Sudan’s military a crucial factor in what happens next as pressure mounts on Al Bashir

With soldiers refusing to move against demonstrators but officers staying loyal to the regime, some fear civil war

Demonstrators salute soldiers during a protest in Khartoum, Sudan April 10, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/@THAWRAGYSD/via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Pressure is mounting for Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir to step down as protests continued on Wednesday in the capital Khartoum and the US, Britain and Norway add their voice to calls for political transition.

Protests entered their fifth day with demonstrators staging a sit-in in front of the army headquarters.

Mahmoud Lain was one of the tens of thousands of men, women, and children who began camping outside the military offices on Saturday to demand an end to Mr Al Bashir’s three-decade rule.

Mr Lain said that he ran for cover when Sudanese security stormed the sit-in on Sunday.

"The security forces were shooting at us with live bullets," he told The National. "I saw several people get shot in the back as they were running away."

Protest organisers say 21 demonstrators have been killed since the start of the five-day sit-in.

“The army intervened after a half hour,” Mr Lain said. “They shot live bullets in the air to push back government militias and protect us.”

After months of unrest, Sudanese soldiers are defying orders to crack down on demonstrators, pitting them against their commanders and government security services.

Protesters say they welcome the protection but fear that the country could slip into civil war if the clashes continue.

Sadiq Al Mahdi, a Sudanese political leader prominent in the opposition movement, called for "a select military command" to negotiate a transition towards democracy.

The three western nations released a statement on Tuesday evening calling on Mr Al Bashir to step down.

"The time has come for the Sudanese authorities to respond to these popular demands in a serious way," their embassies said. "The Sudanese authorities must now respond and deliver a credible plan for this political transition."

The sit-in began on April 6 to mark the 34th anniversary of the 1985 coup that overthrew the brutal regime of president Jaafar Nimeri.

That led to an elected government, which ruled for four years before Mr Al Bashir seized power in a coup of his own.

Just as in 1985, protesters are again urging the army to side with them.

So far the military has been walking a fine line. It said it would not use force to disperse protests but also affirmed its loyalty to Mr Al Bashir.

On Monday, Awad Ibn Auf, the Minister of Defence, told state media that the military would not be divided.

Mr ibn Auf said he appreciated the reason for people taking to the streets but the military would not allow a breakdown in security.

Despite the promise not to use force, civilians still fear state-backed militias and Sudan’s National Intelligence Security Service, which has shot and killed protesters since demonstrations began on December 19.

A committee of doctors backing the protests said that 21 had been killed since Saturday, including five soldiers, and 150 wounded.

Saif Al Yazal, a political exile in Sweden who is working with activists in Sudan to monitor casualties, said 11 protesters had been killed. Protest organisers say at least 70 have died since December 19.

Jehanne Henry, associate director for Africa at Human Rights Watch, said the clashes over the weekend were alarming.

"The number of protesters gathering outside the army headquarters is growing and people feel like they have momentum," Ms Henry told The National.

“But if clashes continue the situation could get awful. What happens next is really going to depend on how the army positions itself.”

Sudan’s People Liberation Movement-North, an outlawed political party whose armed wing controls the Nuba Mountains and the province of South Kordofan, is watching the situation carefully.

Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans during a rally in front of the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum on April 10, 2019. Thousands of protesters have been camping outside the military complex housing Bashir's official residence in Khartoum since April 6, braving tear gas and deadly gun shots from security services in defiance of a state of emergency banning all such demonstrations. The army, which has steered clear of intervening in the clashes since the start of the anti-government protests in December, has so far stood on the sidelines.  / AFP / -

Its secretary general, Amar Aoun, told The National that many soldiers had relatives in the protests, which is why they were defying orders to crack down on the sit-in.

Mr Aoun predicts that Mr Al Bashir will use his most loyal troops to cling to power, which could result in further clashes with soldiers.

“As long as Al Bashir is in power, the entire country risks drifting into chaos,” he said.

“The SPLM-N has no forces outside of our liberated areas but if the situation gets out of control then we will decide if we should get involved.”

Protesters hope that most of the army will side with the movement, which could compel the state-backed militias and security force to abandon Mr Al Bashir, rather than start a civil war.

The scarier scenario for all is an all-out conflict. In a bid to ease tension, police ordered officers not to move against protests on Tuesday.

“We call on God to preserve the security and calm of our country and to unite the Sudanese people for an agreement that would support the peaceful transition of power,” a police statement said.

One protester, Raphael, said the police statement was encouraging but stressed that the fate of the revolution was still in the army’s hands.

"Everyone knows that all the big generals in the military are allied with the regime but we hope everyone below them will side with demonstrators," Raphael said.

Some protesters are bracing for the worst. But Mr Lain said he was prepared to take up arms if Mr Al Bashir decided to fight to the end.

“All of us may have to fight,” he said. “The army is divided and I think we will keep being attacked by Bashir’s militias.”