Sudan’s revolution enters end game

By Patrick Smith, in Abidjan
Posted on Wednesday, 10 April 2019 17:00, updated on Thursday, 11 April 2019 08:46

Sudanese demonstrators ride on a military truck as they chant slogans during a protest rally demanding Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to step down, outside Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan April 9, 2019. REUTERS

The clock is ticking on Al-Bashir, as dissident officers back opposition protests at military HQ.

At least 600,000 demonstrators are camping outside Alqiyada al Amaah –  the giant military headquarters just north of Khartoum International Airport – for the sixth day running to demand the exit of President Omar al-Bashir.

“Since 6 April, the 34th anniversary of the people’s overthrow of the [Jaafar] Nimeiri regime, opposition groups from across the country have gathered outside the military headquarters calling for political change. It’s a peaceful revolution,” Dalia El Roubi, an activist with the Sudan Congress Party tells The Africa Report.

Political and cultural revolution

These are the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Sudan. Over half the protestors outside the military HQ are women, who suffered disproportionately from the Al-Bashir regime and its Islamist strictures on dress and gender rights.

Two images sum up the opposition’s growing power:

  • Alaa Salaa, a 22-year-old engineering student at Khartoum University, dressed in a white robe and head covering stands on a car with her right hand outstretched, index finger pointing to the sky, leading the crowd outside the military HQ in chant calling for a revolution.
  • A second image shows an army lieutenant in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators outside the ministry of defence assuring them that his fellow junior officers will protect them. Other footage shows a group of officers driving slowly alongside the crowds of oppositionists distributing bottles of cold water. Suddenly, a man in the crowd rushes up and embraces one of the officers.

This opposition has drawn its strength from the regions. The first protests started in the city of Damazine last December. Protest leaders are determined to keep together a united national movement against the Khartoum regime, said El Roubi.

The key question is whether this show of opposition strength will persuade power brokers in the regime to open negotiations for a political transition.

  • Should they refuse, there is a risk of a power struggle within the armed forces, with junior officers and the rank and file siding with the opposition protestors against Al-Bashir.

Negotiated change: Some activists in the Freedom and Change Alliance, which includes the Sudan Professionals Association, opposition parties and rebel factions, say there are talks about a transition similar to the one in Algeria last week. There, General Ghaid Al Salah, a regime stalwart, persuaded President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stand down to avoid bloodshed and instability.

Many are watching Lieutenant General Kamal Abdul-Marouf, the military’s Joint Chief of Staff, to see if he could play such a role. So far, his public utterances have just reiterated that the country’s security forces – army, police and intelligence – are 100% united.

Divide and rule

In fact, the regime’s survival strategy under Al-Bashir has depended on the creation of rival armed units and parallel security structures.

These military divisions now threaten Al Bashir’s survival.

Worsening economic conditions, which have driven national protests over the past four months, are hitting rank-and-file soldiers along with junior officers.

  • But the military high command has benefited greatly from Al Bashir’s declaration of a state of emergency in February. After that, top military officers took over state ministries and companies, as well as regional governorships.
  • With growing support from dissident army and police officers, the demonstrators have withstood attacks from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a pro-regime militia drawn from the Janjaweed units in Darfur, in the west of the country.

Al-Bashir loyalists open fire

When officers from NISS and RSF units opened fire on demonstrators, as well as throwing stun grenades and tear gas cannisters into the crowd on the nights of 7 and 8 April, soldiers from the Sudan Armed Forces fired back, protecting the civilians.

At the same time, soldiers opened the main gates of the military HQ – a vast area that includes the headquarters of the army, the air force and navy as well as a residence used by Al-Bashir – to allow the demonstrators to shelter insider the compound.

  • Since then, Salah Gosh, director of the NISS, has ordered armed units still under his control to cordon off the vast demonstration along Africa Road, which leads to the military HQ.

Tepid international response: The United States, the United Kingdom and Norway, which make up the troika negotiating migration and security agreements with Khartoum, issued a statement on 8 April calling for Al-Bashir’s regime to open talks with the opposition and for all sides to desist from using lethal force.

  • For those opposition groups, long critical of what they see as the West’s self-interested engagement with Khartoum, this is too little, too late.

Bottom line: Despite an attempt by top United Nations and US officials to persuade Al-Bashir to stand down in return for a suspension of his indictment for genocide at the International Criminal Court, international actions look unlikely to change the regime’s power calculus for now. The protestors may change the balance.

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