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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Sudan government reshuffle and protest ban do little to stem protests

Analysts and activists say the moves could galvanise the opposition

Sudanese protesters take to the streets in the capital Khartoum's district of Burri to demonstrate against the government on February 24. AFP
Sudanese protesters take to the streets in the capital Khartoum's district of Burri to demonstrate against the government on February 24. AFP

The announcements of a state of emergency and a government reshuffle have done little to contain the more than two months of protests in Sudan against the country’s 29-year rule.

Activists and analysts say it might well revitalise protesters and could prove to be President Omar Al Bashir's undoing.

They say his reaction shows how concerned he is about the protests and they see his overtures to the army as a sign of fear of a military takeover.

After his Friday announcement, which included a call for the opposition to talk with the government, Mr Al Bashir imposed a ban on unauthorised protests.

“I think the measures will be the spark for a new wave of protests," said Othman Mirghani, a prominent political commentator and editor of the Khartoum daily Al Tayar.

"It is the spark for a new phase that I believe will be the final one. His decisions send a strong and clear message to the street that it can remove the regime if it puts on more pressure."

Mirghani predicts that more of Sudan’s society would now join the youths who have been the backbone of the protest movement.

Protests have taken place in Khartoum every day since Mr Al Bashir addressed the nation on Friday.

On Monday, protesters tried another march on the presidential palace in Khartoum to submit a note asking the president to step down, something they have tried to do at least a dozen times since the protests began December 19.

There were scattered protests on Tuesday, mainly in residential neighbourhoods.

“We will be using the same tactics and intend to step up the protests and our defiance of the state of emergency,” one activist said.

“By calling for a march on the palace again, it’s clear that we have chosen confrontation.”

In power since leading a military coup in 1989, Mr Al Bashir on Friday sacked his “national consensus” government and replaced provincial governors with senior army officers.

On Saturday, he named his defence minister as vice president and sacked the prime minister.

In overtures to the military, he appealed to the country’s political players to view the armed forces as the “guardian and guarantor” of stability.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (5R, bottom row) is seen during a swearing in ceremony of new officials after he dissolved the central and state governments in Khartoum, Sudan February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir attends a swearing in ceremony of new officials after he dissolved the central and state governments. Reuters

In a concession that activists say does not go far enough, Mr Al Bashir ordered the delay of constitutional amendments that would allow him to run again in elections next year.

He said the postponement should make room for constructive discussions and initiatives.

Already one of the region’s longest-serving leaders, Mr Al Bashir was elected president in 2005 – 16 years after he seized power – and again in 2010. International observers considered both elections questionable.

Mr Al Bashir also invited the opposition to a national meeting to chart the political future of the country and appealed to the youth leading the street protests to join.

The protests were sparked by price rises and shortages of food and fuel. They soon shifted to calls for Mr Al Bashir to step down.

The protests have left at least 50 people dead so far and authorities have detained hundreds.

The movement has swept through most of Sudan, but recent rallies have largely been in the capital Khartoum.

The size of the demonstrations has been in the hundreds or low thousands over the past two months but their longevity shows the resilience of the protesters.

The organisers say it also illustrates the depth of popular resentment against Mr Al Bashir’s rule, which has been defined by the failure to bring peace or economic stability.

The activists say the demonstrations, while relatively small, are a warm-up for “zero hour,” when hundreds of thousands take to the streets or a general strike begins to cripple the government, forcing the military to intervene and later call for free elections.

It is impossible to say whether such large numbers could be mobilised or that a call for a general strike would be met with widespread response.

Amany Al Taweel, a top expert on Sudan, says removing Mr Al Bashir may not be enough to change the regime. Other vestiges of power may prove more difficult to remove, Ms Al Taweel said from Egypt.

“There are many centres of power that emerged under Al Bashir and they must be dealt with,” she said.

These include paramilitary forces with combat experience from the war against the south of the country before it seceded and against separatist rebels in the western Darfur region.

There are also businessmen who used their links to Mr Al Bashir or his top lieutenants to amass wealth.

“Any attempt to remove the regime must include negotiations with these centres of power,” Ms Al Taweel said.

The military has in recent years been eclipsed by the Rapid Intervention Force, a well-armed and highly trained paramilitary outfit originating from a tribal militia that fought against rebels in Darfur.

The military top brass, meanwhile, are believed to be loyal to Mr Al Bashir. Where the remainder of the officer corps stands is a mystery.

“No one knows much about officers from the rank of brigadier general down,” Ms Al Taweel said.

She said the protesters are drawn from diverse ideologies, including a large number of young, devout Muslims who want to see religion separated from politics and reject the harsh interpretation of Sharia by Mr Al Bashir’s government.

Sudan has had little in the way of stability or prosperity under Mr Al Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur in 2010 and lost a large part of the country when the south seceded in 2011.

The formation of South Sudan took with it much of the country’s oil wealth. Sudan is also on the US list of nations that sponsor terrorism, although US trade sanctions on the country were lifted.

Updated: March 1, 2019 12:28 AM

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