Sudan's President Finds Himself on Shaky Ground

5 MINS READApr 9, 2019 | 20:17 GMT
Sudanese protesters rally in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum on April 8, 2019.

Sudanese protesters rally in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum on April 8, 2019. Amid continuing protests and a dire economy, President Omar al Bashir's party might be ready to cut him loose.

(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

In the heart of Khartoum, momentum is growing against Sudan's strongman. The ongoing protests to oust President Omar al Bashir are not only unprecedented in scale and duration, but also in attracting the support of some regular army units. On April 8, soldiers stationed near the protests engaged in clashes with other security forces aiming to crack down on demonstrators. On the morning of April 9, security forces ended a brief lull by renewing their attempt to disperse protesters, only to provoke similar resistance by regular army forces, resulting in fresh firefights. Amid these divisions in the military, the police have also ordered a halt to interventions against protesters.

The Big Picture

Since December 2018, Sudan has been witnessing sustained protests. While the demonstrations initially focused on economic grievances such as fuel and food shortages and increasing prices, the movement has developed into a direct challenge to the rule of President Omar al Bashir. Most recently, protesters have begun tailoring their appeal to the country's security forces in an effort to tip the balance against al Bashir.

At this point, however, it is unclear how far the regular army will go to support the protesters or how much sympathy the movement actually enjoys in the armed forces. The army, in the end, has essentially sought to remain on the fence: It has not undertaken any action to expand control in Khartoum, yet it has also not moved to depose the government, as protesters are demanding. Instead, the forces have only acted defensively outside the army headquarters, one of the main sites of the demonstrations.

How Deep Are the Splits in the Security Services?

Sudan's regular army is a major branch of the Sudanese government, but it does not provide the muscle that underpins al Bashir's control of Sudan. For that, the president has relied much more on the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), as well as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — essentially the former Janjaweed militia, which played a major role in the Darfur conflict and now functions as al Bashir's personal guard. The latter forces have received better equipment and greater priority in terms of payment than the army has.

While these factors increase the likelihood that the regular army's dissatisfaction with the government will grow — to the extent that it could even become an active opponent — the NISS and the RSF are likely to continue providing strong support to al Bashir. Even in this bedrock of support, however, cracks have been emerging, as evidenced by comments from the commander of the RSF, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Hemetti, who lent some support to the protests.

If Sudan's ruling party decides to jettison al Bashir, it would likely embark upon an internal transition plan that would amount to a slow-moving palace coup.

What Would a Transition Plan Look Like?

While Oslo, Washington and London are calling on Khartoum to present a political transition plan, it is not clear what such a plan would look like — or even if it would work. Al Bashir and his party, the National Congress (NCP), have offered to enter talks with opposition groups, but they are unlikely to offer concessions that would fundamentally alter the structure of the government, the party's institutional strength, or the country's intelligence and security apparatus.

Instead, the NCP will likely debate whether continuing with al Bashir ultimately presents a liability; if the party did decide to jettison the longtime leader, it would likely embark upon an internal transition plan that would amount to a slow-moving palace coup. Potential successors would include Mohamed Tahir Ayala, who became prime minister last month and is a figure al Bashir previously tipped as a possible heir apparent. Whatever the case, the NCP's internal power plays will be a barometer of potential change in Sudan, particularly in regard to whether some in the party throw their weight behind the protesters' demands.

A graph showing Sudan's rising inflation rate.

Can Khartoum Solve Its Economic Crisis?

While removing al Bashir has become a common refrain among protesters, the crux of their complaints is the economy. Sudan has teetered on the edge of an economic crisis since South Sudan gained independence in 2011, taking three quarters of Sudan's oil production with it. Since the start of 2018, the Sudanese economy has plummeted into crisis, as inflation has reached as high as 73 percent year on year. The NCP has promised economic reforms, better wages and more investment, but the vows have failed to sway demonstrators. And even if the government did follow through with its promises, it would struggle to implement them due to its dire financial situation.

Al Bashir had hoped that his pivot toward the Gulf Cooperation Council would yield financial support, but his appeals to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for funds have so far fallen on deaf ears. And because al Bashir has previously made overtures to their regional foes, Turkey and Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh may even support al Bashir's ouster in favor of an ostensibly more pliant ruler, such as NISS head Salah Gosh. If al Bashir and the NCP do manage to secure financial support from the Gulf, it might thus come with strings attached to the president's future. But given the persistent demonstrations, wavering support from the military and a perilous financial crisis, al Bashir might need to accept help from anywhere he can get it, regardless of the cost.

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