Al-Bashir’s toughest test

Haitham Nouri , Monday 14 Jan 2019

Demonstrations continue in Sudan regardless of minor government concessions. It is the Islamists, however, that will make the next move

Sudanese protesters
Anti-government protesters rally in Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019 (Photo: AP)

“We call on our supporters to gather at four different places in Khartoum and then begin a march on the presidential palace,” the Sudanese Professionals Association said in a statement last Saturday as protests across Sudan entered their fourth week.

The association, comprising doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers, had organised a few marches on the presidential palace to deliver a list of demands to President Omar Al-Bashir. None of the marches made it through.

A day earlier, Al-Bashir sacked Minister of Health Mohamed Abu Zeid Mustafa without explanation.

Al-Bashir rose to power in 1989 following a coup supported by the Islamists who have since held control of Sudan. Al-Bashir’s government waged a bloody war against the south.

In 2005, he signed a deal with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, led by John Garang, that gave the south the right to self-determination. South Sudan gained independence in July 2011.

Darfur, in the west, also witnessed the horrors of war under Al-Bashir upon which he was condemned by the John Garang(ICC) for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. An arrest warrant was issued in his name.

Despite being a wanted criminal, Al-Bashir visited a number of countries signatory to the Rome Statute of the ICC, such as South Africa.

The latest protests are “Al-Bashir’s toughest test”, in the words of international reports, yet Sudan may not see major changes, primarily because the protesters are not organised and no substitute for Al-Bashir has emerged on the scene.

General coordinator of the Arab Coalition for Sudan Waddah Taber said, “the young have lost faith in all of Sudan’s parties, and they are afraid any organised grouping may hijack the revolution.”

It looks like Sudan’s protests have been spontaneous, not party-organised. In addition, Sudan’s political parties could not catch up with the momentum of the demonstrations.

“The parties know the protests took place no thanks to them and that the demonstrators don’t trust them. This is why the parties’ statements are always two steps behind,” said Taber.

Meanwhile, the Khartoum government is exerting enormous efforts to get over the crisis. This is evident in Al-Bashir’s decision to sack the health minister to calm the protesters’ anger over the hiking of prices of medicines.

Al-Bashir also formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the death of 19 people — according to governmental accounts. The opposition said 40 people were killed during the protests.

“Estimates put the number of arrested demonstrators at 400, in addition to hundreds of injured. But no documented numbers about the dead and injured have yet been released by a neutral body,” added Taber.

Governor of North Kordofan Ahmed Haroun fixed bread prices at one Sudanese pound after an increase to three pounds, resulting in nationwide protests.

The liquidity crisis is expected to be solved mid-April, news reports quoted sources from Sudan’s Central Bank as saying.

“All these measures will convince no one, because they (the protesters) demand Al-Bashir’s ouster,” noted Taber.

“Al-Bashir will be toppled, no doubt. The odds are stacked against him,” said Al-Hajj Warraq, editor-in-chief of the leftist Hurriyat (Freedoms) newspaper. “Many will take part in ousting him: the army, the Islamists and of course the opposition, because they all have to participate.

“The Islamists are divided now. One part follows Al-Bashir’s dogma of rejecting democracy and intervening in the affairs of neighbouring countries. The other part embraces democracy and national partnership and have severed their relationship with the axis dreaming about imperialism led by Qatar and Turkey. The latter part will remain in the Sudanese equation,” added Warraq.

It is no secret Islamist-leaning Al-Bashir had strong relations with Iran for two decades before he turned against Tehran a few years ago. Sudanese forces are part of the Arab coalition fighting against Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, Khartoum’s connections with Qatar and Turkey are ongoing.

Al-Bashir visited Istanbul recently to participate in the “symbolic” opening of its new airport. Days later he flew to Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt to attend the closing of the World Youth Forum.

“Sudan needs its Arab neighbours now, as much as it needs the international community economically and politically. It also has to refrain from training and hosting terrorists and supporting them in their endeavours to sabotage neighbouring countries,” said Warraq.

“The West and its financial institutions will not support the regime as long as Al-Bashir is at its helm. After all, he is wanted by the ICC.

“There are those who fear that toppling Al-Bashir will result in the deterioration of security in Sudan. However, as long as he remains president, more arms will flow in the country, which increases the chances of chaos,” added Warraq.

Although Al-Bashir himself comes from the army, he established a group of “irregular forces” comprising, in the terms of the Khartoum government, “popular defense, popular police and general order forces” groupings.

Furthermore, Al-Bashir supported the establishment of Janjaweed militias, led by Moussa Hilal, leader of Al-Mahameed tribe in Darfur. When Hilal was out of the picture, the “quick intervention” forces — tribal forces from west Sudan — were formed.

“Weapons increase by the day in Sudan. This worries neighbouring countries,” noted Warraq.

With all the recent events taking place in Sudan, the Islamists are coming face to face with a question they don’t want to answer. Have they finally realised they can’t possibly rule alone, or do they still refuse the political participation of the rest of Sudan?

“The majority of the Islamists want to continue to rule individually and to reproduce the regime. Other Islamists have come to believe they can’t tread the same path again,” stated Warraq.

“Sudan has reached the point of no return. Whether the Islamists try to reproduce the same regime, or change course to allow democratic participation and to refrain from intervening in the affairs of their neighbouring countries, Al-Bashir’s future will not be at the helm of Sudan,” Warraq added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Al-Bashir’s toughest test

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