Sudan crackdown reveals military's limit on extent of change

Analysis: deadly raid on protest site casts doubt over further progress in transition talks with civilian leaders

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Monday's deadly raid by security forces on a protest encampment outside Sudan's armed forces headquarters in Khartoum may have wiped out the little trust left between protest leaders and the military. It also laid bare the generals' reluctance to see genuine change in one of Africa's largest and most troubled nations.

This does not bode well for Sudan, an Afro-Arab nation plagued by decades of civil strife under Omar Al Bashir. The general-turned-president for over 29 years was removed by the military a little under two months ago.

Already, the raid by a combined police, army and paramilitary force on the sit-in has triggered the kind of response that is virtually certain to plunge Sudan into a new cycle of violence and instability that may not end any time soon.

The protest leaders are calling for indefinite civil disobedience and mass street demonstrations to bring down the Transitional Military Council that has ruled the country since Al Bashir was ousted on April 11. Calling it a massacre, they said more than 30 protesters were killed and more than a 100 injured by late evening. The hours after the raid saw clashes between protesters and security forces across Khartoum and there were reports of violence in some provinces.

"These events are deeply regrettable in that they are an expression of the unwillingness of a major national force to accept change," said Amany Al Taweel, a Sudan expert at Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt. "They also show the magnitude of the interests that the military is protecting and, generally, open Sudan up for worrying developments with no guarantee for stability."

The protests began on April 6 to force the president out, but they continued chiefly to force the generals to hand over power to a civilian-led government.

Negotiations yielded an agreement on the composition of a legislature and a cabinet, but the talks foundered over the leadership and make-up of a sovereign council to operate as a collective head of state. The generals are insisting that one of their own heads the council and that the majority of the 11-seat body comes from the military. The protest leaders insist otherwise.

Throughout, the movement leaders argued that they did not stage months of protests and made sacrifices – nearly 100 killed and thousands injured or detained and tortured – to replace one military leader with a group of generals. The military, they say, had a duty to remove Mr Al Bashir to protect unarmed civilians from the deadly force used by his security agencies. The military has now threatened to called for an election within a year. That vote, the protest leaders worry, will almost certainly return Al Bashir loyalists to power.

"The military wants a superficial change when the other side wants a drastic one and no bridge could be built between the two due in part to the lack of negotiating experience by the protest leaders," Ms Al Taweel said.

The deadlock spilled into public exchanges of accusations which suggested that the patience of military, which has gained significant confidence from the backing of several regional powers, was running out and that breaking up the was imminent.

A statement on Saturday from the Sudanese Professionals Association said: "We have evidence that makes us believe that the military council is methodically planning and working for breaking up the peaceful sit-in using excessive force." It proved prophetic. The SPA is a powerful group of trade unions which has spearheaded the protests since December.

Throughout the negotiations, Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and deputy chairman of the military council, has been more belligerent of the generals. The genesis of RSF is from a brutal tribal militia used by Mr Al Bashir's government to fight rebels in the western Darfur region into a powerful state paramilitary force. The forces are deployed across Khartoum, giving the general much leverage, and is blamed by activists for a series of deadly shootings of protesters over the past two weeks.

Gen Dagalo has publicly questioned the extent of support enjoyed by the protest leaders, accused them of being foreign agents and alleged the presence of "criminal elements" among the sit-in protesters. On Monday, some activists said his forces were taking the lead in the assault on the protesters.

"It looks like the military council wanted to make the point that it's not the weaker party," said Attiya Issawi, an Egyptian analyst. "It may be an attempt to pressure the forces of freedom and change to show more flexibility in the negotiations," he said. "But their action will have consequences; more tension, more differences and more distrust between the two sides."