Cautious optimism in Sudan as new head of transition vows civilian rule

Those who know his career say Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan has no personal political ambitions

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Sudanese protestors and observers are cautiously optimistic about the future of Sudan now that Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan is heading the country’s transitional military council.

Lt Gen Al Burhan assumed leadership of the transitional council after Gen Awad Ibn Auf – Defense Minister, first vice president and an avowed Islamist – announced his resignation Friday night. The resignation came just one day after he took the helm from long-time President Omar Al Bashir. The news was widely celebrated by Sudanese protestors.

In his first televised speech on Saturday, Lt Gen Al Burhan – the third most senior army general under Mr Al Bashir’s regime – said that the military imposed curfew established the day before would be lifted. He also promised to 'uproot' Mr Al Bashir's regime and release all prisoners that were jailed during the state of emergency, which Al Bashir imposed to deter a popular revolt that eventually deposed him.

At least 16 people were killed and 20 injured by stray bullets at protests and sit-ins on Thursday and Friday, a police spokesman said. Government buildings and private property were also attacked, spokesman Hashem Ali added.

Most importantly, Lt Gen Al Burhan vowed to establish a civilian transitional government after military officials meet and consult with civil society groups and political parties. The transitional period, he promised, would last for two years.

Groups leading the protest said they had accepted an invitation by the army to meet to discuss the new administration.

Mr Al Bashir was overthrown on Thursday, culminating four months of protests against his long-term rule. Starting out as demonstrations against rising food prices, unemployment and repression, the movement quickly turned to call for an end to Mr Al Bashir’s three-decade rule.

Maisoun Badawi, a Sudanese American economist with relatives that served in the military with Lt Gen Burhan, said that she believes that the new head of the transitional military council doesn’t have a hidden agenda to rule Sudan.

“Burhan is a pure military guy and he has no political affiliations. I’m confident in him,” she told The National. “Before he became a visible figure [over the weekend], he was walking over to soldiers that were protecting protestors [from security forces] and talking with them.”

“His notions are good, and he is affirming to people that he is a nationalist who is concerned with the wellbeing of Sudan,” Ms Badawi added.

Despite the general optimism, not all protestors on the ground are as confident in Lt Gen Burhan. Hamid Murtada, an activist who was jailed for two days before being released on Thursday, said that many demonstrators were deeply suspicious of Lt Gen Burhan following his speech.

“He said there will be a civilian government, but he gave us no details of how and when,” Mr Murtada told The National. “People are not fully against him, but they are not satisfied either.”

One possible concern is that Lt Gen Burhan is suspected to have received an endorsement from The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is widely seen as a rebranded version of the Janjaweed militias that perpetrated the genocide in Darfur. The relationship began with RSF leader General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, also known by the nickname Hametti, when Lt Gen Burhan was tasked with overseeing the deployment of Sudanese forces as part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

But Basheer Alay, who is also participating in the sit-in, said that he is just relieved that Gen Ibn Auf is gone. In his eyes, Gen Ibn Auf was a central figure to Mr Al Bashir’s regime and his takeover risked sabotaging the uprising.

“I’m becoming more comfortable with the situation right now,” he said. “The quick fall of Ibn Auf was our first victory. Now Sudan is heading in the right direction and we can prepare for real change.”

But some activists warn that real change isn’t possible until justice is served. Several demonstrators told The National that they were dismayed to hear that Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh – commonly known as Salah Gosh – who headed the National Intelligence Security Service (NISS), resigned from the spy agency on Saturday without apparent punishment.

Mr Gosh is a man of many paradoxes.  He was one of the central figures that turned Sudan into an Al Qaeda base during the 1990s and was the mastermind behind the genocide in Darfur in 2003.

Yet despite a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court, the US administration of George W Bush collaborated closely with Mr Gosh who in turn supplied the CIA with information about terrorist suspects as part of the “War on Terror.”

Under Mr Gosh’s watch, NISS was also notorious for hunting Sudanese human rights defenders in exile. Worst still for many on the ground, his men were the first to shoot and kill protestors once the unrest against Mr Bashir started in December.

An exiled activist, who asked not to disclose her name for fear of reprisals, said that Mr Gosh shouldn’t have the right to resign without being arrested.

“This is all just a game,” she said. “Gosh is just stepping down to protect himself. Nobody will arrest him soon.”

Dr Nuha Ali, a protestor who is part of the Sudanese Professionals Association that is leading the protests, agreed. Last January, she was arrested by NISS and forced to sleep in a freezing room where she says she was maltreated and beaten.

“His security apparatus was the one that arrested protestors at the very beginning [of the revolution],” she said. “He must be tried in court. That is what the people want.”