Retreat to military repression
When the politics failed, Bashir decided to resort to the military. Bashir had always courted the military. He attended the funerals and weddings of military officers with diligence, often sending presents of sugar, tea or dried rations to the families.
“Bashir even had an “open house” policy once a week where commissioned officers could drop in and meet with him,” said Alex de Waal, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
So when on Feb.22 Bashir addressed the nation, he was banking on the military. His strategy was to sound tough and in charge but offer some concessions to the protesters. He would allow a national dialogue. But he made no mention of resigning as head of the National Congress Party (NCP) and, therefore, ruling himself out of the 2020 presidential as his intelligence chief, Gen. Salah Gosh had already announced. Bashir’s strategy appeared to confirm the view that his main goal had been to dissolve the government and declare the emergency as it would frustrate any palace coup against him.
Under the emergency, Bashir could ban opposition groups, deploy more troops, mount more roadblocks, and block people’s movements. The army would also have unrestrained power to raid people’s homes and offices. Bashir a state of emergency would be for one year. It was vintage Bashir brinkmanship. He was trying to block a coup from within his NCP party, appease the protesters with pseudo-concessions and placate the soldiers with powerful postings. And it had saved him before.
“He is like the spider at the centre of the web…he could pick up on the smallest tremor, then deftly use his personalised political retail skills to manage the politics of the army,” de Waal told The New York Times. Would it work this time?
The opposition had declared Thursday every week as a day of protest. The next Thursday Feb.22 would test that. This time the protests were even bigger.
“Bashir must go”, they chanted. “We want freedom, peace and justice!”
And the army, which was previously charged with enforcing Bashir’s ban on opposition gatherings, was absent. Bashir’s decree had failed.
Videos had also emerged of units of the army in Port Sudan siding with the protesters. Only Bashir’s most loyal forces, in the National Intelligence services, remained with him.
To lure them back, he appointed 18 military generals as state governors. Most, like himself, were on the list of 51 indicted in 2004 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands for crimes against humanity. He appointed Lt. Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, the Defence Minister as First Vice-President. He had been head of Sudan’s notorious and hated Military Intelligence and Security. He kicked out First Vice-President Bakri Hassan Saleh. He transferred his leadership of the National Congress Party (NCP) to Ahmed Muhammed Harun, the man who in the 1990s became known as the “Butcher of Nuba” and in 2003 –as State Minister for the Interior, executed the Darfur atrocities. He and Awad Ibn Auf coordinated the notorious Janjaweed militias that killed thousands in Darfur and displaced 2.5 million people.
Unity of women, youth, professionals
What appears to have caught Bashir’s government unawares was the determination of the protesters. The logic previously was that hunger and desperation would drive them off the streets. Dispersing protesters would be faster, it was assumed, if the government offered token concessions.
This time, however, the protesters refused to quit. And they were a surprising mix from all walks of society. The rich marched with the poor. Doctors and engineers joined together with Girifna; a coalition of youthful anti-regime university students formed in 2009. Under the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), they spearheaded the protests and in January agreed the Declaration of Freedom and Change.
March 08 was a Friday – a day of prayer in this predominantly Muslim country. The protest leaders – the FDFC- used the pulpits in the 47 mosques of Khartoum to call for street demonstrations. And the people poured onto the streets.
It also coincided with the International Women’s Day, Friday March 08, 2019. This fed into another remarkable and unexpected element of the Sudan protests was the high profile presence of women. The have since been dubbed the “Sudanese Women Queens”, kandakes.
When students from the National University joined, they were threatened with dismissal. Female students were expelled for wearing the white gowns; the Toub, symbol of protest.The security forces attacked the university and tear-gassed and battered students. Hundreds of students were arrested.
For 77 day across the country, the protests continued. And the security forces attempted to infiltrate the protests. They masqueraded as civilians, rode in unmarked vehicles, and masked their faces during attacks in so-called “Shadow Battallions”. They hit the protesters with tear gas and live bullets. Many were killed, many more arrested. Even the Sudanese in the Diaspora joined in. In the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia, they held protest vigils in front of Sudanese embassies and made pitches before parliaments there. Bashir appeared bamboozled. He issued directive after directive. None was effective.
Bashir, it appears to tried to execute a power transition formula that long-staying authoritarian regimes are increasingly adopting. It starts with grabbing power and holding on to it by any means for as long as possible. When holding on becomes impossible for whatever reason; civilian protests, sickness, or old age, pass it on to someone within your inner circle. That locks out the true opposition. It had worked in Egypt, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, and lately Algeria where ailing Bouteflika was kicked out on Fools Day April 01. Executed by a panicky Bashir, however, it was a failed fumble. Bashir had a month earlier contemptuously referred to the young men and women as “rats that should go back to their holes,” insisting he would only move aside for another army officer, or at the ballot box.
“They said they want the army to take power. That’s no problem. If someone comes in wearing khaki, we have no objection,” he said, “When the army moves, it does not move in a vacuum. It does not move in support of traitors. It moves in support of the homeland.”
But Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, the former Defence Minister, First Vice-President and head of Sudan’s notorious and hated Military Intelligence and Security, served a single day. He was replaced by Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan. He is considered cleaner than the others. But the protests continue. It is not clear if Burhan will offer a clean transition from Bashir.