Sudan: Uncertain weeks ahead as protesters oppose imposition of martial rule

The military plans to rule Sudan for two years until 'fair and clean' elections are held

Members of the Sudanese military gather in a street in central Khartoum on April 11, 2019, after one of Africa's longest-serving presidents was toppled by the army. Organisers of protests for the ouster of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir rejected his toppling by the army Thursday as a "coup conducted by the regime" and vowed to keep up their campaign.
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In the 29 years he led Sudan, Omar Al Bashir – with the help of his Islamist backers – has ruined the economy, earned an international genocide indictment, lost about a third of the Afro-Arab nation's territory and consistently used brutal force to suppress dissent.

His day of reckoning came on Thursday, when he was removed from power by the military following months of deadly street protests against his rule.

Now that the final curtain has fallen on one of Sudan's darkest chapters since independence in 1956, the question of how a leader almost universally viewed as authoritarian, inept and corrupt managed to stay in power for so long and what finally brought about his downfall.

"The economy was the final straw that broke the back of the regime, which lost its legitimacy years ago but survived because the opposition was too fractured and weak to remove him," said Hany Raslan, an expert on Sudan from Egypt's Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"At the end, it was a palace coup that removed excess weight, that is Bashir, and will reproduce the same regime under new banners," said Mr Raslan.

Protests against Mr Bashir's three-decade rule began in December, initially over price hikes and shortages of basic items but soon shifted to calls for him to step down. The unrest was specifically in response to an increase in the price of bread, a staple for most Sudanese, and an acute shortage of fuel that saw motorists waiting overnight at petrol stations in the hope of filling up their cars the next day. There has also been a shortage of cash, which prompted authorities to place ceilings on cash withdrawals from banks.

The latest economic crisis is rooted chiefly in the secession of the mainly animist and Christian south in 2011, a move that deprived Sudan of most of its oil wealth and came a year after the International Criminal Court indicated Mr Bashir for genocide in the western Darfur region.

That Sudan has been something of a pariah state the last decade or so – it remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism – did not help the economy either, but the latest crisis was as much about ordinary Sudanese struggling to make ends meet as about them watching the Islamist businessmen patronised and protected by the regime profiteering from cold-bloodedly manipulating prices to maximise their gain.

"They were like predators who arrogantly dared anyone to hold them accountable," said Mr Raslan who, like many commentators, lamented the fate of a Sudan that has for so long promised to be the region's bread basket but could not at the end produce enough bread to feed its population.

A 74-year-old general-turned-president, Mr Bashir's version of political Islam has plunged Sudan into one crisis after another. Fresh from a combat tour in southern Sudan during the north-south civil war, Mr Bashir seized power in a 1989 coup and immediately embarked on an ill-fated campaign with strong religious overtones to defeat the southern rebels. After initial battlefield successes, the rebels regained the initiative and seized more territory.

When ethnic Africans in Darfur rose up in arms in 2003 to press demands for a fair share of national resources, Mr Bashir again gave the conflict a religious slant as he recruited tribesmen to loyal militias that committed large-scale atrocities against civilians, again in the name of religion.

Until his final days in power Mr Bashir did not seem to tire from repeating that Sudan's "Islamic experiment" has created enemies who have been trying to undermine his country's "stability." He accused "agents" and "opportunists" for the latest wave of unrest and pointed his finger at unnamed foreign powers.

"Throughout, the regime claimed that its intention was to install and enshrine Islamic ethics, but what it really did was shed blood, sow divisions and commit genocide. They have been downright immoral," said Mr Raslan.

But if Mr Bashir is finally gone – the military says he has been detained at a "safe place" – his legacy is likely to continue to bedevil Sudan.

In what appears to be a typical palace coup and a soft exit for Mr Bashir, Defence Minister Awad Mohammed Ibn Ouf who led the military takeover said the armed forces would rule the country for two years before "fair and clean" elections are held. He also announced the suspension of the country's constitution and dismissal of the central government along with provincial administrations.

A three-month state of emergency and a month-long nighttime curfew will immediately go into force, he said. All political detainees would be freed, he promised.

The military takeover was immediately rejected by the Association of Professional Unions, the driving force behind the street protests which continues to demand that a civilian transitional government rule until elections are held.

"The statement does not represent the objectives of the revolution. It's a military coup intended to bypass the revolution," said the association's Sara Abdul-Jaleel.

"Awad Ibn Ouf is nothing but another figure from the national salvation government," she said, alluding to the name Mr Bashir gave to the 1989 military coup he led and his successive administrations.

"Getting rid of Bashir is not the solution to Sudan's problems," said Ms Abdul-Jaleel, whose movement on Thursday urged protesters to maintain their sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, until a civilian government is appointed.

"This is national salvation regime number two," a distraught Abdul-Jaleel said in a telephone interview.

Divergent views over what is best for Sudan going forward could produce several scenarios, says Mohammed Anis Salem, a retired career UN diplomat and a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

"The military could produce one of its own as the next president or the rule of the army becomes overwhelmed with the country's many challenges and decides to hand over the reins of power to political parties and trade unions before the two-year deadline," said Mr Salem, who served in Sudan during his UN career. "The third option is the most dangerous and that is for this conflict to spiral out of control and take the country to the path of chaos and violence."

That the military will attempt to sideline the protesters and their leadership to retain power has been widely anticipated, although it is too early to predict with any clarity how the situation will play out in the coming weeks. However, there was enough in Lt Gen Ibn Ouf's televised statement to indicate that the military does not see the leadership of the protesters as a key partner in post-Bashir Sudan and that the military might resort to harsh measures to get protesters off the streets.

History, perhaps unfairly, is on the side of the military in Sudan.

Sudan's spells of democratic rule have consistently proven short lived. There was a democratically elected government from 1956 until 1958, when the military seized power and held it until a popular uprising unseated it in 1964. A freely elected government took the reins that year, but was toppled by the military again in 1969. Military rule lasted until another popular uprising toppled it in 1985. Another elected government took office the following year but was overthrown by Mr Bashir's coup three years later.

Throughout these years, democratically elected governments proved ineffective, failing to resolve any of the country’s major issues, whether ending civil wars or overhauling the economy. Military rule, on the other hand, often initially showed promise, but was soon dogged by corruption and oppression.

Commenting on Thursday's events in Sudan, s prominent rights lawyer in Egypt offered a grim interpretation of Sudan's chronic shift between democratic and military rule and the sacrifices made by its people to win their freedom.

"One dictator departs and hands over to a new dictator as if the role of the people is simply to sacrifice their children as an offering to facilitate the transfer of power among tyrants," wrote Negad Borai.

So far more than 100 Sudanese are reported to have died in the unrest, while thousands have been injured or detained.

"It's like our people are no more than a bond that changes hands from one master to another with all that they hope for is that the new master will be kinder than his predecessor."