but taking the side of the people.”

Demonstrators, however, insisted that an interim civilian government run the country.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has played a leading role in the protests, applauded Ibn Auf’s departure as “a victory of the people’s will” but called on the new military council head to “transfer the powers of the military council to a transitional civilian government.”

“If this does not happen we will continue with our sit-in in front of the army headquarters and other towns,” the association warned.

Demonstrators have been emboldened by foreign reactions against the military council’s proposal to take over and lead the country for at least two years.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said a two-year transition under the military “is not the answer.”

“We need to see a swift move to an inclusive, representative, civilian leadership,” he said.

Mounting street pressure seems to have accentuated disagreements within the army’s top command and added to the ambient confusion about the process.

Alex de Waal, a Sudan specialist at Tufts University, believes “the power struggle within the security cabal that took power… is just beginning.” He added, “Bashir had kept their rivalries and ambitions in check; his removal brings in its wake an unregulated uncertainty.”

Hani Raslan, a specialist in Sudanese affairs at Al-Ahram Centre think-tank in Egypt, said Sudan’s military transitional council suffers from “deep schisms,” reflected by its quick change in leadership and delay in disclosing the names of council members.

Like many other experts, Raslan described the developments in Khartoum as “a palace coup aimed at calming down demonstrators.” He said power in Sudan remains in the hands of the same senior officers and leaders of the main security agencies, who want to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and manage the transition phase.

Sudanese political experts are also wary about Islamists’ attempts to keep their hold on power. They believe Islamist elements in the armed forces are likely to reproduce themselves politically and try to cling to power, even if free elections are held.

Islamist movement members have widespread clientelist networks and access to financial resources that would allow them to influence any electoral process and maintain their presence in state institutions.

Many Sudanese fear a repeat of the “Salvation Revolution” of June 30, 1989, when Bashir, then an army colonel, led a military coup against Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party. He eventually kept the country for three decades under Islamist-dominated rule.

Sudanese protesters were not appeased by the assurances given by Auf, who, like Bashir, has been accused of war crimes in the Darfur genocide, and is also a leading Islamist figure.

Protest leaders are trying to shorten the country’s military rule. Many share the view that the army’s continued role would be an extension of Bashir’s rule and that forming a military council is an arrangement meant to prolong the regime, disregarding protesters’ demands.

Observers in Khartoum see no quick way out of the standoff. The military does not want to lose control of the situation but understands it cannot impose its will on protesters. Likewise, demonstrators are not sure to what extent they can exert pressure without reaching a breaking point with the military. Opposite pressures have led to a moving process of give and take.

Sudan’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Yasir Abdalla Abdelsalam Ahmed, told the UN April 12: “the suspension of the constitution could be lifted at any point and the transitional period could be shortened depending on developments on the ground and agreements reached between stakeholders.”