Military Factions Vie for Power After Coup in Sudan

Protesters vow to press on until they gain civilian rule.

After Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted, members of the Sudanese military gather in a street with protestors in central Khartoum on April 11. (Ahmed Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)
After Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted, members of the Sudanese military gather in a street with protestors in central Khartoum on April 11. (Ahmed Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

Omar al-Bashir led Sudan for 30 years. His successor, Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, led the country for about 30 hours.

Ibn Auf stepped down as the head of Sudan’s ruling military council Friday, just one day after leading a coup against Bashir. He did not explain his reasons for the resignation but promptly named another general, Abdel-Fatah al-Burhan Abdel-Rahman, as his replacement.

The announcement was the latest political drama to unfold in Sudan, where demonstrators have been protesting for months, demanding economic and political reforms. Friday’s reshuffle was the latest sign that Sudan’s turmoil was not over.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that has spearheaded the protests, renewed its calls for a civilian-led political transition and called on citizens to continue their sit-in at the army headquarters.

The military council that took over following Bashir’s ouster said on Friday it would lead a two-year transition that could end sooner under the right political conditions.

Some analysts said Ibn Auf’s resignation might suggest that groups within Sudan’s security forces are still vying for power behind the scenes—and pointed to two factions in particular.

One includes military officials with ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among them Ibn Auf and Sudan’s intelligence chief, Salah Gosh. Others apparently have the backing of Qatar and Turkey, countries that are pushing for more influence in Sudan in an extension of their regional rivalries with the other Gulf states.

“Nobody’s really agreed who will be in and who will be out,” said Susan Stigant, the director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. “There’s a risk of escalation of violence between those factions.”

Payton Knopf, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Sudan, said the United States should focus on ensuring that the regional rivalries are not exported there. “The nightmare scenario is that different camps in the Middle East get grafted onto the situation in Sudan,” he said. “The U.S. is not going to solve this on its own, but it can lead an international consensus to a civilian-led transition”

In the months before his ouster, Bashir was in talks with the Qataris and Saudis for more economic relief, trying to play the two regional rivals off one another, said Willow Berridge, a scholar on Sudan at Newcastle University. She said the military officers who now rule Sudan might “try to play the same game.”

In Washington, U.S. officials have called for a democratic transition of power in Sudan but so far refrained from playing the leading role in mediating the crisis.

“The Sudanese people should determine who leads them and their future. The Sudanese people have been clear that they are demanding a civilian-led transition now,” a State Department spokesman said.

Before Bashir’s ouster, the Trump administration was in talks with his government to lift the State Department’s designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for progress on human rights and counterterrorism cooperation, among other issues.

The State Department suspended the talks after Thursday’s coup, but the spokesman indicated the United States would consider reopening talks under the right conditions. “We remain open to engagement that would support meaningful progress … with leaders who are willing to address the Sudanese people’s legitimate demands,” the spokesman said.

The abrupt changes in Sudan present the same dilemma that protest organizers have been facing for decades: How do they dismantle the cabal of military leaders ruling the country? Activists are split on how to accomplish the transition to democracy.

Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, said the international community should now focus on preventing a massacre in Sudan. In late 2013, the Sudanese government allegedly killed around 200 people who took part in demonstrations.

“We have reached 70 killed since December and there is an ongoing threat this can happen again. We need you to be looking carefully with us because we are very, very worried and concerned that he will use violence,” Abdelgalil told Foreign Policy. She emphasized that no foreign military should interfere in Sudan’s peaceful change.

Other Sudanese civil society groups are calling for stronger international support to sideline the military and install a civilian-led transition in Sudan.

“There is still hope that a coordinated campaign from within and outside Sudan will influence the new military council to hand over power to a transitional civilian government. To do so, we need to push the African Union member states, the African Union Peace and Security Council and the U.N. Security Council,” said a letter from Sudanese civil society groups circulated in the region that was obtained by FP.

The African Union released a statement Thursday saying that “the military takeover is not the appropriate response.”

Brett Carter, a scholar of African politics at the University of Southern California, said most African Union leaders didn’t have much affection for the Bashir government.

“At the same time, they don’t want to do anything that would encourage other protests that would take their inspiration from recent events in Algeria and Sudan,” he said.

“I think from the AU’s perspective, the sooner this situation gets resolved the better.”

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

  Twitter: @brjodonnell