For thirty years the Sudanese people trusted in the eventual demise of ruling General Omar al-Bashir. Then on April 11, 2019, they heard in quick succession the news of his resignation and, within 36 hours, also that of his successor, Lieutenant General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. Although popular anti-regime protests had been going on since mid-December, the suddenness of events shocked even those most desirous of them. So what precisely happened, and what does it portend?
The answer is still murky, and the endgame uncertain: a genuine manifestation of popular grievances has given way to a shadowy game of elite intrigue, with the ambitious Deputy of the Military Council, Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, the most powerful player standing. Whether his ascent was orchestrated by al-Bashir himself remains a matter of debate. But as one cynical young observer put it to me, at least one thing seems certain: “The benefits of the sit-in outside the army headquarters were reaped by those inside.”
A History of Deception—and Repression
In 1989, the National Islamic Front took power over Sudan in a military coup d’état against Sudan’s democratic government. It camouflaged its Islamist orientation in a theatrical display of events that saw Hassan al-Turabi, the godfather of the Islamic regime, put in prison. But the true nature of the new arrangement was captured in the counsel al-Turabi gave to al-Bashir during the coup: “You shall go to the palace as President and I shall go to jail as a prisoner.”
Larger deceptions followed, along with internal divisions both real and fictitious. Al-Bashir proved adept in these internal battles, prevailing by pitting his opponents against one another. The new regime also arrested the major party leaders and launched heinous campaigns of repression, where dissidents were abused in detention centers known as “ghost houses.” Many local elders fell victim to these campaigns, and thousands suffered from arbitrary forced retirement (euphemistically known as “referrals for the public interest”). Economic policies were established upon a security rationale, to inspire general fear in the populace. For example, some citizens were executed for possessing dollars, others were killed for illicit trading, and the charge of undermining the national economy was used profusely to sideline regime opponents and confiscate their property. Meanwhile, a new class of corrupt pro-regime businessmen emerged.
During the regime’s first years a new political body formed called the National Democratic Alliance, which included dozens of Sudanese political parties. It led an armed movement against the regime that lasted until the early 2000s. However, the Alliance failed to overthrow the regime from abroad, and in Sudan its back was finally broken with the return of former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi to Sudan. The final nail in the coffin came when Dr. John Garang—leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)—signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the National Congress, paving the way for his deputies to join General al-Bashir’s government.
Real political life in Sudan remained weak, obstructed, and backward. Political debates were poisoned by vapid ideological struggles, while realistic programs were absent. To add to that, each party had four clones. The Communist Party had split into sections, the Islamists subdivided into factions beyond counting (Popular, Nationalist, Reformist, Moderate, and so on) and several parties developed their own armed wings. There were reasons for this, the main ones being the absence of an organized political structure, the dominance of authoritarian thinking, the prevalence of local and tribal loyalties, and the general lack of political awareness tied, in most cases and as usual, to an absence of deep literacy among the population.
Even more harmful was absence of a serious response to the social, political, and religious divides in Sudanese society. Although Sudan gained its independence in 1956, the Sudanese people had no more than 11 years’ total experience of free political activity: from 1956 to 1958, from 1964 to 1969, and then from 1985 to 1989. Eleven years is not so bad, by modern Arab standards, and the street demonstrations that overthrew Ibrahim Abboud’s military government in October 1964 were an early prefiguration of the Arab Spring. But the rest of the time the Sudanese lived under a totalitarian military dictatorship that usurped their right to think, let alone express a political opinion.
During the Muslim Brotherhood’s long military rule, pockets of discontent persisted. Meanwhile, the ideologues of the military government focused on containing the major political parties: the National Umma Party led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Democratic Unionist Party led by Mohammed Osman al-Mirghani, and the Communist Party led by Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud and, after his death, by Mohamed al-Khatib. Al-Bashir’s regime worked as well to stifle civil society, which it perceived as threats to its control, so it split up Sufi orders, large local councils, civil administrations, and even sports clubs.
The major parties learned to adapt to these conditions, as well as to the loss of the southern part of the country in 2011. But newer parties arose in rebellion against them, seeking in small pockets to foment rebellion and appealing to the youth, who joined the larger parties even while outgrowing old loyalties to them. Over time significant change crept into Sudanese politics as increasing numbers of young people joined an ever-growing number of civil society associations. Among them were groups dedicated to medicine, teaching, and volunteering; youth also developed new musical styles and dialects that set them apart from the rest of society.
Both the established political parties and the military positioned themselves to marginalize these new parties and movements, and they used a well-honed method to do so. Throughout his years of rule, al-Bashir mixed populist rhetoric with folksy, religious appeals to endear himself to the people. But the limits of this approach became clear as differences emerged between him and the Islamists. In 1998 Sheikh al-Turabi lost favor, and al-Bashir sought to prove that the Islamic Movement belonged to the government (not the other way around), and that the government belonged to al-Bashir. The dispute developed well into 2013, as al-Bashir and the Islamists—who ostensibly supported him—sought to outbid each other in mutual disdain. This game went on for some time, distracting the public until economic conditions grew too dire to ignore.
A coalition of professional unions opposed to the regime emerged on December 19, 2018. It led a revolution dependent on the youth and imbued with a deep understanding of their concerns. It was able to attract many who had previously shown little interest in politics. At first the movement vaguely questioned all political forces, sometimes zealously and sometimes objectively, evincing a muted sympathy for Sudan’s youth but leaving its intentions unspoken, perhaps for fear of a crackdown. But it soon became clear that the youth had adopted a commitment to regime change—one stronger than at any time in the past.
The bloc organized a policy of demonstrations and neighborhood sit-ins, which at first ebbed and flowed. Then they began to organize ongoing marches, which security forces responded to with troubling but curiously inconsistent violence.
Revolutions and Coups
On December 24, the National Intelligence and Security Service leaked the first set of fabricated documents in a bid to manipulate the revolution. It spoke of a coup d’état led by the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Kamal Abdul-Maarouf, and another led by Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo—known by his nickname Hemeti—the head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Since the counterfeit paper did not mention Salah Abdallah Gosh, the head of the National Intelligence and Security Service, some interpreted it as a preparation for him to assume power.
The emergence of Hemeti’s name at this point was logical. His RSF, established by al-Bashir in 2013, have their roots in the Janjaweed and other militias used by the government to carry out its campaign in Darfur. Hemeti’s is a purely tribal organization, less ideological than the tribal Islamists of the Popular Defense Forces—Sudan’s other major paramilitary force. The RSF was thus carefully sponsored by al-Bashir to be a counterweight to both the Army and the Islamist forces. Unlike the Islamists, the RSF are drawn largely from the northern Rizeigat tribe, which is divided into the Abbala camel-herders and the Baggara cattle-herders.
Hemeti’s quasi-tribal “state” has been expanding in the past few years to the sound of its victories against other tribal elements, including those represented by his cousin Musa Hilal, the leader of the Um Jalul Arab Mahamid tribe in Darfur. It has also scored major victories against both rebels and known smuggling networks; in 2016, Hemeti proudly proclaimed that his “Rapid Support Forces are combating human trafficking on behalf of the Europeans.” Whatever the value of his victories, Hemeti is known for holding longstanding grudges and a hunger for acquiring more power and wealth. The curious thing is that al-Bashir rarely hesitated before granting him what he wanted, apparently believing that a dictator should keep his friends close but his potential enemies even closer.
Al-Bashir has always been a skillful manipulator of potential rivals. In the 1990s, al-Bashir abandoned his membership in the Islamic Movement and is now jumping ship from its second incarnation, the National Congress. He had been drawing closer to the Army, having cleverly enabled it to govern the states, in partnership with some elements of the security system (police, security forces, RSF).
This time around, as new pressure mounted for him to step aside, al-Bashir may have counted on the fact that he had shown leniency to rivals in the past. He did not, for example, execute Islamist officers, and often freed detainees in previous coup attempts, most recently Major General Salah Abdallah “Gosh” and General Kamal Abdul-Maarouf. Al-Bashir believed—correctly—that he gave the Army and its leaders a favored position they could not dream of attaining on their own under the miserable economic situation in Sudan. Moreover, he granted them, along with the security apparatus, special privileges exempting them from the government’s restrictive decisions and rendering them the only body capable of end running the shortage of foreign exchange. Al-Bashir thus had good reason to think that, in the Army’s calculation of costs and benefits, no coup would end in a transfer of power to civilians.Al-Bashir thus had good reason to think that, in the Army’s calculation of costs and benefits, no coup would end in a transfer of power to civilians.
"Al-Bashir thus had good reason to think that, in the Army’s calculation of costs and benefits, no coup would end in a transfer of power to civilians.
As protests grew, al-Bashir rose to the podium to give his speech at the Republican Palace in February, and declared that the Armed Forces would take control in the transitional period. Furthermore, he indicated a major transformation was in the offing for two elements, the first being the Army and the second being the National Dialogue. He also stressed the role of the youth, and acknowledged their grievances. Everyone treated these words as the usual rosy rhetoric intended for domestic consumption.
At the same time, the media machine accelerated its attacks on of the coalition of professional unions and national forces seeking change. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of the new government, Mohamed Tahir Ela, started his mornings by liquidating corrupt companies tied to the Islamists.
The situation continued to move toward imminent change. Al-Bashir worked to ensure that all of his potential successors, both Islamists and coup members, were wanted by the International Criminal Court, as he was, or were in the process of being indicted. If his successor were chosen from the National Congress Party, it would be Ahmed Haroun; if he were chosen from the Army, it would be Lieutenant General Awad Ibn Auf. Even the National Dialogue Parties’ Secretary-General is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Before the Coup: Increased Regional Discontent
On April 3, Eritrea, Sudan’s neighbor to the east, issued a statement labelling Sudan, along with Turkey and Qatar, a security threat. Al-Bashir had lost his armor. Over the past four years he had stood with the powerful when uprisings raged throughout the Middle East, saying he “makes peace, not revolution.” The Eritrean statement was similar to the accusations of the Libyan Army claiming that al-Bashir’s regime opposed Field Marshal Haftar. Amid the turmoil, al-Bashir also met with the Chadian President, who had his own concerns. Foreign affairs looked to leave al-Bashir friendless, in part because he had tried to maintained a stolid neutrality between Qatar and the more moderate, pro-status quo Arab countries, but had been unable to escape difficult decisions by so doing.
Two days earlier, the umbrella coalition of professional unions had called for a sit-in in front of the General Command of the Armed Forces. Then, on the historic day of April 6, the crowds came to the leadership headquarters in the country’s biggest sit-in yet. Their showing was so massive that some accused elements of the security establishment of facilitating it.
In the first two days of the protests, security forces attempted to break them up at night through direct confrontation. But at crucial moments, the Army seemed to be defending the protestors and preventing their dispersal. Young soldiers were sent to show solidarity with the protesters, in an apparent bid to win the youth’s trust. Soon enough, some of the attendees began chanting demands for them to take the reins of power. The Military Council, after al-Bashir’s dismissal, trusted in these manufactured slogans—and will surely cite them after the fact to say that the people asked the Army to take over.
The umbrella coalition of professional unions, consisting of trade unions and other political groups represented by the Freedom and Change parties, continued to play politics with one another. They were competently led by the head of the Sudanese Congress Party, Omer al-Digair, an eloquent man and the eldest son of a venerable family that produced over four senior government officials. However, the anti-regime coalition remained highly disjointed. Ibrahim al-Sheikh, the former president of the Sudanese National Congress Party (SNP), pre-empted military statements by conducting individual meetings with the military junta. The SNP drew strength from the crowd even as it sought to direct it; at times, the party did not conceal its jealousy of the Professionals’ Association.
But this was a battle without an opponent. The ballot boxes in Sudan were accustomed to propping up two political parties based on silenced blocs whose foundation was purely social: the Democratic Unionist Party represented by Mohammed Osman al-Mirghani, and the National Umma Party represented by Sadiq al-Mahdi. The latter quietly and shrewdly supported the demonstrations, knowing that in the event they succeeded, only a transitional period would stand between him and an electoral victory.
This is why the small yet active parties—whether anti-Islamists, leftists, or independents—have suggested that the transitional period should last four years. They believe a long interregnum would help them enlighten the masses about the threat posed by al-Mahdi and al-Mirghani, as well as the Islamists, and would give them time to establish a mature political foundation.
A Premature Battle?
Far removed from the discord in the streets, however, Sudan’s fate was being determined high in the corridors of power. This was a coup in the fullest sense, and its stars were al-Bashir himself, Awad, and Salah Gosh, in addition to the Islamists.
In the mid-1990s, when Hassan al-Turabi realized his Islamist civilizational project had suffered a strategic loss due to the mismanagement of his government, he wrote in his journal that the regime’s departure and the transfer of power to civilian politicians was necessary in order to make Islamists reflect on their experience in power, and develop new ideas capable of bringing them back. Even while endorsing free elections, however, his sine qua non was that the Army maintain supra-constitutional authority, protect the state’s Islamic character, uphold sharia law, and prevent the Islamists from being banned.
He began to establish an Islamic opposition, and left the remainder of his pupils in power where they continued to apply his ideas in government. The only opponent of this idea was al-Bashir, who was exhausted by his indictment by the International Criminal Court. And so he began to rule merely for the sake of ruling, with no safe haven except the Presidential Palace. For if he did not trust the Islamists, he ought not to trust the Army either, which had slowly started to Islamize and become Hemeti’s creature.
Dr. Elnour Hamad, a prominent Sudanese intellectual, told me in 2015,
I have no doubt that the regime is aware of the danger of Hemeti and his militias. For today’s ally, who only works for money, can become tomorrow’s avaricious authorities. General Omar al-Bashir’s small inner circle must now prepare to put a ceiling on Hemeti’s ambitions and his militias, or somehow rid themselves of these militias when an opportunity arises. Perhaps this new force in the Libyan quagmire is one such option. However, in general, the regime will not necessarily be rescued every time.
Today, it seems that there is no ceiling to Hemeti’s ambitions.Today, it seems that there is no ceiling to Hemeti’s ambitions. A few hours before al-Bashir was deposed, Hemeti was al-Bashir’s sole guarantor. However, over the course of playing the political game he morphed into al-Bashir’s successor by means of his own alliances. He may not have had the support of the Islamists, but he is younger, more ambitious, stronger, more bloody-minded, and more tribal even than al-Bashir.
"Today, it seems that there is no ceiling to Hemeti’s ambitions.
Hemeti has several assets. He leads a force created by al-Bashir, and has a tribally founded support base that has compelled the Army’s recognition. He also has a financial empire with impressive reach in the media, one that includes all the political parties, and which no president can ignore—al-Bashir and al-Burhan included. He is also free from any binding ideological loyalties. Now he insists on the departure of Awad Ibn Auf and Salah Gosh from the scene, on the pretext of placating the protestors. Before long, he may well hang up a portrait of himself labelled as the protector of the revolution.
The Army remains divided among itself between Hemeti’s allies and former Islamists. As for the security apparatus, it has fired and replaced Salah Gosh and his loyalists. Gosh, who was appointed to head the intelligence in February 2018, had previously been accused of leading a coup attempt in 2012. He was released in July 2013, just two months before demonstrations that shook al-Bashir’s reign and then died away.
In Sudan, it is hard to avoid suspicion that the current military coup d’état is an Islamist conspiracy. Indeed, most of the available evidence justifies that suspicion, from the names thrown up to lead the transition to the strategy of splitting up the main parties. The fact that all of the military junta’s decisions and political decrees, including the revision of the Public Order Act, were prepared in advance by al-Bashir, also supports this conclusion. Even the decision to absorb the role of the National Congress Party was being discussed by al-Bashir’s confidantes months ago. Al-Bashir may not be the mastermind, but certainly his close associates, and those close to the Islamists, have played a crucial (and unfinished) role.
The December 19 Revolution did triumph, however, not only by ousting al-Bashir but also by bringing the youth bloc back into the heart of political activism, convincing it fully of the legitimacy of engaging in political decision-making. What the youth have achieved represents a truly impressive result: the fruit of the activism that began in 1989. But their chances of consolidating their success are small.What the youth have achieved represents a truly impressive result: the fruit of the activism that began in 1989. But their chances of consolidating their success are small.
"What the youth have achieved represents a truly impressive result: the fruit of the activism that began in 1989. But their chances of consolidating their success are small.
The large banners being raised by the protesters calling for accountability are premature and will not lead to anything. Even some on the Military Council are now claiming that whispered demands for accountability will turn into reality “soon.” But the crimes brought about by the 1989 coup—crimes against the Constitution, and against Sudan’s people—have rendered it impossible to trust the Islamists.
The external settlement with the Army was not concealed from al-Bashir or his Islamists. He took the country into the Yemen war and permitted military exercises with Qatar, the most recent of which was in March. These coordinating efforts, and the behind-the-scenes plotting of various players to replace al-Bashir, have been reported for months. As early as December 24, reports appeared that coups were attempted by Hemeti and General Kamal Abdul-Maarouf, as well as by the Islamists.
Ruling out a conspiracy from these incidents is not feasible. These situations tend to give rise to new arrangements in quick succession, especially in cases of military and security mobilization. This does not mean that the claims and loyalties of the participating leaders are inherently suspect. But it does mean that these loyalties are inevitably governed by fears and desires that will clutter the path forward with obstacles. Betting on the survival and stability of one party’s position is a gamble. On the other hand, sometimes gambles pay off.
Change in Sudan’s current path, in the most optimistic scenarios, would still be fragile and unsustainable under the current leadership. Sudan remains vulnerable to penetration, diversion, and coups, if not by the former Islamist military leaders, then from within the Council or outside it.
Even if the revolution succeeds, the deep imprints left by foreign states and Islamist conspiracies will persist. Even if people besiege the National Congress Party, it will not end. Even if they insinuate themselves within the Islamist movement, what is required must be new standards, fundamental changes in the way Sudan’s politics are conceived and practiced. Sooner or later, people will realize that dismantling the Islamist tyranny that has long governed them can never come about by military decisions, for Islamists have always earned their luster from abortive revolutions and manufactured sacrifices.
As the region braces for the uncertainties of Sudan’s transition, much will depend on four key variables.
- The war in Darfur. The war has not ended, and now that Lieutenant General Hemeti has become the strongest man in Sudan’s fragile equilibrium, the horizon is cloudy. If the country remains aligned toward the moderate Arab states, Qatar will undoubtedly intervene to support its opponents in Darfur, some of whom are Islamists, such as Dr. Gibril Ibrahim Mohammed.
- The incomplete democratic transformation. While some political forces demand four transitional years and a civilian government, and the Council insists on two years, Hemeti thinks that six months is appropriate. While politicians are fighting for their share of the civil government, issues of civil rights and individual freedoms remain secondary. This is why the Sudanese should heed the wisdom of one their most famous phrases: Democracy’s mistakes can only be dealt with by democracy. They must stop justifying further coups.
- The uncertain harmonization of the Transitional Military Council and political forces. The issue of open-ended wars in conflict zones with neighboring countries, and the Sudanese military participation in wars outside Sudan, are the main points of contention. The Army understands that maintaining the role of its forces and the RSF abroad is important. Meanwhile, some influential parties insist on withdrawing them, without realizing the disastrous political consequences this would entail.
- The worrying economic future. The structural imbalance in the Sudanese economy requires serious attention from serious thinkers, and they exist. However, we must not forget that a deteriorating economy has long been a gateway for military coup plotters to tighten their grip on power.
This generation succeeded in making it halfway toward a revolution, and strengthening itself incalculably. Yet it now stands surprised to discover that all its goals have been rendered illegal, and that it was playing a rigged game all along. The generals profited from its revolution, along with a few Islamists, but almost no politicians. This youth is currently struggling with the shadows of entities it has not even seen and which will not make themselves visible.
Now the youth must regroup themselves within existing political entities, or invent its own entities, and learn from this experience. This will require mature political leaders. Enlightened thinkers must take advantage of the opportunity to combat racism, consolidate patriotism, overcome gender discrimination, and re-establish the idea of Sudanese statehood.
Sudan is the land of missed opportunities, and it may miss one again despite a worthy beginning. For now, it suffices to recall the statement of Sudan’s finest writers, al-Tayeb Salih: “I am only afraid of those who are exceedingly confident in their own views.” In that spirit, this uncertain moment in Sudan’s history is a time for humility above all else.