A Cruel April in the Sudan Spring?
The new rivalries at the top. An aborted revolution. And the international actors jostling for dominance.
On 11 April, following six days of protests, a cabal of military officers, security chiefs and paramilitary commanders overthrew Omar al-Bashir. They were the president’s most senior lieutenants and their intent is to keep the existing system intact along with the power and privilege they enjoy.
It was, however, one of the least competently organised coups in history. It had neither a single leader nor a clear plan of action. Even while the army was promising a statement, the army chiefs of staff, the head of the influential National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and paramilitary commanders were still negotiating. After several excruciating hours of delay, they put forwards Vice-President Awad Ibn Auf [who was forced to step down too after less than 24 hours] as their spokesperson who said little.
The second announcement didn’t come until well into Friday and was barely coherent, promising that the army would sponsor dialogue, and Bashir would be brought to court in Sudan.
After both these statements, protesters vowed to continue their protests against what they decry as a stolen revolution. They see the military council’s proposals as Bashir-ism without Bashir and they are right. Bashir’s henchmen have simply replaced their boss with themselves.
Bashir in the middle
During these 30 years in power, al-Bashir built an elaborate political-security structure with himself right in the centre. A remarkable skilled tactical operator, he was able to balance various factions within his fractious government, manage an intricate patronage system often with very modest resources, and keep afloat amid the turbulent waters of Middle Eastern politics.
His major political failing over the last four months was to underestimate the scale and determination of the civil uprising. He assumed he could ride out the protests and that the ever-loyal security apparatus would be able to quell them. Perhaps he was out of touch with the younger generation: his army commanders refused to shoot into crowds that contained the children of their friends and sometimes even their own sons and daughters.
Before the events of the past week, al-Bashir had been toying with negotiating his exit, though as recently as two months ago had also been considering revising the constitution to prolong his stay beyond the 2020 elections. His enduring problem was that the political apparatus over which he presided is so complicated– in particular, the hydra-headed security forces are so fragmented – that he couldn’t find a successor with both the loyalty and political skill to manage the system. His arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) was an enduring obstacle to him formulating a viable exit plan.
Nonetheless, in February, al-Bashir tested his well-honed political escapism skills for the last time. He imposed a state of emergency, dismissed civilian governors, and appointed a new deputy and heir apparent: former military intelligence chief, Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. In the end, however, the president couldn’t outlast the protesters.
Worse, when agents of NISS and other militia used violence, army units stepped in to protect the demonstrators. The spectre of different armed units fighting one another on the streets of the capital became frighteningly real. Al-Bashir’s chosen lieutenants – Vice-President Ibn Auf and NISS chief Salah Abdalla (aka ‘Gosh’), along with Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan (aka ‘Hemeti’) – decided he had to go.
Jostling for power
The inconclusive bargaining of these figures after removing the president reveals the fact that they all trusted al-Bashir more than they trust each another. One thing they did agree on, however, was to remove the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from the political scene.
It is unclear whether the putschists arrested leading Islamists because they see them as a real political threat or as a strategy to curry favour with certain Middle Eastern backers. Either way, we can expect to see the new military council denouncing the demonstrators as Islamists to try to garner support from their patrons in the Gulf. The last few years have seen Sudan’s Islamists split, with some joining the opposition and even the protesters.
Another aspect that unites the coup leaders is their promise of continuity and stability. This was the same assurance that al-Bashir traded on in the chaos that followed the Arab Spring in 2011. He knew the rules of the region, would not spring any disagreeable surprises, and could deliver some tangible benefits on issues such as counter-terrorism, migration, and peace in South Sudan. His successors are sending the same message.
But that is a fragile hope. The power settlement among the new ruling cabal is not resolved. The collective is inherently unstable. The Sudan Armed Forces are the biggest group, but their leadership is divided and appears to be indecisive; Ibn Auf is seen as a compromise candidate, the least problematic leader for now. The NISS is smaller, but led by the more able and ambitious Salah Gosh, who may not be content to play a secondary role.
Meanwhile, various paramilitary forces may see an opportunity to obtain a better stake in the dispensation by taking control of provincial cities, where they are stronger than they are in Khartoum. Among these militias, commander Hemeti of the RSF is the most powerful. All these political-military aspirants need money, which is in short supply and will no longer be so ably distributed by al-Bashir. Any paramilitary commander dissatisfied with his lot has no shortage of options for using violence to bargain for a better deal.
As for al-Bashir, the prospects the military council will deliver him to the ICC are zero. They will publicly criticise him for economic mismanagement and corruption, but not his human rights record. Every one of the new military-security cabal are no less responsible for violations. Moreover, they are well aware of one of the key assets that kept al-Bashir in power for so long was his hard-earned reputation for standing by his subordinates. They will want to keep hold of that legacy. They will most probably allow al-Bashir to stay in Sudan and might try him for corruption. Any international brownie points they would gain from handing him to the ICC are insignificant compared to these domestic political calculations.
A second threat to stability will come from the putschists’ clear attempt to abort the democratisation agenda. Sudan’s demonstrators have proven their capacity for mass mobilisation and will not give in without major concessions, of which so far there have been none. The prospect of a massacre in the style of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 remains. Or, one of the security chiefs could instigate chaos so as to justify a crackdown in the name of restoring order.
The opposition faces its biggest test in re-energising its supporters after the high hopes of this week and the crashing disappointment of the military takeover. They are regrouping and preparing for the next, more difficult phase of its campaign. They will face a relentless media barrage, proclaiming the triumphs and promises of the new regime, while accusing opposition leaders of being opportunists and Islamists. The military council will hope that material benefits (cheap bread and fuel) and payoffs will diminish the vigour of the protests.
Ironically, the prospects for democratic transition in the short term were probably greater under al-Bashir, who at least had the capacity for deliberate, directional political change. The new regime will be preoccupied with infighting and consolidation. If the current instability is to be an opportunity for democratisation, it will need external facilitation.
Sudan’s prospects are further complicated by the politics of the region. Al-Bashir had personal links with every Arab country and was able to manage a delicate balancing act. The men who seized power have, individually, close ties to different powers in the Arab world. Many in the army leadership including Gen. Ibn Ouf have close ties to Egypt. The paramilitary Rapid Support Force is deployed in Yemen on the Saudi Arabian payroll. Salah Gosh is closely aligned with the UAE. Some of the Muslim Brother leaders who have been dismissed or imprisoned are close to Qatar and Turkey, and even Iran.
The military council won’t be able to continue Bashir’s balancing act. Instead, Middle Eastern rivalries will probably be played out within the higher ranks of the new regime, accentuating the power struggles and potential instability. It is unlikely that the Islamist regimes in Qatar and Turkey will accept their setback without responding: Sudan was the last place in the Arab world in which Muslim Brothers were in government. Meanwhile, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely vie for the dominant position in terms of the sponsorship of their respective candidates.
The African Union and regional body IGAD have not been relevant in the unfolding events. The AU Commission issued a statement, correctly noting that the takeover is unconstitutional and therefore indicating Sudan will be suspended. This creates a significant contradiction with the position of Egypt, which is the current AU Chair, and which unconditionally welcomed the takeover.
The ‘Troika’ of countries that helped steer Sudan’s peace process 15 years ago – the US, UK and Norway – issued a statement earlier in the week calling for a transition to democracy. This was principally rhetoric, not backed by any substantive engagement. The US’s Arab allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – will press Washington DC to accept the fait accompli. Western countries will call for a more inclusive transitional council and faster moves towards democracy, but as long as there’s no bloodshed on the streets, they’re unlikely to become assertive.
The most positive element in the current situation in Sudan is the extraordinary discipline and determination of large numbers of ordinary Sudanese. They have forced the downfall of a long-standing military ruler and demonstrated that they cannot be governed against their will. Any member of the Sudanese political elite who is able to capitalise on this remarkable demonstration of civic courage should be able to thrive. The new military council doesn’t appear to have any such person: all are focused on short-term power calculations.