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Vol 60 No 5

Published 8th March 2019


El Beshir mulls the endgame

A state of emergency, appointing military governors and disowning his political allies has done nothing to halt demands for the President's exit

As demonstrators across the country win growing support in their call for his exit, President Omer el Beshir's choices are diminishing quickly and regional developments are moving against him (AC Vol 60 No 4, Pushing Beshir towards the exit). Most of the negotiations behind closed doors include the idea of a political transition from the current regime to one that could hold credible elections.

How and when El Beshir leaves power in that process is far from settled. The two critical factors are the strength of the opposition movements which have united around calls for his departure and El Beshir's vulnerability to an internal putsch by senior officers in the armed forces. The determination of the opposition is not in doubt but there are few signs yet of chinks in the high command's public support for El Beshir, despite reports of splits and conspiracies against him (AC Vol 60 No 1, The people's spring against Beshir).

Many senior officers, complicit in decades of atrocities in Darfur, the Nuba mountains and elsewhere, worry about retribution should the regime come tumbling down. At best, we hear, that many want to see a managed transition in which El Beshir maintains a role, akin to that of F.W. de Klerk's position in the dying days of apartheid South Africa. For Sudanese activists such a parallel, suggested quietly at the African Union meeting in Addis last month, is simply surrealistic.

El Beshir's announcement of a state of emergency on 22 February, which was met with an uptick in protests, appears to be a bid to ensure the military's loyalty by appointing senior officers to all 18 provincial states. A Khartoum source described the move as a coup against the ruling National Congress Party which stripped the civilian Islamists of political power.

Clique manoeuvres
Although the opposition and some regional governments insist that El Beshir's exit is an essential first step to organising a transition, the ruling clique has been trying to obfuscate the issues.

At the Munich security summit on 15-17 February, security chief Salah Mohamed Abdullah 'Gosh' was reported to have lobbied his counterparts from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates to find ways to back an exit strategy or soft-landing for El Beshir. That leaked out when the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite channel reported that Gosh had met with Israeli security officials in Munich.

Not only has that complicated the relationship of Gosh (until then regarded by some as the second most powerful man in the country) with El Beshir, but it has reinforced the rift between Khartoum and Qatar. Earlier in the year, El Beshir had flown to Qatar in pursuit of a financial bail-out. Not only was he turned down and refused meetings with senior officials but the Doha regime humiliated him by not inviting him to a military passing out parade at which most of the students were Sudanese.

Qatar's problem with El Beshir is his siding with Saudi Arabia and UAE in the Yemen war, in which the money paid for Sudanese troops has become a vital prop for Khartoum's treasury. It also takes issue with the way that El Beshir – again at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Egypt – has ostensibly distanced himself from supporters of the Muslim Brothers as the price for their continued support.

Other interlocutors with El Beshir and his ruling clique – including the African Union, the United Nations, the United States State Department, and internal political groups – have come away with different interpretations of what any transition will involve. UN, US and European Union representatives consider that the transition is likely to involve the President stepping down in the near feature, with or without the carrot of the suspension of the International Criminal Court charges against him (AC Vol 60 No 4, Pushing Beshir towards the exit). The weakest version of this formula is that El Beshir simply pledges not to run in the 2020 elections.

We hear that the EU representatives (most of whom are members of the ICC) are less willing than the US to contemplate any suspension of the genocide charges against El Beshir as it would set a precedent, and could ring the death knell of the court. The US government, notably National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, oppose the Court and abjure any US cooperation with it.

Thabo Mbeki's team from the AU appear to envisage a role for El Beshir in managing the transition and are keen to keep any involvement of the UN to a minimum. Following discussions between UN Secretary General António Guterres and El Beshir in Addis Ababa last month, Khartoum sources have told us the President's office firmly quashed any idea of another UN special rapporteur on Sudan. Guterres's idea of appointing Nicholas Haysom as his special envoy was opposed by both El Beshir and Mbeki's group at the AU.

The central contest remains between the opposition formations and the state's security apparatus.  What has changed the situation is the determination and resilience of the demonstrators in 15 states in the country, and then the organisation by the professional groups of doctors, lawyers, teachers and journalists who organised strikes in Khartoum, El Obeid, Medani and several other cities. They started on 19 December and are still building support.

Using different means of organisation – mass protests, small assemblies, sit-ins, strikes, speeches in markets, and quick ad-hoc protests – this new opposition movement has quickly gathered mass support and wrong-footed El Beshir and the security agencies. This flexibility and agility of the protestors has inspired the fast-growing movement in Algeria which demands the departure of four-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

US officials argue their continuing dialogue with El Beshir, which envisages an unspecified transition process, has been a restraining influence on the regime (AC Vol 58 No 15, Sanctions test for Trump). For their part, the regime's security forces started with generalised arrests during the protests, beating, interrogating and torturing demonstrators, then compelling them to sign undertakings not to participate in future protests. Some were released within a day but known activists were held for much longer periods.

As the protests gathered momentum, security agents made many more targeted arrests of known activists, members of such groups as the Communist Party, Sudan Call or the Sudan Liberation Movement. None of these groups have any interest in joining the National Dialogue currently being promoted by Gosh. In the absence of a widely agreed strategy for a transition, that suggests El Beshir and the military will ratchet up the repression, hoping to break the will of the growing opposition. Judging by the last three months, that will no longer work.

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