Sudan’s blocked horizon

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 27 Feb 2019

No “qualified team” can defuse the ticking bomb that is Sudan. Not after Omar Al-Bashir declared a one-year state of emergency

Sudanese protesters
Sudanese protesters take to the streets in Khartoum’s district of Burri to demonstrate against their government (Photo: AFP)

As Sudanese Prime Minister Mohamed Taher Ayala started forming a new government composed of a “qualified team”, Sudan protests have continued amid calls by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) — the main protest organiser — for additional peaceful demonstrations until President Omar Al-Bashir steps down.

Al-Bashir’s declaration of a one-year state of emergency came as a surprise to man. So, too, his decision to dissolve the federal and provincial governments. He also called on parliament to postpone constitutional amendments that would allow him to seek another term in the 2020 presidential elections.

Hundreds of members of the ruling National Congress Party had earlier requested the amendment of the constitution to allow Al-Bashir to re-contest the elections in 2020. By then he would have spent 31 years at the helm.

Sudan’s president is facing the widest ever protests against his rule, ongoing since the June 1989 coup, amid a sharp shortage in fuel, bread and medicinal supplies, in addition to a liquidity crisis that prevented thousands of employees from cashing their humble salaries that can no longer keep pace with rising inflation rates.

In a televised speech Al-Bashir said: “Firm economic measures should be taken in a new government,” adding that he would assign that task to a “qualified team”.

He also addressed the opposition. “I extend a sincere invitation to the opposition forces, who are still outside the path of national reconciliation... to move forward and engage in the dialogue regarding the current issues of our country.”

In a subsequent decree, Al-Bashir set up a caretaker government comprising a senior official from each ministry, but kept the defence, foreign and justice ministers in place, reported the official Sudan News Agency.

Within two days, Ayala, who had served as the governor of the central Gezira state since 2015, was sworn in as prime minister while Minister of Defence Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf was declared vice president, maintaining the defence portfolio.

“Ayala’s managerial and economic records in Gezira — the richest of Sudan’s states — do not qualify him to lead a ‘qualified team’ capable of dealing with Sudan’s crises,” opined Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher at the Institute of African Research and Studies at Cairo University.

“It is hard to imagine a governor without prior achievements will work wonders and get Sudan out of its black tunnel,” he added.

Ibn Auf, the former head of military intelligence, was one of the highest-ranking officials who said protesters have “a reasonable ambition”.

Sudanese writer and politician Suleiman Serri said appointing Ibn Auf as vice president meant Al-Bashir sacked the only remaining member of the original Revolutionary Council, his long-time ally Bakri Hassan Saleh.

The general is a former minister of defence, prime minister and vice president to Al-Bashir. Until Ibn Auf’s appointment as vice president, Saleh was in Al-Bashir’s tight circle of faithful men.

Many in the opposition believe Al-Bashir no longer trusts any faction in the regime; neither his colleagues from the military, the Islamists who constitute the backbone of the regime, the Islamist militants who share his ideology, nor the tribesmen who supported him during his skirmishes in Darfur and other regions.

Nonetheless, Sudan’s president appointed military personnel after sacking governors in a move Serri believes is a re-militarisation of the regime. Meanwhile, none of the opposition or experts on Sudan presented an estimation of the size of the Islamists in the military institution, which was conventionally conservative yet inclusive of all social strata.

Since Al-Bashir’s televised address 22 February, protests have not ceased, demanding he steps down, while media reports said security forces used tear gas to break up demonstrations.

The SPA said “imposing the state of emergency is an attempt to cling to power… and asserts that the regime has nothing but security solutions to political problems.”

The statement of the SPA, that includes doctors, teachers, engineers and accountants, continued: “Our main demand is the immediate stepping down of the president and formation of a transitional government.”

Meanwhile, the opposition National Umma Party stated that, “dissolving the government and imposing a state of emergency is nothing but a repetition of this regime’s failures.

“Nothing will satisfy the people who are taking to the streets except the overthrow of this regime,” the opposition party added.

The SPA and the National Umma signed the “Document for Freedom and Change”, and so did the Communist Party and other opposition groups across Sudan. The document outlines a post-Bashir plan, including rebuilding Sudan’s justice system and putting the brakes on the country’s economic deterioration, the key reason for nationwide demonstrations.

A few days prior to Al-Bashir’s speech in which he declared the one-year state of emergency, dissolving federal and provincial governments, security forces apprehended 14 university professors fearing they might lead demonstrations.

The authorities deployed security forces near the University of Khartoum where professors and lecturers had planned to hold a sit-in. Mamdouh Mohamed Al-Hassan, spokesman for the Khartoum University Professors’ Initiative, told Agence France Presse: “Fourteen professors, eight from the University of Khartoum and six from other universities, were on their way to take part in the sit-in when security agents took them away.”

More than 1,000 people have been arrested since the eruption of protests 19 December 2018, reports said. Rights groups stated that more than 40 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

The demonstrations started out to protest against the price of bread, which suddenly tripled. Soon there were nationwide demands that Al-Bashir step down.

Al-Bashir arrived to power following a military coup supported by Islamists, led by the late Hassan Al-Turabi, in June 1989. A fallout between the two men led Al-Bashir to politically eliminate Al-Turabi who lost the majority of the support of Islamists who sided with Al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir “didn’t clearly indicate he is not to run in next year’s elections. This is an attempt at violating popular will,” said Mahmoud. He excluded “the involvement of large opposition groups in the national dialogue” Al-Bashir called for. “This is a trap,” he said.

According to opposition journalist Al-Hajj Warraq, the crisis supersedes the ability of the regime to solve it. “Al-Bashir has blocked the horizon of the regime and the entirety of Sudan,” he stated.

“Sudan will not rise without strong, firm international support, and this will not happen as long as Al-Bashir remains in rule. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court.”

Some observers, however, fear the regime might resort to brutal force that may leave thousands dead. Mahmoud concurs. “It was, after all, during Al-Bashir’s tenure that more than two million Sudanese people were killed in the south, Darfur and other regions.”

He added: “What is keeping Al-Bashir from resorting to bloody oppression is the international community that is trying to prevent the repetition of another tragedy such as that witnessed in Syria, Yemen and Libya, in a country that may explode at any minute.”

Regional forces are fearful of the spread of weapons in the country that was the largest African state prior to 2011. It is no secret Sudan houses a number of armed organisations, such as the quick intervention tribal squads in west Sudan — mainly in Darfur — militias affiliated to the security forces and armed Islamists.

No independent body can verify these organisations’ numbers, however.

Warraq believes Al-Bashir’s latest moves “have politically exposed him” and that the Sudanese people should press harder to continue what they started. “Apparently the Islamists could not answer a complicated question. Have they finally realised they can’t rule Sudan on their own from now on, or will they cling to power? Not being able to answer this question until now is what exposed Al-Bashir and his regime.”

It seems Sudan’s popular protests will continue, unfortunately with no guarantees Al-Bashir’s regime will not use brutal force. The ploys of politics will not end, nonetheless.

“Al-Bashir is desperately trying to attract any political force with a popular base, but this will not happen and will not get him out of the present crisis, which will not be solved by winning over a party or excluding another,” said Warraq.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Sudan’s blocked horizon

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