In Sudanese Coup Plot, Ominous Signs for the Regime

6 MINS READNov 29, 2012 | 11:30 GMT
In Sudanese Coup Plot, Ominous Signs for the Regime
Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in Khartoum on Nov. 15

Late Nov. 21, 13 Sudanese military officers were arrested in Khartoum on charges of planning a coup against President Omar al Bashir. The suspects include several high-ranking Sudanese officials, including the country's former intelligence chief, the former head of military intelligence and a general who helped al Bashir stage the 1989 coup that brought him to power.

The Sudanese regime's hold on power has appeared remarkably resilient despite years of external pressure, the Arab Spring and even the secession of South Sudan in July 2011 that saw Sudan lose control over its most valuable oil fields. However, the accumulating stress from these issues along with the government's unwillingness to address the concerns of the country's opposition groups appear to be weighing on the regime. Now, the alleged coup plot indicates discontent has also spread within the military, which has long served as al Bashir's power base. The Sudanese president has said he will not run for re-election in 2015, but his regime now faces the possibility of prolonged infighting that could threaten the country's stability.

Before the reports of the coup plot, the Sudanese regime's facade of unity was shaken in early November during the National Conference of the Islamic Movement, a meeting that takes place every four years in Khartoum. The meeting is intended to serve as a forum for policy discussion between the regime and various representatives of the Sudanese public. This year, the opposition Popular Congress Party boycotted the conference and called for a change in national leadership. Some who attended the forum used it to criticize the regime.

In the past, criticism of al Bashir's government was contained to the Popular Congress Party, but it has now expanded to include other groups and individuals, even those who had been close to al Bashir and played a critical role in supporting his regime. Their complaints range from government corruption to anger over the regime's decision to force the country to endure sanctions rather than hand al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court. There is also a desire for new leadership at a time when many countries in the Arab world have ousted long-ruling autocrats.

Al Bashir previously said he would not stand for election in 2015, which caused many to look to the November conference as a possible setting for the regime to unveil his successor. This did not happen, which could indicate that al Bashir and his inner circle are insecure about the stability of the regime and intend to hold on to power as long as they can while concealing and thus preventing the opposition from attacking the succession plans.

Also, al Bashir's short time left in office puts a strain on the opposition, which fears the result of agreements the president is negotiating, many of which include concessions to South Sudan that will remain in place long after al Bashir has left office. This forces the opposition to increase pressure now instead of waiting for al Bashir to leave and for the agreements to take effect without an easy way to undo them.

The regime's power base has long been the Sudanese military. Al Bashir himself commanded a paratrooper brigade when he took power through a coup. Al Bashir led the coup with the support of the army and civilian Islamist groups led by Hassan al-Turabi, who now leads the Popular Congress Party. Bashir and his allies dropped al-Turabi in 1999 when they concluded they no longer needed the support of civilian Islamists to stay in power.

Within the military, the airborne division and its attached special operations forces battalion serve as the president's most trusted military force, but al Bashir also needs support from the rest of the military and security services to control the country. This support has eroded since the secession of South Sudan. The inability to keep the army occupied with fighting South Sudan and decline in morale after allowing South Sudan to secede peacefully has reportedly caused discontent among officers and their troops. Officers are not only contesting government decisions through political organizations, they have also started to petition al Bashir about the regime's corruption and poor working conditions for soldiers.

The alleged coup plotters were detained only days after the National Conference of the Islamic Movement concluded, and regardless of whether the coup plot was real, the arrest of those 13 officers removed from the political stage several people who could pose a threat to the regime. Among those arrested was Salah Gosh, the former head of the National Security and Intelligence Service who later became a presidential adviser, as well as Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Ouf, the former head of military intelligence.

These two individuals worked together closely under al Bashir, especially when running the campaigns against rebels in Sudan's Darfur region, and have recently voiced concerns about the direction the Sudanese regime is taking concerning South Sudan's secession and internal politics. Gosh is also known as a supporter of links between the United States and Sudan on issues such as counterterrorism and security cooperation. Another significant figure reportedly arrested is Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim Abd al-Jalil, who helped al Bashir take power in 1989. He has extensive combat experience in South Sudan and more recently volunteered to command the force that took back the Heglig oil field.

These officers, as well as others who were arrested, were part of the command structure of the Sudanese security apparatus and would normally not be expected to be operating or campaigning against al Bashir. The wide-ranging nature of the arrests, which included high-ranking officers from different intelligence services, commanders of armies that fought in South Sudan and commanders of forces on the border with Chad, shows that this is not a limited core of dissatisfied officers but rather reflects discontent across numerous units and encompassing multiple levels within the military. Some are members of the Al Saeohoon organization, a nonpartisan political organization that also counts al-Turabi as a member. Together with the youth movement of al Bashir's National Congress Party, Al Saeohoon has been calling for a restoration of Islamic values as well as new national leadership.

Sudan's Population Density

Sudan's Population Density

The military is the main tool through which al Bashir's regime controls Sudan's predominantly Muslim core territory along the Nile and projects power into the country's outer regions and beyond. Maintaining the support of the Muslim core is critical for the government, whereas controlling outer regions like Darfur or even its former territory that now makes up South Sudan are not as important for governing the country. Since the dismissal of the regime's main civilian Islamist element in 1999, the military's role has only grown more important for preserving stability in this area. 

Until the recent arrests brought the armed forces' allegiance into question, al Bashir had been able to rely on the military's support during his presidency. With al Bashir planning to leave office in 2015, choosing a successor who can also command the loyalty of the military and thus ensure stability will be a top concern for the government. The arrest of the alleged coup plotters could be the regime's attempt to shape the succession fight and marginalize figures who it believes could pose a threat to the current regime and to al Bashir's chosen successor.

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