Permanently dressed in his army fatigues when seen in public, President Field Marshall Omar Hassan Al-Bashir has downed his civilian attire and has rolled up his sleeves to begin the task of rebuilding the country. Despite the pockets of continuing unrest, calls for civil disobedience and opposition demands for him to step down, Al-Bashir and his inner circle now seemed convinced that the worst is over and his survival for at least a year and perhaps beyond is assured.
Pressure from his own National Congress Party (NCP) forced him to step aside as leader of the party. A move, argued by some, to be of no real consequence. Officially Al-Bashir remains head of the NCP until the party’s next annual conference for which no firm date has been set. Former Governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, has been appointed to take over the day-to-day running of the party leaving the president to make new government appointments without consultations with the NCP. Not only does this serve to marginalise the role of the NCP but also prompt questions about the party’s function in a nation governed by emergency laws – effectively making the work of political parties and the national parliament redundant.
Overcoming the anger and dissatisfaction of potentially millions of ordinary Sudanese at the NCP’s 30-year role in government is a battle the party needs to win to survive. One of the biggest challenges will be keeping the lid on a simmering internal conflict between those who wish to see a softer approach to the protestors’ demands and those who want to return to business as usual. There remains an acute awareness that the unwillingness of protestors to acquiesce to the new state of emergency restrictions is intrinsically linked to the refusal to allow the NCP to continue its involvement in Sudan’s government.
Reports suggest that the NCP is preparing to end political tensions in the country by conducting open dialogue with the key leaders of the opposition. In Al-Bashir 22 February nation address, he signaled that the direction of the country would move towards the 2016 National Dialogue outcomes. His commitment to those objective remains a strategic move to keep almost 100 minor opposition parties politically engaged. However, with the National Congress party having a numerical advantage in parliament and local assembly, future policy directives may continue to favour the NCP.
Nevertheless, in this uncomfortable hiatus, the idea that Al-Bashir remains a non-aligned president with equal-distance between the political parties may give him a false sense of security. With like-minded army officers surrounding him, the focus will be to improve the economic fortunes of the country as a means to pacify resistance and dissent. With unconfirmed reports of police and army officers joining the ranks of the peaceful protest movement, Al-Bashir’s hold on power is by no means entirely secure.
Given the dangers, Al-Bashir and his supporters are keen to change the narrative about the reasons for the introduction of the state of emergency. Former information minister, Ahmed Bilal, claimed Monday that martial law was more to do with routing out corruption than driving down protests. Yet another anti-corruption unit has been set up by the president during the past few days in a confidence building measure. The move is another tacit admission that corruption, maladministration and embezzlement continue to plague and threaten the economic well-being of the country.
Speaking in parliament, the justice minister admitted that the state of emergency had placed restrictions on freedoms but opened up the possibility that it may not see out its full year term. Mohamed Ahmed Salim said yesterday: “The imposition of a state of emergency has a negative impact … because it restricts public freedoms.” Tabling the presidential order to officially back the state of emergency, he told lawmakers, “We hope that the reasons for which the state of emergency has been imposed end soon.”
Outside Sudan, Al-Bashir continues to hope that some Gulf countries, Turkey and Russia will remain supportive of his attempt to stave off the challenges to his rule. At the very least, Al-Bashir would want the standoff approach of Western and Middle Eastern governments to continue.
Sudan remains a strategic ally to the West; providing crucial intelligence on militant groups across the Arab world and becoming an instrumental part of the European Union’s migration policy to curb the flow of refugees from East Africa – through Sudan – to Europe. Last year the numbers dropped from a recorded one million in 2015 to roughly 150,000.
In an American Wall Street Journal article yesterday, senior analyst Elizabeth Dickinson from the Brussel based think-tank International Crisis Group noted, “Bashir has a cunning record of allying himself with everyone and being beholden to no one.” She added: “He has a reputation for transactional diplomacy.”
Most of the regional powers have refused to overtly criticise Al-Bashir or offer any kind of financial or military support that could change the balance of power definitively in Al-Bashir’s favour. However, with life in Sudan returning to normal Al-Bashir’s next dilemma will be when should he lift the state of emergency and return the country to constitutional rule.
For the moment, hopes of holding a 2020 election remain high. Any move to postpone the plebiscite could result in Al-Bashir’s greatest challenge yet. Not only from millions of dissatisfied Sudanese citizens but from the internal and external opposition groups and worst from the disgruntled voice within the Islamic oriented NCP. It is clear that whilst it appears that Al-Bashir is over the worst, his hold on power is by no means entirely secure.