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Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Divisions overshadow Sudan

The composition of a new civilian-military presidential council chaired by Abdel-Fattah Burhan has yet to be agreed in Khartoum

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 2 May 2019
Sudan protesters wave national flags and shout slogans as they gather for a mass protest in front of the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan, April 21, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
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Sudan’s transitional military council (TMC) has announced that its head, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, will chair a presidential council that will include representatives of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a broad coalition of opposition parties.

On Saturday military and opposition leaders agreed in principle to form a joint presidential civilian-military council to lead the country’s political transition. Despite the fact the two sides failed to agree on the division of seats in the new body, and on who should occupy them, the step was hailed by demonstrators, who have been camping outside Khartoum’s army headquarters for the past four weeks, as a step towards civilian rule.

At a press conference on Tuesday TMC Vice President Mohamed Hassan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, said Sudan’s military will hand over the country’s executive authority only to an elected civilian government and not to a government of technocrats, as demanded by Declaration forces.

The army “will not accept chaos… after today, there will be no chaotic scenes,” said Hemeti. He added that it was in the interests of Sudanese in Darfur, Kordofan and other regions to open up roads and bridges to receive staple goods, particularly with the advent of the holy month of Ramadan.

On the same day Declaration of Freedom and Change forces announced in their own press conference in Khartoum that the council was “not serious about handing over power to civilians” and said they were still waiting for the TMC to respond to their demands.

Hemeti’s statement suggests the TMC “has backtracked on its agreement with the Declaration forces” said Sudanese journalist Mohamed Al-Asbat, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) that has spearheaded protests since they broke out 19 December 2018.

Al-Asbat believes the army is engaging in a game of tug-of-war.

Declaration forces had earlier suggested the presidential council comprise 15 members, eight of them civilians and seven from the military. The TMC’s counter proposal was for a 10-member council, seven drawn from the military and with just three civilians. The opposition bloc has also demanded a transitional period during which an appointed government and a reduced legislature help prepare the country for free elections.

Sudan’s three democracies — from 1953 to 1958, from 1964 to 1969 and from 1985 to 1989 — all comprised an elected constituent assembly which was tasked with drafting a permanent constitution — this never saw the light of day — and usually resulted in the formation of a coalition government alongside a sovereign council comprised of five figures from across the political spectrum. While the sovereign council’s role seldom exceeded advising on policy, real power was concentrated in the hands of the prime minister.

Declaration of Freedom and Change forces convened a series of meetings on Sunday, the results of which have not yet been made public.

The opposition groups that signed the Declaration of Freedom and Change earlier this year include the National Umma Party, the Sudanese Congress Party, the Sudanese Communist Party, the Popular Congress Party founded by Hassan Al-Turabi, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) and the Unionist Alliance.

Although it is not a political body, the SPA, which comprises eight non-official professional groupings including the committees of physicians, pharmacists and teachers, the Lawyers Coalition, the Journalists Network and the Engineers Association, also signed the Declaration.
While the military has proposed the presidential council have a life span of two years, opposition forces are demanding four. Nor is there any consensus over what should be done with toppled president Omar Al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 2003 war in Darfur.

Al-Bashir has repeatedly denied the charges and the TMC is refusing to hand him over to the ICC. If he is to face trial, they say, it should be in Sudan. While the SPA’s position on Al-Bashir’s fate continues to be ambiguous, opposition leader and former prime minister Sadik Al-Mahdi has stated publicly that Sudan should “immediately” join the ICC.

The current impasse suggests that many of the protesters’ other demands, including restructuring the armed forces, police and civil service apparatus, will be subject to similar squabbles.

Low-ranking Khartoum custom and visa officers held a one-day strike on Sunday resulting in a temporary halt of travel procedures. The officers are demanding improved working and living conditions that will place them on an equal footing with colleagues in other security apparatuses, and want a major restructuring of the police.

“All state institutions have been mutilated by the Islamists who control them,” Atef Ismail, a former accountant in the Finance Ministry and a leading figure in the Sudanese Communist Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It will make it very difficult to restructure the civil service and the army.”

Local and international observers worry about escalating feuds between the SPLM-N and the Sudanese Communist Congress on the one hand, and Al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party and Al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party on the other.

Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher in African affairs, warns that the feuding could cause a major rift in the ranks of the Declaration of Freedom and Change forces. “The cabinet and parliament will fall to the Islamists if elections are held now. The opposition is not yet ready to go to the polls,” said Mahmoud.

“There is a consensus over Al-Mahdi who commands wide respect. If presidential elections are held early he is likely to win, which is why he is pushing for an early poll.”

Mahmoud warns such an outcome would provide the Islamists with political cover and allow them to continue to cling onto power.

“Sudan’s Islamists are well-organised. They are the party of the former regime, after all, and in addition to conventional parties with Islamist ideologies like the National Umma Party and the Unionist Alliance, they can ally with others to secure a parliamentary majority.”

Mahmoud argues that “Hameti’s statements are intended to divide the opposition between those whose interests lie with holding early elections and those whose interests do not” and in the process “abort the revolution”.  His rhetoric about “the interests of people in Sudan’s regions pits Declaration forces against the Sudanese, implying that they don’t care about the people’s sufferings.

“Islamists who defected from the Al-Bashir regime, such as the Al-Islah Movement, and Islamists who remained loyal to the toppled president until the last minute, are ready to strike an alliance with opposition currents with similar ideologies that break rank with the Declaration forces. This bloc of Islamists is large and, if allied with some movements within the opposition, it could easily win an election.”

Meanwhile, a recent attack on a meeting of the Popular Congress Party, founded in 2000 by the late Islamist leader Al-Turabi who assisted Al-Bashir in his coup, has caused tensions within the ranks of Declaration of Freedom and Change forces.

“The Popular Congress may bear a great deal of responsibility for what has happened to the country in the past 30 years,” said the Declaration of Freedom and Change bloc, “but we condemn this violence and vandalism no matter the reasons behind it. We believe in the right of assembly and freedom of expression for all. The homeland our brave revolutionaries are toiling to build has no room for eliminating anyone.”

Sudan’s national television reported that 140 people were evacuated from a conference hall during the attack which caused minor injuries to more than 60 people.

“The attack may be taken advantage of to undermine Declaration forces, weaken the opposition and strengthen counter-revolutionary forces,” says Mahmoud. Already there are attempts by Al-Tayeb Mustafa, Al-Bashir’s notorious uncle, and Salafi leader Abdel-Hay Youssef to incite people against the protesters whom the latter has denounced as “communists, atheists, seculars and liberals”.

Snapshots from Sudan

Fresh out of a revolution that toppled its long-term president, Al-Ahram Weekly looks at how the political translates to the personal in Sudan. 


fter taking a few photos, Yasser Al-Hag joins his friends and relatives in the tent they hastily set up in front of the army headquarters in central Khartoum, writes Haitham Nouri.

Al-Hag and scores of Sudanese have been camping for four weeks, demanding the transitional military council hand over power to a civilian government.

The protester uploads the photos on social media platforms. They receive immediate reactions, particularly from women who cannot sleep over at the sit-in site.

“I want to stay the night at the sit-in, just like him. I have grown tired of the daily trip, but where can one take a shower,” Maisa, a 38-year-old photojournalist comments on Al-Hag’s post.

A female friend of Maisa’s replies, “in the girls’ dormitory close to the army headquarters.” Another writes “Inbox”.

“She will tell me where to answer nature’s call when in the sit-in,” Maisa explains to Al-Ahram Weekly.


n Sunday, Takwa Saber embarks on her weekly trip to Shagara market in Khartoum. Saber is a 20-year-old student of physical therapy. She has made it a habit to buy her household needs on Sundays, when “I have no lectures or training.”

“Since the demonstrations broke out in December, it has been extremely difficult to find what we need on the market. But after the fall of [toppled president Omar] Al-Bashir, vegetables are available at lower prices,” she tells the Weekly as street vendors shout “doctor”, calling on her to buy their goods.

“I have repeatedly explained to them that I am a physical therapy specialist, not a physician,” she adds smilingly. “But they just don’t get it.”

After Al-Bashir’s overthrow, the Sudanese pound appreciated against the dollar, reaching 50 pounds per dollar, up from 70 pounds.

“Vegetables, bread and groceries are more available now. Although their prices have gotten cheaper, they are still expensive to us,” Saber says.

It is precisely the hike in prices that led the Sudanese to go out on the streets 19 December. The price of bread tripled in 2018 and was accompanied by a rise in prices of other food staples, fuel and medicines. Compounding the issue was Sudan’s shortage in liquidity that prevented banks from fulfilling the demands of depositors.

Saber continues her round in Shagara, one of Sudan’s diverse markets. Besides the locals, it also caters to Egyptians who are heavily present around the district, working as engineers, technicians or as delegated employees from the Egyptian Irrigation Ministry.


nother reason why mass protests took Sudan by storm was the inability of employees to cash their cheques from banks.

“The salaries are still not paid regularly,” Zahir Al-Hussein, a 45-year-old accountant at one of Sudan’s transportation authorities, tells the Weekly.

The salaries problem has persisted before and after Al-Bashir’s toppling. “The salary, which was not even enough for the entire month, has not been available, even in ATMs, since September. I think this was the ticking bomb after which the demonstrations swept Sudan.”

Since March, “the problem has eased a little, but we still don’t cash the whole cheque. We have a long way to go before the situation in Sudan is fixed,” Al-Hussein adds.

“It’s a good thing these months are the school holiday, but if conditions don’t get better by July, when the new school year begins, it is going to be catastrophic.”

Al-Hussein is the father of Faris, 12, and Amir, nine. The boys’ names mean knight and prince, respectively, in Arabic.

The school year in Sudan starts in July and ends in March. Education expenses have always been crippling for the country’s middle class because of the spread of private tutoring, essential for last-year school certificate students competing to record the highest scores to nail one of the strictly numbered seats available in university.

“In my town, northern Sudan, the village people borrow money to pay for the private tutors because they don’t receive their salaries,” says Al-Hussein.

ife has come to a halt for Umm Al-Hassan Othman, because of the same problem Al-Hussein and millions of Sudanese suffer from.

The social studies teacher, in her 50s, has three daughters.

“We live off the rent of the other apartment next door, my husband’s humble pension, and my salary from school,” she tells the Weekly.

“Until last year, this barely got us through the month. After we became unable to withdraw our salaries and pensions from ATMs last summer, life has come to a standstill,” says Umm Al-Hassan.

“What made matters worse is that the renter, who doesn’t cash his whole cheque, pays us the rent in instalments, making it very difficult for me to arrange the household finances,” she adds.

“I borrowed money from my brother who lives in Saudi Arabia, and now I am paying him back after things started improving a little.”

“Nothing guarantees that we will be able to receive our salaries complete again,” she states. “I will retire in eight years and I don’t know whether the money will be enough or not.”

As is the case with the Sudanese people, Umm Al-Hassan is worried about the future. She is currently trying to marry off her middle daughter, an engineering graduate of the Sudan University for Science and Technology, to her relative and colleague.

She hopes the youngest daughter, a student of English, will be next in line.

*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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