In Sudan, deep uncertainty and turmoil swirl amid jubilation from protesters
By MAX BEARAK | The Washington Post | Published: April 13, 2019
NAIROBI, Kenya — Four months of street protests in Sudan gave way to a burst of political upheavals this week that - on the surface at least - appears to have upended the status quo after 30 years of strongman rule by Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Yet the heart of the old regime is far from gone. Sudan now seems tossed into power battles between different factions of the military, which turned against Bashir on Thursday in a stunning end to a leader who had managed to ruthlessly quash dissent for decades in one of Africa's largest nations.
"This isn't an unfamiliar situation when a strongman falls," said Zach Vertin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan. "The linchpin is removed and you get the remnants of the regime jockeying for survival."
After Bashir was arrested by his once-loyal military, top figures from his regime now seem to be in retreat mode as commanders apparently jockey behind the scenes, analysts say.
Awad Ibn Auf, the former vice president and defense minister who announced Bashir's ouster, lasted just over a day as the head of a transitional military government. Then Salah Gosh, Bashir's feared head of intelligence, resigned from his position on Saturday.
Another win for the protesters came Saturday afternoon when a curfew imposed by the military council - which many saw as a tactic to disperse the demonstrators - was canceled by its new leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. A group of opposition parties that took part in the protests were expected to meet Burhan later Saturday.
Burhan struck a conciliatory tone and paid his respects to what he called "the revolution." He also promised to prosecute security forces that had killed protesters, and fired all state governors appointed by Bashir with immediate effect.
Many protesters are jubilant. Most have only known Bashir's autocratic rule, and the rapid changes are thrilling, if confusing.
Their main demand, for a civilian government, has not yet been met. But amid the chaos, hope abounds and the streets are as filled as at any point since a spike in bread prices sparked the anti-government demonstrations in December.
Burhan, who took charge of the government late Friday, is a little-known lifelong army commander who until recently led its infantry division and helped recruit many of its members to fight on behalf of Saudi Arabia-aligned factions in Yemen's civil war.
His appointment was seen as an appeasement to the protests, but it did little to answer major looming questions. Among them: What is the status of Bashir?
No evidence has been made public to prove that Bashir was in custody - or even still in Sudan for that matter.
Also unclear is what role, if any, was played by regional power-brokers that vied for influence in Sudan, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States, which repeatedly punished Bashir's regime for its alleged human rights violations, has been largely silent. Sudan remains on Washington's list of state sponsors of terror, many of the former regime's leaders are on sanctions lists, and there is no American ambassador in Khartoum.
The turmoil has distracted many Sudanese from a festering economic crisis. Since Bashir's arrest, Sudan's borders and airspace have been closed, exacerbating an already debilitating shortage of goods, all of which are becoming more expensive by the day. Fuel and wheat in particular have become flash points.
With Sudan facing various crises, the resolution of a way forward politically has become more urgent. The military council effectively in control of the country has stressed that it will only negotiate with protest leaders if their followers conduct themselves "without chaos."
That raised questions about how long the military will keep its patience and allow the demonstrations to continue.
Protest leaders, on the other hand, have accused many members of the military council of being untrustworthy criminals since many are implicated in the military's brutal crackdowns through Bashir's years that earned some of its leaders, including Bashir, indictments for war crimes in the International Criminal Court for atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region.
"I think the best-case scenario, however unpopular it might sound, is a hybrid civil-military government," said Vertin. "Each one on its own would be too weak, and potentially susceptible to undermining by holdovers from the Bashir era."