Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 March 2019

Broken Sudan opposition hopeful as cracks appear

The regime of Omar Al Bashir cut short hopes of revolution during the Arab Spring, but now it must watch for enemies within. Alice Fordham reports from Khartoum
Economic blows and growing discontent among military and religious leaders are feeding a feeling that shifts may be coming from within the establishment Omar Al Bashir (pictured) has dominated for 23 years.
Economic blows and growing discontent among military and religious leaders are feeding a feeling that shifts may be coming from within the establishment Omar Al Bashir (pictured) has dominated for 23 years.

KHARTOUM // The headquarters of Sudan's Communist Party is a shabby place.

The peeling leather chairs in its meeting room are watched over by dusty photos of its most famous leaders since 1946, most of whom died at the hands of assassins.

The party's newspaper has been shut down by government censors, says Salih Osman, a leading member of the group. And although the party long ago joined forces with unlikely partners, including Islamist groups, Mr Osman says political opposition to the government of Omar Al Bashir has been effectively smothered.

Ali Ibrahim, an activist who recently graduated from Khartoum University, agrees.

The university was closed for months after demonstrations this year. The protest movement was infiltrated and revolutionary proponents jailed or scared off. But officials' success in foiling the surge in activity does not mean this mainly Sunni country is immune to change.

Economic blows and growing discontent among military and religious leaders are feeding a feeling that shifts may be coming from within the establishment Mr Al Bashir has dominated for 23 years.

Thirteen top military and intelligence leaders were arrested last month in connection, officials said, with a plot to sabotage the government.

It was a move that diplomats and analysts in Khartoum said was probably a warning to dissatisfied elements of the regime, which came to power in a military coup in 1989.

"It's a crackdown," said Mr Ibrahim, "but that means they're in a corner. The economy is collapsing. The politics is worse and worse."

Mr Al Bashir, since he rode to power at the head of an alliance of Islamists and soldiers, has led a violent and fragmented country.

He is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for alleged atrocities carried out by government-backed fighters in the Darfur region.

He also continued a long and bloody war in the south of what was Africa's largest country before its southern region won independence more than a year ago.

With the loss of the oil-rich south, Sudan gave up a huge chunk of government revenues and the source of most of its foreign currency, driving up prices and eventually forcing the government to cut fuel subsidies - an unpopular move that sparked short-lived demonstrations in the summer.

The country also lost the Christian and animist population that dominates the south, prompting hardline Islamists to push for a more austere version of the Islamic law already nominally in place, although not strictly enforced.

Along with strong hints by his party that Mr Al Bashir will not stand for re-election in 2015, the changes seem to have destabilised a military, political and religious establishment dominated by the ruling party but now factionalised, with some elements expressing bitterness publicly.

Rumblings have been especially strong from within the Sudanese Islamic Movement, a religious organisation with strong ties to the ruling party.

It held a congress last month, presided over by Mr Al Bashir and attended by Islamists from abroad, including Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, and Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia's Ennahda party.

At least one prominent figure called for change, with Ghazi Salahuddin, a presidential adviser who narrowly lost an election to be head of the movement in 2008, publishing articles in local newspapers calling for the organisation to move away from the National Congress Party.

He and other leaders objected to a new constitution that would give a small council of people close to the rulers more power and allow the election of a new leader by a shura council, rather than by the membership of the whole organisation.

His calls went unheeded, the council was created, and a new head of the party - Al Zubeir Ahmed Al Hassan - an economist regarded as being close to the president, was elected.

"Rather than 'liberate' the Islamic Movement from the state, the eighth general conference consummated its 'nationalisation'," wrote Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, on his blog.

Hassan Turabi, 81, a religious leader who was Mr Al Bashir's right-hand man when they seized power but who now heads an opposition Popular Congress Party between jail stints, claimed many young Islamists from the official movement had come to him to express their discontent.

Mr Turabi also reflected popular speculation that last month's arrests were directly connected to dissent among Islamists.

After the arrests, an anonymous group purporting to be part of the ruling party released a statement warning against targeting people of different opinions, and a group of young Islamists known as Al Saihoon called for the detainees to be released.

"I don't think there was a coup," Mr Turabi said.

Rather than fomenting a plot against the government, he said, he thought it was more likely that the group was "trying to make the president do what they wanted, for example appoint a new head of the Islamist movement".

He said the group consisted of Islamists and included generals and a former head of the national intelligence service.

An eccentric man, whose hands flutter as he speaks and who punctuates his political analysis with little giggles, Mr Turabi also discussed the role of the military within the country's power structure.

Unofficial estimates by diplomats and analysts place government spending on security and intelligence at about 70 per cent of the national budget.

The defence ministry headquarters are in two buildings: one constructed in the shape of a seven-storey aeroplane and the other as a chubby warship with military officials peering from the portholes.

Their presence in politics and business is ubiquitous. Some are unhappy with current military policy and, said Mr Turabi, military leaders are likely to insist on a military man as the next president - and that this is unlikely to bring democratic change to the country.

When he and Mr Al Bashir staged their coup, he said, "we did something wrong, we used the army". Now, he said, he realised "the army doesn't like democracy - the military don't recognise the constitution".

For now Mr Turabi, along with other overt opponents of the regime, acknowledged they are weak.

But with fault lines clear among the ruling powers, and the economy shaking the structure, the future is unpredictable and he hopes for an uprising.

"All these other Arabs are rising up and doing it," Mr Turabi said. "I don't know when we will ignite, but I think it is flammable."


Updated: December 4, 2012 04:00 AM