I was among the first to visit Khartoum after the April 1985 uprising, and our plane was the second to land at Khartoum International Airport, preceded only by the plane that carried Libyan foreign minister Ali Treki. I was also one of the first to arrive in Khartoum less than 36 hours after the coup led by Brig. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir, which took place at the end of June 1989. Army vehicles took us from the airport to be received by him. The reception was televised, as we were the first media delegation to visit from Egypt, which supported the coup in its early hours, thinking it was a loyalist coup before it showed its true color as the face of the Islamic movement led by Hassan Al-Turabi. Egypt’s support for the coup was crucial to its success and its recognition at regional and international levels.
In April 1985, the main perception I had written about was that of smiles of contentment and pride beaming on all faces. Every Sudanese you met on the street looked as if he or she wanted to say: “I am Sudanese and have participated in the uprising against the Nimeiri regime.” I did not see the same faces after the 1989 coup; they carried different expressions – worry, tension and fear of the unknown.
The scene on Thursday in which Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf read the statement announcing the “ousting” of the former regime and the start of a two-year transition phase, is a typical one to which many countries, including Sudan itself, are accustomed. However, it is doubtful this will be the final scene for what Sudan has undergone for several weeks.
Several Sudanese cities have experienced unprecedented protests since Dec. 19, 2018, spurred in the beginning by deteriorating living conditions. These slogans, however, soon developed into demands for overthrowing the regime of President Al-Bashir.
The protesters’ demands escalated on Jan. 1, 2019, after they won the support of political forces represented by the National Front for Change, which comprises 22 parties and movements. The Sudanese government expressed its understanding of their demands and promised economic reforms, calling on the protesters to react positively and cease ill-calculated adventures.
During its 30-year rule, Al-Bashir’s regime managed to overcome many challenges, including internal wars, peaceful protests and a blockade led by the United States. Apparently, the regime thought it would be able to contain these recent protests, but its big mistake was that it had not understood that these were not like previous protests. Al-Bashir presented an example of how a regime can survive internal and external crises while offering everything – even giving up part of the state’s territory – in order to stay, as well as an example of how a regime can use strict security means to incapacitate society and prevent it from reacting in any way.
His regime managed to survive for three decades on this strategy, but it seems that at a time when it did not realize that the equation has changed, others have. This was seen in the statement of Ibn Auf, who referred to Al-Bashir’s insistence on his same old practices and his attempt to circumvent reality and achieve his goal to stay, even if the price was the division of the army and the death of thousands.
Only two days after Bashir visited Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in December, and out of nowhere, a wave of protests broke out in Sudanese cities triggered by shortages and increased prices of bread, fuel and foodstuffs as well as the deterioration of the national currency and public services. These protests first erupted in the northern city of Atbara, and other cities that are considered incubators for the ruling party joined in, and then reached Khartoum. The number of participating citizens differed from one region to another and from one day to another.
At a time when the authorities had announced that the citizens have a right to demonstrate and that it understood their reasons, the security forces dealt with them firmly, arresting during the first week about 10 of the leaders of the two opposition parties, Nidaa Al-Sudan (Sudan’s Call) and Al-Ijmaa Al-Watani (National Consensus).
Although the Sudanese opposition suffers from a state of disarray due to a lack of common visions, the National Front for Change and the Umma Party managed to announce a unified stance in favor of the demonstrations and sent a memorandum to Al-Bashir demanding the “formation of a transitional sovereignty council to conduct the country’s affairs instead of the president and a national government that includes party representatives and competencies.”
The opposition is trying to take advantage of these popular demonstrations, but it is unable to provide a substantive reform vision, and is not aware of the risks into which the country may slip. This has reflected badly on its popular presence and weakened the street’s trust in it.
Externally, official and popular stances have varied. The stances of Arab governments have been developed according to their sensitivity to revolutions and their relationships with Al-Bashir’s regime and his foreign policy. Fear of Sudan falling into chaos after Al-Bashir is removed without a replacement manifested in Egypt’s stance, despite the ideological contradictions and political disputes between the two regimes. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the head of the intelligence services visited the Sudanese capital to discuss and declare Egypt’s support for Al-Bashir’s regime. This stance cannot be seen as an expression of Egypt’s support for him as much as it is an expression of fear that Egypt’s southern neighbor will turn into a divided state that will become an additional burden on Egypt, which is already suffering from the situation in Libya. The presence of a coherent regime, even if hostile, is better than a state without clear authority.
The protests may have surprised all political forces in the government as well as the opposition in terms of their timing and demands, but the majority are aware of the causes. It was clear that the escalation of the protests prompted the active part of the military to overthrow Al-Bashir in a military coup, thus ensuring the survival of order.
The question that continues to nag me is: What are the faces of the Sudanese people like today? And will the new coup survive?
- Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy
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