By Khalid Abdelaziz and Aidan Lewis
KHARTOUM/CAIRO (Reuters) – Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir has been ousted after three decades in power following months of mass protests. The military has announced a transitional period of up to two years followed by elections, but demonstrators are pushing for a quick handover of power to civilians.
Bashir, 75, was one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa and the Arab world. He took power in a coup in 1989 and had survived isolation from the West, civil wars, the split between Sudan and South Sudan, indictment by the International Criminal Court, and several previous bouts of protest.
But in December, a worsening economic crisis triggered protests that quickly spread across the country of 40 million, calling for Bashir to go. The protests continued for 16 weeks despite a security crackdown in which dozens died and thousands were detained.
On April 6, protesters stepped up the pressure with a sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum. Riot police and intelligence services tried to clear the area, but the army shielded them before announcing Bashir’s overthrow on April 11.
Despite Bashir’s close ties to the military’s top leadership, mid- and lower-ranking officers more connected to society sympathised with the protesters’ demands, said Hamid Eltigani, a Sudanese professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo.
As pressure from the street mounted, factions within the security establishment distanced themselves from Bashir as they sought to protect their positions, he said.
One Sudanese military officer said a deal was struck within the military leadership. “The faces had to be changed, and they all decided to change them without any bloodshed.”
The appointment of defence minister and vice-president Awad Ibn Auf as head of the Transitional Military Council fuelled widespread anger among protesters because of his close association with Bashir.
He survived just 24 hours, stepping down late on Friday. Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh, better known as Salah Gosh, resigned as the head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) the following day.
Long considered the second most powerful man in the country after Bashir, Salah Gosh was another key target for the protesters.
WHO’S IN CONTROLNOW?
Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan replaced Ibn Auf as head of the military council. Burhan was the third most senior general in the Sudanese military and is little known publicly. As chief of Sudan’s ground forces he oversaw Sudanese troops fighting in the Saudi-led Yemen war and has close ties to senior Gulf military officials.
Burhan’s deputy is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by his nickname Hemedti, who heads Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces. The RSF is a paramilitary grouping that grew out of the Janjaweed militias that fought in Darfur and has provided troops to fight in Yemen.
Other members of the 10-man military council include a NISS representative and the chief of police.
A Sudanese source close to Sudan’s military leadership said the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had a role in planning “the removal of Bashir and General Ibn Auf and Salah Gosh” as part of a strategy of “weakening the power of the Islamists in power in Sudan”.
Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed coup. He belonged to the Islamic Movement, Sudan’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and imposed Sharia law.
The UAE, a leading member of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, was quick to welcome Burhan’s appointment and said it would look to accelerate aid to Sudan. Shortly after Burhan’s nomination, Saudi Arabia said it would provide wheat, fuel and medicine to Sudan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke by telephone to Burhan, the presidential palace said in a statement, offering Egyptian support for Sudan’s stability.
Sudan’s TMC also reported that a joint UAE-Saudi delegation visited Khartoum and met with Buhan and Hemedti conveying a message of the two countries’ willingness to extend support for Sudan “important and historic stage.”
The UAE and Saudi, which supported the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi in Egypt and have worked to counter Islamists linked to the Brotherhood across the region, are following the same goal in Sudan, said the Sudanese source.
“They want to use economic aid to encourage some power centres in Sudan to weaken the presence of Islamists and their full control over economic institutions.”
The influence of their regional rivals Qatar and Turkey, which both had ties to Bashir, will be limited, said the Sudanese military officer. “It was a tug of war, and right now UAE and Saudi won,” he said.
Hemedti has received of Western diplomatic envoys, several of whom say they have pressed him to ensure a rapid transition to civilian rule. The British ambassador said the meeting was “not to endorse or confer legitimacy”. The Dutch envoy said the meeting was held at Hemedti’s invitation.
Burhan has promised a civilian government after consultations with the opposition, and announced an easing of emergency measures and the release of political detainees. But there has been little word from the military on protesters’ demands for a civilian presence in the ruling council, and for members of Bashir’s entourage – some of whom face international sanctions and charges – to be held to account.
The military may be wary of ceding ground if it faces opposition from other parts of the security apparatus.
Bashir had the strongest links across different, overlapping branches of the security forces, which could start competing with each other now he’s gone. While the RSF and the NISS are linked to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Islamists within Sudan’s Popular Defence Forces have connections to Qatar, said Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.
Military officers “basically wanted a soft landing for Bashir, and the army to be kept intact as an institution, and they have Egyptian backing in that strategy,” said de Waal. “The problem is that the demands of the demonstrators are for democracy and they are the only people who want democracy. Nobody else wants democracy.”
When Ibn Auf announced Bashir’s overthrow he said the former president had been detained. Sources told Reuters he was being held at the time under heavy guard at his residence.
The military council has said it will not extradite him, but may try him in Sudan.
The ICC issued arrest warrants for Bashir in 2009 and 2010 on suspicion of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In his final years as president he defied the court, visiting friendly nations including several ICC member states.
Sudan and Bashir denied war crimes were committed, saying casualties in Darfur were exaggerated.
Some have speculated that he could follow the example of Tunisia’s former leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and seek refuge in Saudi Arabia.
(Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai and Yousef Saba in Cairo; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Giles Elgood and Richard Chang)