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Sudanese protesters demand ‘legitimate change’

Amid international pressure to hand over Al-Bashir, discord is growing among Sudan’s opposition forces, albeit united on the need for civilian government

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 17 Apr 2019
Sudanese protesters
Sudanese protesters wave signs and flags as they continue to protest outside the army complex in the capital Khartoum on April 17, 2019 (Photo: AFP)
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No sooner had protesters caught their breaths to celebrate the ouster of president Omar Al-Bashir than events took a worrying turn in Sudan Monday.

Demonstrators camped outside the army headquarters in Khartoum spent the day trying to protect their sit-in as troops attempted to disperse the crowds.

Once tractors started removing the metal barriers the protesters erected to protect their sit-in, the Sudanese people joined hands to foil attempts to disperse them.

Eyewitnesses told Reuters that demonstrators numbered approximately 5,000.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which has been spearheading demonstrations since their onset four months ago, called on the people to join the sit-in. “We hope that everyone will head immediately to the areas of the sit-in to protect your revolution and your accomplishments,” a SPA statement said Monday.

Eyewitnesses present at the sit-in told Al-Ahram Weekly that masked men attempted to disperse the crowds Monday morning. In the afternoon, military forces requested protesters remove the barriers.

Other Sudanese sources, however, reported to the Weekly that assistants of former defence minister Awad ibn Aouf plotted the dispersal attempt.

“Anti-revolutionary forces have started making their moves,” said Mohamed Dawoud, spokesman of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party, a liberal bloc headed by Omar Al-Digair, and on the list of names the opposition announced would conduct negotiations with the transitional military council.

“There is electronic jihad on social media platforms. Its elements belong to the ruling Islamist movement that was led by Al-Bashir for 30 years,” added Dawoud. Some of the social media accounts the Weekly saw of those belonging to “electronic jihad” appeared fake, calling for jihad against the “communist and secularist” protesters, and vowing to “not leave the country for them”.

The meeting between opposition forces, who signed the Declaration of Freedom and Change, and the transitional military council resulted in little but forming a government led by an independent figure.

“This is barely a result. Everyone agreed on the necessity of handing over rule of the country to a civilian government,” said Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher in Sudanese affairs.

“Disagreement is brewing between opposition forces because leftist figures announced the elimination of members from the Sudanese Communist Party and the Popular Congress Party from the list of names delegated to negotiate with the transitional military council,” added Mahmoud.

“All opposition parties should work on calming each other’s fears. Disputes will only stall the process of announcing a civilian government and its leader, since this step is the most critical in this phase,” he stated.

For the meantime, the transitional military council was being formed, particularly with the appointment of head of the Rapid Support Forces, General Mohamed Hassan Hamdan Daglo, aka Hemeti, as deputy to Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan.

It is widely known Darfur’s armed opposition had accused Hemeti of committing crimes against humanity in the westernmost part of country when he was leader of tribal Janjaweed forces, also charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

It is also no secret that Hemeti’s troops make up the Sudanese forces fighting alongside the army of the internationally recognised government in Yemen and the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

That Al-Borhan supervised Rapid Support Forces in Darfur for a long time won him strong Gulf connections, said Mahmoud.

“It is bewildering the opposition welcomed Hemeti’s membership in the [transitional military] council,” he added.

“The opposition can’t reject all the names on the council. In addition, it was Hemeti who distanced Ibn Aouf from the scene when he refused to join the council Ibn Aouf wanted to form before his resignation,” explained Dawoud.

At the same time, social media pages of the Justice and Equality Movement, the largest amongst Darfur’s armed opposition, announced their rejection of Hemeti’s role in this transitional phase.

Otherwise, Al-Borhan’s other appointments in the transitional military council passed uncontested. He appointed General Hashim Abdul-Mutalleb Babacar as chief of staff, and Mohamed Osman Al-Hussein as his deputy.

Al-Borhan also approved the appointment of the council’s inspector-general, head of the Operations Authority, and chiefs of staff of ground, marine, and air forces, as well as head of the Military Intelligence.

Galaleddin Al-Sheikh was appointed head of the security and intelligence apparatus after Salah Abdullah Saleh, aka Salah Qosh, with Abu Bakr Demblab as deputy to Al-Sheikh.

Other names sitting on the council include Omar Zein Al-Abidine, Al-Tayeb Babacar, Salah Abdel-Khalek, Yasser Al-Atta, Mustafa Mohamed Mustafa, Ibrahim Gaber and Shamseddin Al-Kebashi.

Still with the new formation, the transitional military council is facing a set of international pressures to hand over the country to a civilian government.

The US, the UK and Norway have been pushing the council and a number of political parties to dialogue to speed up the process of handing over authority to civilian rule.

The embassies of the three countries released a joint statement warning against resorting to violence in dispersing protests, saying that “the legitimate change that the Sudanese people are demanding has not been achieved.”

“It is time for the transitional military council and all other parties to enter into an inclusive dialogue to effect a transition to civilian rule. This must be done credibly and swiftly, with protest leaders, political opposition, civil society organisations, and all relevant elements of society, including women,” the troika statement added.

The international community wants more. The UN has demanded the immediate handover of Al-Bashir and officials charged with committing war crimes in Darfur to its affiliate International Criminal Court (ICC).

A number of members in the transitional military council refused to hand over Al-Bashir to the ICC. Lieutenant-General Omar Al-Zein declared, “We don’t have a problem trying any defendant in Sudan courts and applying [national] laws in their trials.”

Al-Bashir “is kept somewhere safe” but his whereabouts are unknown. Photos circulated of the former president in hospital were said to be old.

Protests led by the SPA and forces signatory to the Declaration of Freedom and Change demanded in the statement they presented to the transitional military council the immediate transfer of power to a transitional civilian government for four years to be followed by elections.

They also requested disbanding the ruling National Congress Party, headed by Al-Bashir, and presenting its leading officials and the former president to trial, in addition to sequestrating Al-Bashir’s properties.

Opposition forces demanded the reinstatement of the 2005 constitution, which the military council suspended after Al-Bashir’s overthrow; releasing civilians arrested during protests as well as the police and army personnel apprehended for refusing to shoot at demonstrators; and putting an end to the state of emergency Al-Bashir enforced on 22 February.

Why Sudan’s differs from the Arab Spring revolts

“The association is Sudan’s alternative to political forces,” said Atef Ismail, a leftist leader and member of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), reports Haitham Nouri.

Ismail was referring to the bloc leading protests in Sudan. “This is not the first time the SPA has stood in the front line, leading the nation through its struggle.”

The SPA had previously led the demonstrations following the Graduates’ Conference in the 1940s, the Associations Assembly in the 1960s, and the Syndicates Association in the 1980s, said Ismail.

For the past four months, since the Sudan revolution broke out, protesters have been toeing the line of the SPA, despite not knowing the identity of the association’s leaders.

The only known SPA figures until recently were its spokesman in France, Mohamed Al-Asbat, and its representative in the UK, Sarah Abdel-Galil.

The SPA has acted like the mysterious warrior fighting against a powerful regime that has been at the helm for decades.

“The SPA makes Sudan’s revolution different from other Arab Spring revolts,” said Khaled Mahmoud, a specialist on Sudanese affairs. “The latter were not led by people or groups. In Sudan, the SPA led the popular movement since day one.”

Ismail stated that, “Despite the ambiguity surrounding the SPA leadership, the apprehension of physician Mohamed Nagi Al-Assam was the incident that introduced the people to a number of the association’s figureheads.”

On 12 April, the head of the SPA appeared on Arabic and international satellite channels as Mohamed Youssef Al-Mustafa, a professor of anthropology at Khartoum University.

The SPA said it rejected the participation of eight military personnel in a transitional government. Later, on Saturday night, the association revealed the list of SPA members delegated to negotiate with the transitional military council.

The list is made up of Al-Assem, Taha Osman, Ahmed Rabie, Ibrahim Hassaballah, Gamrea Omar and Mohamed Al-Amin.

“All the names of SPA members cannot be revealed until stability is restored in Sudan,” explained Ismail, justifying the fear and caution by saying, “Things may turn ugly. Everybody fears assaults against SPA members.”

Since the turn of the 20th century, the Sudanese regarded their educated children as their lifeline, be it during their struggle against the occupation, or while ushering in a new era every time the people revolted against military rule.

Following the failure of a number of popular revolts against occupation in 1908 and 1924, high school graduates founded a body of their own, the Graduates Conference, in the early 1940s.

Despite its success in pressuring the colonisers and receiving a promise of independence after World War II, the Graduates Conference was disassembled due to political differences, said Ismail.

“The break-up of the Graduates Conference didn’t stop its members from exerting further pressure to gain seats in parliament until 1989,” added Ismail.

“During the October 1964 revolution that overthrew the first military rule, the Associations Assembly was formed. The body resembled a wide-ranging syndicate that included labourers, professionals and farmers,” he continued.

The assembly was dismantled after regular political parties won the 1965 legislative elections and the communists snatched the Graduates Conference’s parliamentary seats.

President Jaafar Nimeiry’s clutch on power — he ruled from 1969 to 1985 — led the Sudanese people to resort to their syndicate, which spearheaded the revolution against the May regime (the name given to Nimeiry’s rule).

The Islamists learnt the lesson. They sought to control syndicates to prevent them from revolting against the regime they established with the Omar Al-Bashir-led coup.

“Independent syndicates were founded seven or eight years ago. They assembled in 2013 and continued to function despite their illegality, since the law states that a syndicate should embrace all workers in its profession,” noted Ismail.

Today, the SPA comprises eight non-official professional groupings including the committees of physicians, pharmacists, and teachers, the Lawyers Coalition, the Journalists Network and the Engineers Association.

The SPA has not been the sole leader of Sudan’s revolution but its mover and shaker. It managed to break the circle of mistrust between the younger generations and weak political parties.

The question remains, though, will the SPA meet the same fate of its three predecessors?

Declaration of Freedom and Change

On 2 January, four major opposition forces signed the Declaration of Freedom and Change in Khartoum. The declaration, gathering the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the Sudan Call, the National Consensus Forces (NCF) and the Unionist Alliance, is not a political body, but rather a set of general guiding principles to which the signing parties adhere.

The SPA is a grouping of non-official professional bodies, created after Al-Bashir’s regime took hold of every official syndicate.

The NCF was founded in 2009 and comprises 17 parties, prime among which is the National Umma Party, led by former Prime Minister Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi (1986-1989) whose government was overthrown by Al-Bashir.

Other NCF parties include the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), led by Yasser Arman, the Sudanese Communist Party, and the Popular Congress Party, founded in 2000 by late Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi who assisted Al-Bashir in his coup.

Made up of a large number of parties, the Sudan Call is not united on the goals of the declaration, save for toppling Al-Bashir. The alliance is expected to be dismantled following the current phase.

The Unionist Alliance is a group of opposition blocs that agreed 30 January 2018 to not negotiate with Al-Bashir’s regime no matter the circumstances.

The alliance has sought toppling Al-Bashir through directing and motivating the people. Historically, the alliance had called for Egypt-Sudan unity. By the late 1980s they called for unity among the Sudanese. Nowadays, they seek close relations with Cairo.

“Since Osman Al-Mirghani, leader of the alliance, signed an initiative with John Garang in 1988, the Unionists have been calling for the unity of Sudan before moving one step towards foreign relations,” said Moetassem Hakem, a former Unionist Alliance member.

The present alliance of the forces that signed the declaration will not last long. Some parties will deviate to achieve their own interests following the removal of Al-Bashir, opined Fayez Al-Selik, editor of Change, a Sudanese website.

“The declaration will remain, and the parties will pretend to adhere to its principles, but the alliances will not remain the same,” he added.

“Maybe the Communist Party will stay united with the Popular Congress Party, and the National Umma with the SPLM-N, for a while,” Al-Selik said.

But the fact that many new parties agreed to dialogue with the transitional military council makes it likely the alliances will be disassembled, except for the civil alliance, he added.

The Declaration of Freedom and Change calls for the immediate step-down of Al-Bashir and the “formation of a national transitional government comprising qualified people based on merits of competency” to be tasked with ending “Sudan’s civil wars by addressing the root cause(s) of each and seeking remedies to their disastrous manifestations”.

Other goals stated in the declaration include to “apply the brakes on the current state of economic freefall, and work to improve the livelihood of all Sudanese citizens; reach out to warring parties to address lingering issues, and security arrangements.

These agreements should be fair, just and comprehensive; oversee efforts to dismantle the structure of governance set up by a totalitarian one-party regime, and transition it to institutions based on a constitution and the rule of law.

The goal is to create the conditions for a thriving state in which the people of Sudan elect their representatives freely; and to restructure civil services and the armed forces to be representative of the nation, ie national, diverse, and independent; empower Sudanese women and strive to end all forms of discrimination and oppressive practices against them; improve Sudan’s image globally, and work on fostering regional and global relationships based on mutual respect and common interests.

In that light, special attention will be given to the relationship with the Republic of South Sudan; ensure the state commitment to human development, social welfare, and the environment through programmes and subsidies in areas of health, education and housing; convene a Comprehensive Constitutional Conference to address key national issues, with the objective of forming a National Constitution Committee.”

Stated Al-Selik: “These are general principles demanded by the entire nation, but the devil is in the details.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Sudanese demand ‘legitimate change’

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