Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood’s plight in Egypt is spreading southwards to affect their counterparts in Sudan. But in contrast to much of Sudan’s modern history, calls for change are not coming from another popular movement or uprising seeking to unseat the military government in Khartoum, as in 1964 or 1985. This time around, the spark for change is now coming from within the presidential palace.
President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan is looking to curb the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom he has shared power since he took the presidency in 1989. He has recently issued several decrees—more are expected to come in the near future—that seek to reduce the impact of mainstream political Islam. The most important of these decrees was the appointment of a new core of upper-level army officers who are close to the president, none of whom are Islamists. The parliament simultaneously passed a new military law that stirred up much controversy, as it allows for civilians to be tried in military courts. Analysts claim that this will enable the army to target the militias associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.
The president is working towards effecting fundamental changes within the structure of government. Those close to him say that this move may encompass most of the Islamist leadership, headed by First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha. Work towards establishing an understanding for broad cooperation on potential power-sharing is quietly underway between the largest opposition parties, the Umma Party led by Sadiq Al-Mahdi and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Mohamed Osman Al-Mirghani. If these schemes come to fruition, it would mean the inevitable end of Brotherhood rule in Sudan.
From “empowerment” to the president’s way
With the 1989 military coup against the democratically-elected government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the first tremors of anti-Islamism could be felt in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, over which the Brotherhood has now held sway for nearly a quarter of a century. Following the coup, an experimental policy of “empowerment” for the Muslim Brotherhood was implemented for the first time in the country’s history. However, the infighting that began in 1999 dealt a major blow to the Brotherhood’s plans in Sudan when the ruling powers ostracized the 1989 coup’s architect, Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi, the founder of the Brotherhood-affiliated National Islamic Front (NIF).
Now, everyone talks of “solemn allegiance to the president” as the solution to Sudan’s deep-rooted problems. Many believe this represents the death knell for the empowerment policy and the first step in taking down political Islam in Sudan. The president is expected to rid himself of his former allies, taking advantage of what he sees as their fading regional influence, and encouraged by his counterpart in South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, who recently sacked his own government and vice president, as well as his party’s secretary.
Analysts differ over what President Bashir may propose, with most contending that his National Congress Party (NCP) has run its course and thus former alliances will soon fray. They say that he is merely waiting for an opportune moment, and that he may not turn the tables all at once in his efforts to rid himself of the Brotherhood.
Those asserting that it is the right time to take decisive steps against the Brotherhood have their reasons, and so do those who rebuff them—yet all agree that the challenges ahead could enable the president to take advantage of the current deferential mood and reshuffle his cabinet, replacing the tired old guard with new faces. This would satisfy public opinion and placate those calling for change within the ruling party. Change has become inevitable in this beleaguered country, and the usual minor ministerial tweaks are no longer sufficient. The regime’s crisis has deepened: talk of change, which at first began only as whispers, has grown both in volume and frequency.
It has been announced that the president intends to declare a “new government,” prompting leading political figures who have ruled for more than a quarter century to fear that their jobs may be on the chopping block. Only the president and a small number of his aides know what might happen, yet some from the ruling party maintain that they are in the loop, though the party is expected to have no say in any changes.
Deputy speaker of the National Assembly Samia Mohamed Ahmed remarked during the month of Ramadan that there are proposed amendments on the president’s desk, and her statements were later confirmed by security committee chair Mohammad Hassan. However, they are both members of the ruling NCP. Writer and journalist Mohammed Latif, who is on friendly terms with the president, published an article in the newspaper Khartoum on
July 21, titled “Change, the President’s Way.” He wrote that after the president had announced that he would not run for reelection in 2015, he decided that he would be the “last to leave.”
At the same time, a source from within the presidential palace, commenting on the conflicting statements from government officials about the expected changes, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “they do not know anything; they are only expressing their aspirations. No one knows about the expected change save for the President and two or three aides in the Presidential Palace.” The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, mentioned that presidential affairs minister Bakri Hassan Saleh was in the president’s inner circle, but intriguingly stopped short of adding the name of First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha to that list. These statements give rise to certain suspicions, given how Taha has been part and parcel of the decision-making core since the coup.
Taha has a unique way of operating, and when speculation began to intensify he chose to make a public statement, saying: “The president of the republic is working by himself on preparing a comprehensive and effective vision that will lead to radical solutions that will allay Sudan’s problems,” thus confirming Latif’s assertion that the president is working with a very selective coterie of chosen aides.
Presidential remorse and new alliances
Perhaps the burdens placed on President Omar Al-Bashir have grown too heavy to bear. In a rare admission, during a Ramadan iftar organized by the Regional Authority for Darfur, he said that his reign had seen a darkness settle over the country, mentioning the drought and delayed rains. He seemed regretful for the first time since assuming control of the country, saying, “We abused the munificence of the people of Darfur, neglected the customs, and spilled too much of each other’s blood!”
The president’s admission, the first vice president’s out-of-character remarks, and the statements of many other officials regarding the upcoming ministerial adjustments, can only mean one of two things. Either there will be comprehensive change, or some political maneuver will be undertaken to buy the ruling elite more time. Observers greet these possibilities with either pessimism or optimism. The pessimists believe that nothing will happen, whereas the optimists say that a cabinet reshuffle has never worried Khartoum like this one has.
Abu Zar Ali Al-Amin, a writer who is barred from writing on security orders, said that the NCP seems to be relinquishing its political status as the “ruling” party, and will be gradually phased out by a military presence, complete with new alliances. It is likely that the Umma Party led by Sadiq Al-Mahdi will increase its standing, and the rest of the cake will be shared with the DUP, led by Mohamed Osman Al-Mirghani.
Amin said that the struggle to succeed Bashir is raging, and that it threatens to produce a rival candidate to the president. This could prompt him to assert control over the Islamists, disband them, or even dissolve the NCP as a precautionary measure. Amin also referred to what he called “a great pressure” being exerted by a group associated with the NCP, which calls itself “the wanderers,” and from another, bolder group led by former Republican Guard commander Mohammed Ibrahim Abdul Jalil (Wad Ibrahim), who once attempted to stage a coup. Amin believes that the pressures exerted by these groups may compel the president to push to be reelected for another term, which would mean entering his third decade as the undisputed ruler.
Between a smooth and a cataclysmic transition
Political activist Abdallah Adam Khater told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are essentially three scenarios for change. The first is the formation of a transitional government in accordance with the new constitutional arrangements, which is being proposed by the opposition alliance. The second and most tragic scenario is the intervention of international powers through the auspices of the United Nations by countries that have interests in Sudan and the region. The third scenario is that the ruling elite come to their senses and change their methods and policies, along with cycling out some figures in a manner consistent with constitutional developments. Khater explained that Bashir and the institution of the presidency, aided by those who are aware of the magnitude of the risks threatening the country due to the ruling elite, must reach a rational political settlement. He added that the fluid situation that Sudan is experiencing threatens to tear it apart, making a smooth transition of power the preferred choice.
Hassan Ali Al-Saaouri, a professor of political science at Khartoum’s Al-Neelain University, said that “if the government merely sacks some incompetent ministers, nothing will be gained. The desired change requires that policy and people change, and that the government be fundamentally restructured. But no one is talking about policy and structural change, only about changing people, in spite of the internal crisis plaguing the system.”
Saaouri affirmed that the political order is experiencing a crisis, and the opposition likewise is experiencing a crisis due to its impotency. He said that any change that does not take into account these two objective truths will be pointless.
He went on to say that “The ruling elite have held power for 24 years, and have thus offered everything they have to offer. Do not expect anything new from them. The crises will deepen, and their presence has only exacerbated matters.” He calls for all of them to go, by virtue of the “stresses” from which they all must suffer after having sat on their collective throne for so long. Saaouri demanded that there be consensus between the civilian government, the opposition, and the militarized opposition, and that a political arrangement must be made that encompasses all of these parties.
Isaac Ahmed Fadlallah, who is close to the ruling regime’s inner circle, wrote: “Anyone holding a constitutional position will be gone within days,” a strong signal that First Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha is on the way out. In an uncharacteristically allusive style, Fadlallah said that the ministers of finance, justice, agriculture, higher education, and foreign affairs will all be leaving soon. However, he said their counter-maneuvers “have already begun.” Remarkably, all of this was published without any ills coming to the newspaper that printed it, and without any punitive measures taken by the first vice president. Meanwhile, the Khartoum newspapers quoted what they called “leaks” regarding the upcoming ministerial reshuffling. Those newspapers, possibly mirroring the hopes of their publishers, would not say that the reshuffling was anything more than a “routine” measure.
The newspaper Last Moment, which is owned by the head of the ruling NCP party, reported that there is movement to assign the position of first vice president to the current presidential affairs minister Bakri Hassan Saleh, move foreign minister Ali Karti to the head the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), move the current head of the NISS Mohamed Atta Al-Mawla to the Ministry of the Interior, replace the minister of agriculture with current irrigation minister Osama Abdullah, put the ministry of finance in the hands of former Bank of Sudan director Sabir Mohamed Hassan, entrust the foreign ministry to NCP foreign relations official Ibrahim Ghandour, and relieve first vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha of his post and appoint him as the speaker of parliament.
Despite the yawning gap between the speculation in the press and the statements of government officials, committees in Khartoum publicly agree that the president is focusing on the issue of the old guard. However, they differ on how he will go about this change. Will he make a calculated strike, as was done in South Sudan, or will he implement it gradually? Most agree that Taha, who propagates the gradualist option, will leave for the parliamentary position.
Bashir has already imposed many changes on army leadership. He purged it of all Islamists and replaced them with professional leadership for the first time since the 1989 coup. He retained defense minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein despite the campaign against him by members of parliament and party members, who demanded his dismissal due to his involvement with the occupational forces of the Revolutionary Front in the Abu Krashwla region in North Kordofan. He drafted new legislation for the army that allows civilians to be tried in military courts, and he may well draft laws to prosecute men operating in paramilitary groups if they engage in open resistance. There are those who believe that these measures, coupled with the president’s popularity, are the prelude to some grand stunt in which the president will attempt to remedy all of Sudan’s problems in one fell swoop, to the demise of the Islamists.
Analysts assert that regional events will support this change, especially the recent ouster of Islamists in Egypt. (Bashir is, perhaps, waiting to see the outcome of this Egyptian struggle before issuing his decision.) Also coming to bear on the next steps in Sudan are the courageous steps taken by South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, who was able to pull the carpet out from under his party rivals. These events will certainly aid Bashir in accomplishing his task. In this regard, the writer, Amin, says: “The president may decide to abort his mission in the last stages because of the potential fallout that may result from the old guard’s refusal to be dismissed, despite the fact that the Army Act has been passed to counter just such resistance.”