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Sudan’s dreams of freedom, peace and justice need putsch protection

Jihad Mashamoun
By Jihad Mashamoun

Doctoral candidate of Middle East Politics within the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter

Posted on Tuesday, 19 November 2019 14:17

Sudan's Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok prepares to address residents during his visit to the camps of El-Fashir in North Darfur, Sudan November 4, 2019. Picture taken November 4, 2019. REUTERS/El Tayyieb Siddig

Why the Islamists who lost power in Sudan may try a putsch against the transitional civilian government – and how it can be stopped

Sudanese have great expectations of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and his government of technocrats that took office on 9 September pledged to deliver his transitional programme of Freedom, Peace and Justice. That was one of which was one of the key slogans of the December 2018 uprising that led to the ousting of President Omar Al-Bashir on 11 April.

Although the agreement between the civilian opposition forces and the military on 5 July, brokered by Ethiopia and the African Union, set up a sovereign council as Sudan’s ultimate ruling body, everyone looks to Hamdok’s predominantly civilian transitional council of ministers to set the pace for political and economic change.

After 30 years of rule by Islamist-military entities run by Al-Bashir and a sprawling security state in which heavily-armed factions jostle for power, the ousted Khartoum regime was fighting against four regional insurgencies while its corruption had nearly bankrupted the national economy.

With peace in mind, Hamdoks’s government opened negotiations on 14 September with the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces[SRF], an historic opposition force.

And on 18 October it started talking to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and Army led by Abdel Azziz Al-Hilu. The government is also trying to start talks with the Sudanese Liberation Army [SLM] of Abdel Wahid Al-Nur in Darfur.

Hamdok’s team are generally seen as negotiating in good faith but the causes of the rebellions in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains have deep and complex historical roots, dating back to the depredations of British colonial forces and Egyptian interlopers. They will not be settled within the transitional government’s three-year timespan.

Economic issues are also critical to hopes for political stability. Sudan could have to wait as long as a year before it can secure debt relief and fresh financing from the World Bank and the IMF.

Meanwhile Hamdok, a veteran economist, and Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Badawi launched a 200-day emergency programme on 8 October.

Its focus is on macro-economic stabilization, maximising revenues from commodity exports, cutting youth unemployment, and moving from managing emergency humanitarian aid to securing development aid, and building the capacity of the government’s institutions.

As demands for judicial reform have grown, Hamdok’s government, with the agreement of the sovereign council chaired by former military leader General Abdul-Fatteh Burhan, appointed the well-regarded Nemat Abdullah Khair as chief of justice and Taj-Elsir El-Hibir as prosecutor general on 10 October.

However, as Hamdok’s transitional government makes slow progress, rumours have surfaced about a coup plot led by Islamist politicians and allies in the military and security.

The plotters want to use disappointment with the Hamdok government to win support for a putsch.

However, they are likely to fail – both because there is still strong popular support for Hamdok’s programme and the revolutionaries that helped oust the Al Bashir regime in April.

The Economy: Clashing Priorities

It was the economic privations caused by the Omar Al-Bashir regime that won the revolutionaries support across the country and led to the mass protests outside the military headquarters in Khartoum in April.

Senior regime figures such as Army commander Gen Burhan, Intelligence chief Salah Gosh and Rapid Support Forces Commander Hamdan Dagalo also known as ‘Hemeti’ calculated that if they forced out Al-Bashir, they could restructure the regime, secure foreign support but retain enough economic weight to win the elections due in 2022.

They were also obsessed with getting the US to end the inclusion of Sudan on its list of states sponsoring terrorism. The US had done this in 1993 because of the close ties between the ruling National Islamic Front and Usama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida movement.

Sudan’s inclusion on the list has blocked development aid, debt relief and investment, according to Nazar Abdel Azziz, a leader of opposition’s Forces for Freedom and Change.

The refusal of the US to reconsider has forced the Islamist factions to rethink their plan. If Sudan had been taken off the list, it would have relaxed pressure on the military and security factions, and their extensive financial holdings. Now it seems the Islamist factions don’t want to wait until elections due in 2022 to retake power.

They want to take advantage of the growing economic hardships. There are shortages, long queues for basic commodities and foodstuffs, transport fares are going up while basic education and health services are under ever greater pressure.

Manufacturing Insecurity

As this popular frustration grows, supporters of Al-Bashir are trying to use it to weaken the Hamdok government and derail its reforms. Together, security and military agents working with political operatives behind Al-Bashir are known as Sudan’s version of the Deep State. In three decades of Islamist rule in Sudan, they built up far-reaching financial, military and security networks, with tens of thousands of supporters.

It is this Deep State that is running disinformation campaigns about the revolution that ousted Al-Bashir.

It is also trying to stir up opposition to the Hamdok government and the activists that support it, painting the revolution as backed by “anti-Sudanese” forces.

Many think such claims come from the General Intelligence Directorate [GID] established on 29 July out of the old National Intelligence and Security Services [NISS]. Intelligence operatives are a bastion of support for the Islamist factions, prominent in the old regime, according to Abbas Hamzeh, another leader of the FFC.

Another propagandist for the Islamists is Abdel Hai Yousef, a Salafist preacher, who rails against women being allowed to play football and decries any attempt to diminish the influence of religion on policy. Yousef was close to Al-Bashir and was said to have told him that Koranic teachings would justify a leader killing a third of the population to sustain a regime that upheld Islamic values. At a rally in Khartoum in mid-October, thousands of supporters offered Yousef an oath of allegiance.

Then on the anniversary of the 21 October Revolution of 1964 which toppled General Ibrahim Abboud’s military regime, young supporters of the opposition FFC were on a celebratory march they were attacked by student supporters of Omar Al-Bashir based at the University of Al-Zaim Al-Azhari. Investigators later found weapons catches at the university

Threats are also coming from the Popular Defence Forces [PDF] who were founded as part of Al-Bashir’s regime in 1989. It started out as an Islamist militia, armed and trained by state security to fight opposition forces in what is now South Sudan. They were also sent in to repress local dissent in the north, with great brutality,

After Hamdok announced on 6 November that Al-Bashir will eventually be handed over to face trial at the International Criminal Court in. the Hague, the PDF threatened military action: “…anyone attempting to prosecute Brother Bashir outside Sudan will face what they did not expect. This means there would be a mass fire that will spare no one. A word to the wise….”

These Islamist factions – in the military, state security, militias and with hardline imams – may be operating separately but many fear they will join forces to trigger chaos, mass demonstrations, and a social breakdown that Islamists officers could use to justify a putsch.

A Rash Decision

There are at least three important groups that would oppose a takeover by Islamist officers.

The first and most powerful in military terms is General Hamdan Daglo also known as Hemeti, who commands the Rapid Support Forces.

Although he is accused of mass slaughter in Darfur and held responsible for organising the attacks which killed over 120 demonstrators in Khartoum on 3 June, Hemeti is trying to build up a constituency to run for the Presidency in 2022.

Commanding the best equipped military force in the country, nurturing close security ties with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and tremendously wealthy from his seizure of gold mines in Darfur, Hemeti is distrusted by Islamist officers who blame his personal betrayal for the fall of the Al-Bashir regime in April.

Until then Al-Bashir had put his faith in Hermeti, calling him “my son”.

There is also a faction of progressive junior officers within the military who have supported the revolution since the beginning and have tried to protect activists. Since the exit of Al-Bashir, they have used social media to push for political and security reforms.

That want to re-professionalize the military with promotion based on merit not espousal of Islamist doctrine.

Then there are the opposition and civic structures which have underpinned the revolutionary movement over the past five years. At the base are the resistance committees, local organisations providing services and support to citizens struggling with deprivation and repression by the regime. The national organisation of doctors, engineers, lawyers, academics, journalists and businesspeople developed into the Sudan Professionals Association, which represented a broad-based opposition to the Al-Bashir regime.

These groups were able to sustain civil-disobedience, mobilising Sudanese in large numbers, organising mass demonstration like that of 30 June which sent a message to the military that the opposition would not back down, no matter what was thrown at them.

However one assesses the prospects of an Islamist putsch, the Hamdok government should not ignore the threat but learn some lessons from it.

  1. It should not spend energy on trying to get the US to take Sudan off the terror list. Instead, it should prioritise the raising of finance and development of economic recovery strategies that are independent of US support. That would rule out, for example, the World Bank and the IMF, which have a chequered record in Sudan.
  2. That the government and the FFC should establish discussion forums to find out about people’s priorities and expectations of economic change in the transition period.
  3. The government and the FFC should work closely with the SPA and the resistance committees to ensure that any attempt at an Islamist putsch would meet mass and coordinated opposition, rendering the country ungovernable.
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