Sudanese caught between military and Islamists and they want neither

What we are witnessing in Sudan is a very delicate tug-of-war between two currents: one that wants to exclude the Islamists from power and the other one that wants their return.
Sunday 28/04/2019
A protester gives a speech to others during a sit-in at Armed Forces Square in Khartoum, Sudan, Saturday, April 27, 2019. (AP)
A protester gives a speech to others during a sit-in at Armed Forces Square in Khartoum, Sudan, Saturday, April 27, 2019. (AP)

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council is facing a delicate dilemma. It is under pressure to hand power to a civilian government and must get rid of the Islamist legacy of deposed President Omar al-Bashir.

This is likely to prolong Sudan’s crisis, now that the Transitional Military Council (TMC) has received a grace period of three months from the African Union.

The number of protesters camping in front of the Ministry of Defence in Khartoum has increased to pressure the TMC to accelerate the handover of power. The TMC says it has the “sovereign authority” only, since the presidency of the Council of Ministers, the government apparatus and all executive power are fully civilian.

The TMC tried to appease protesters by announcing the resignation of three of its members who have Islamist leanings. Attiyah Issawi, a Sudanese affairs expert, said the TMC “is trying to take control of the situation and respond quickly to the demands of the demonstrators and reassure the international community by giving continuous assurances that it will hand over power to civilians at the earliest opportunity.”

He said the resignations were acceptable to the street but the protesters demand more far-reaching measures.

Issawi said the TMC would try to put on trial some former regime figures to appease the demonstrators. It is highly unlikely, though, that the TMC will hand al-Bashir and other Islamist figures to the International Criminal Court.

Many opponents of political Islam want to get rid of al-Bashir’s legacy. However, the Islamist camp in Sudan is determined to return to its hegemonic dominance.

Most of the regimes that had governed Sudan over the past decades were in one way or another connected to political Islam. The Islamist current in Sudan is not limited to its most visible component, which is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist movement includes Islamists belonging to Salafist and Sufi organisations, in addition to all hues of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is difficult to talk about precise categorisations in Sudan. Researchers have become used to grouping all Islamist tendencies in Sudan under the label of the Islamist Movement in Sudan. The Islamist bloc, however, is not homogenous. It even includes extremist militant and terrorist groups.

The Islamist components may compete with and even fight each other but they come together when political Islam is in danger. This is an instance in which political Islam sees itself in danger in Sudan.

What makes political differentiation among most traditional Sudanese parties difficult is they all have an Islamist bent to varying degrees. During the rule of al-Bashir, the Islamist mother movement took root in the very fabric of society.

Other groups will try to seize the opportunity of the removal of al-Bashir from power to get rid of groups with flagrant Islamist leanings and who have support bases outside Sudan, especially in Turkey and Qatar.

It is in the utmost interest of the Turkish-Qatari axis to have Sudan’s Islamists retake the initiative in the country because what is at stake for the axis is the fate of one of the most important political projects that have emerged in the region in the last two decades.

The immediate aim of the supporters of the Turkish-Qatari axis in Sudan is to tear the cover provided by Egypt, through its presidency of the African Union, to the TMC.

What we are witnessing in Sudan is a very delicate tug-of-war between two currents: one that wants to exclude the Islamists from power and the other one that wants their return.

What makes the task of the TMC very difficult is that both rivals have a common denominator and that is not allowing the military to monopolise power and making it the target of their political arrows. These goals work in favour of the Islamist movement as it comes together to face a common ordeal.

The fact that the civil forces have camped on their positions in their dealings with the TMC and continue to pressure it to speed up the transfer of power to a civilian government seems to have borne some fruit.

The remaining pockets of al-Bashir’s regime, including figures who occupied important positions in the army, are being removed one by one.

The civilian current says that the handover of power by the TMC is a central objective but this very step may be the one that will bring al-Bashir’s cronies back to power.

The protesters may want to cut the path of military rule in their country and not repeat the experience of other countries but the confusion reigning among the civilian forces could see Islamist forces take advantage of the lack of organisation in the street and take power with tools that look democratic.

A part of the Sudanese says democratic rule is better for them, even if it results in having the Islamists return to power since they have infiltrated many political parties and groups. Other Sudanese have not forgotten that it was the democratic rule of Sadiq al-Mahdi that had led al-Bashir and his Islamist allies to stage a coup in June 1989.

With the abundant resources held by al-Bashir’s cronies and their strong presence in the institutions of the so-called deep state, the Islamists could win by a landslide any elections hastily called at a time when the army and security services have not been cleared of them.

The Sudanese may end up making a big mistake by desperately running behind civilian rule and getting rid of the military regime quickly and at any price. If they do that, the fruits of their revolution will be harvested by exactly those they were trying to get rid of in the first place.

After having come a long way in driving a wedge between the Islamists and the military, the Sudanese people need to come together to lay the foundations for a new Sudan free of both the Islamists and the military.