Divisions Overshadow Sudan

Haitham Nouri

Sudan’s transitional military council (TMC) has announced that its head, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, will chair a presidential council that will include representatives of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a broad coalition of opposition parties.

On Saturday military and opposition leaders agreed in principle to form a joint presidential civilian-military council to lead the country’s political transition. Despite the fact the two sides failed to agree on the division of seats in the new body, and on who should occupy them, the step was hailed by demonstrators, who have been camping outside Khartoum’s army headquarters for the past four weeks, as a step towards civilian rule.

At a press conference on Tuesday TMC Vice President Mohamed Hassan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, said Sudan’s military will hand over the country’s executive authority only to an elected civilian government and not to a government of technocrats, as demanded by Declaration forces.

The army “will not accept chaos… after today, there will be no chaotic scenes,” said Hemeti. He added that it was in the interests of Sudanese in Darfur, Kordofan and other regions to open up roads and bridges to receive staple goods, particularly with the advent of the holy month of Ramadan.

On the same day Declaration of Freedom and Change forces announced in their own press conference in Khartoum that the council was “not serious about handing over power to civilians” and said they were still waiting for the TMC to respond to their demands.

Hemeti’s statement suggests the TMC “has backtracked on its agreement with the Declaration forces” said Sudanese journalist Mohamed Al-Asbat, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) that has spearheaded protests since they broke out 19 December 2018.

Al-Asbat believes the army is engaging in a game of tug-of-war.

Declaration forces had earlier suggested the presidential council comprise 15 members, eight of them civilians and seven from the military. The TMC’s counter proposal was for a 10-member council, seven drawn from the military and with just three civilians. The opposition bloc has also demanded a transitional period during which an appointed government and a reduced legislature help prepare the country for free elections.

Sudan’s three democracies — from 1953 to 1958, from 1964 to 1969 and from 1985 to 1989 — all comprised an elected constituent assembly which was tasked with drafting a permanent constitution — this never saw the light of day — and usually resulted in the formation of a coalition government alongside a sovereign council comprised of five figures from across the political spectrum. While the sovereign council’s role seldom exceeded advising on policy, real power was concentrated in the hands of the prime minister.

Declaration of Freedom and Change forces convened a series of meetings on Sunday, the results of which have not yet been made public.

The opposition groups that signed the Declaration of Freedom and Change earlier this year include the National Umma Party, the Sudanese Congress Party, the Sudanese Communist Party, the Popular Congress Party founded by Hassan Al-Turabi, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) and the Unionist Alliance.

Although it is not a political body, the SPA, which comprises eight non-official professional groupings including the committees of physicians, pharmacists and teachers, the Lawyers Coalition, the Journalists Network and the Engineers Association, also signed the Declaration.
While the military has proposed the presidential council have a life span of two years, opposition forces are demanding four. Nor is there any consensus over what should be done with toppled president Omar Al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 2003 war in Darfur.

Al-Bashir has repeatedly denied the charges and the TMC is refusing to hand him over to the ICC. If he is to face trial, they say, it should be in Sudan. While the SPA’s position on Al-Bashir’s fate continues to be ambiguous, opposition leader and former prime minister Sadik Al-Mahdi has stated publicly that Sudan should “immediately” join the ICC.

The current impasse suggests that many of the protesters’ other demands, including restructuring the armed forces, police and civil service apparatus, will be subject to similar squabbles.

Low-ranking Khartoum custom and visa officers held a one-day strike on Sunday resulting in a temporary halt of travel procedures. The officers are demanding improved working and living conditions that will place them on an equal footing with colleagues in other security apparatuses, and want a major restructuring of the police.

“All state institutions have been mutilated by the Islamists who control them,” Atef Ismail, a former accountant in the Finance Ministry and a leading figure in the Sudanese Communist Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It will make it very difficult to restructure the civil service and the army.”

Local and international observers worry about escalating feuds between the SPLM-N and the Sudanese Communist Congress on the one hand, and Al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party and Al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party on the other.

Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher in African affairs, warns that the feuding could cause a major rift in the ranks of the Declaration of Freedom and Change forces. “The cabinet and parliament will fall to the Islamists if elections are held now. The opposition is not yet ready to go to the polls,” said Mahmoud.

“There is a consensus over Al-Mahdi who commands wide respect. If presidential elections are held early he is likely to win, which is why he is pushing for an early poll.”

Mahmoud warns such an outcome would provide the Islamists with political cover and allow them to continue to cling onto power.

“Sudan’s Islamists are well-organised. They are the party of the former regime, after all, and in addition to conventional parties with Islamist ideologies like the National Umma Party and the Unionist Alliance, they can ally with others to secure a parliamentary majority.”

Mahmoud argues that “Hameti’s statements are intended to divide the opposition between those whose interests lie with holding early elections and those whose interests do not” and in the process “abort the revolution”.  His rhetoric about “the interests of people in Sudan’s regions pits Declaration forces against the Sudanese, implying that they don’t care about the people’s sufferings.

“Islamists who defected from the Al-Bashir regime, such as the Al-Islah Movement, and Islamists who remained loyal to the toppled president until the last minute, are ready to strike an alliance with opposition currents with similar ideologies that break rank with the Declaration forces. This bloc of Islamists is large and, if allied with some movements within the opposition, it could easily win an election.”

Meanwhile, a recent attack on a meeting of the Popular Congress Party, founded in 2000 by the late Islamist leader Al-Turabi who assisted Al-Bashir in his coup, has caused tensions within the ranks of Declaration of Freedom and Change forces.

“The Popular Congress may bear a great deal of responsibility for what has happened to the country in the past 30 years,” said the Declaration of Freedom and Change bloc, “but we condemn this violence and vandalism no matter the reasons behind it. We believe in the right of assembly and freedom of expression for all. The homeland our brave revolutionaries are toiling to build has no room for eliminating anyone.”

Sudan’s national television reported that 140 people were evacuated from a conference hall during the attack which caused minor injuries to more than 60 people.

“The attack may be taken advantage of to undermine Declaration forces, weaken the opposition and strengthen counter-revolutionary forces,” says Mahmoud. Already there are attempts by Al-Tayeb Mustafa, Al-Bashir’s notorious uncle, and Salafi leader Abdel-Hay Youssef to incite people against the protesters whom the latter has denounced as “communists, atheists, seculars and liberals”.