With army appeal, Sudan protesters test Bashir’s ‘coup-proof’ regime
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Protesters’ decision to place their faith in the Sudanese army poses a challenge to longtime leader Omar al-Bashir, who has built an extensive and multi-pronged security apparatus designed to ensure he is not forcefully removed.
At the biggest rally so far, tens of thousands of protesters, many of them women, have camped out around the army headquarters in Khartoum since Saturday, setting up tents in scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Signalling a change of strategy, their calls on the military to protect them and to help oust Bashir have prompted comparisons with events in Egypt eight years ago, when the army stepped in to prevent clashes between protesters and police, and ultimately forced President Hosni Mubarak from power.
"When the army is here, we have no fear," protesters flashing victory signs chanted on Monday, according to eyewitness reports. Others held placards reading “The army and the people are one”.
On Tuesday morning the protesters continued to brave a deadly crackdown by riot police and security forces, despite renewed attempts to disperse them amid reports of heavy gunfire at the scene.
Anne-Laure Mahé, a Sudan specialist at the IRSEM Centre for Strategic Research in Paris, says the scale of the protest has given renewed momentum to the months-old movement – along with a new focal point.
“Finding an emblematic rallying point is important to all protest movements, and Sudan’s protesters now have one,” Mahé told FRANCE 24. “People have dug in and the crowd has been growing larger. It’s also a highly symbolic place, an open challenge to the country’s security apparatus.”
Protecting the people
There was no shortage of symbolism in the date chosen to begin the rally outside army headquarters. April 6 marked the 24th anniversary of the 1985 military coup that toppled the brutal regime of then president Jaafar Nimeiri and paved the way for an elected government, albeit a short-lived one.
Harking back to that precedent, protesters are hoping to push the army to side with them and remove Bashir, who is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide, and has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1989.
"We want you, the young officers and soldiers, to remain committed to the role of the national army, which is of protecting the people," said the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), one of the groups spearheading the protests, in a statement on Monday.
Efforts to seek the army’s protection appear to have succeeded, at least in part.
While security forces have made several attempts to break up the protest, using tear gas and live ammunition, army soldiers have repeatedly come out to protect the demonstrators, often firing shots in the air and deploying troops on streets around the protesters. Witnesses have cited cases of soldiers in uniform mingling with demonstrators, distributing water and even chanting slogans.
The Sudan Doctors Committee, an affiliate of the SPA, said a soldier was fatally wounded while trying to protect the protesters on Monday, though the report could not be independently verified.
“The mobilisation has reached a critical mass and this has pushed some soldiers to side with the protesters,” said Sudan specialist Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a PhD candidate at Yale University whose research focuses on the collective dynamics of revolutionary movements and the armed forces’ response.
“It doesn’t mean the army has switched sides as an institution. These are still only localised defections, but the situation is very unstable,” Gallopin told FRANCE 24, warning of a possible “snowball effect” as soldiers see their colleagues waver.
“Whether disobedience leads to punishment will be crucial crucial in determining whether other soldiers follow suit and stop obeying orders,” he added. “In this respect, we should not underestimate the symbolic importance of what just happened. Soldiers didn’t side with the protesters in a remote provincial town; they did so in front of the army’s HQ.”
Divide and rule
While individual cases of disobedience have heartened the protesters, there has been no sign yet of high-ranking officers following suit.
Many in the army’s rank-and-file can sympathise with ordinary people’s tales of hardship, along with the accusations of economic mismanagement levelled at the Bashir regime amid soaring food prices and a regular shortage of fuel and foreign currency.
However, “the top brass still enjoy substantial privileges, like the rest of the security apparatus,” cautioned IRSEM’s Mahé. “For now, they have given no indication that they are prepared to side with the people.”
Several top officials in the army have also engaged in war crimes and widespread corruption, and may feel their fate is tied to that of a repressive, kleptocratic and deeply paranoid regime. And even if some generals did flip, Bashir would still have a number of cards up his sleeve.
Having come to power on the back of a coup in 1989, the veteran leader has spent much of his three decades in power ensuring he doesn’t suffer a similar fate. This has involved crushing dissent, regularly changing top officials, and breaking up the security apparatus into competing units.
As a result, the military has to contend with other forces, chief among them the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which has spearheaded the crackdown on protesters, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), created out of the remnants of the Janjaweed tribal militias that sowed terror in Darfur a decade ago.
“The army has been weakened by Bashir’s counter-balancing strategy,” said Mahé. “It is not as central as it was in the past or as it currently is elsewhere in the region.”
Staving off chaos
Analysts have warned that for the army to remove Bashir some form of entente with the other branches of the security apparatus would be required. That is unlikely, as yet, but not impossible, according to Gallopin, for whom entrenched loyalties may well start to shift when push comes to shove.
“The RSF may be Bashir’s life insurance, but its leader has spoken in support of protesters at the start of the movement, suggesting its loyalty is not infallible,” he explained. And while the current head of the NISS is now seen as a Bashir stalwart, he was previously jailed for six months in 2012 amid allegations he was plotting a coup.
However, any attempt to forcefully remove the president could lead to infighting among security factions and, eventually, a new civil war in a country already scarred by regional insurgencies, Gallopin warned.
Officials say 38 people have died in the protest-related violence since December. Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at over 50, including medics and children, noting that thousands of dissidents have been thrown in jail.
Sudan's armed forces will not allow the country to "fall into chaos", Defence Minister General Awad Ibnouf said late on Monday, adding that the country’s security forces would not tolerate attempts to divide them.
"Sudan's armed forces understand the reasons for the demonstrations and is not against the demands and aspirations of the citizens, but it will not allow the country to fall into chaos," Ibnouf said at a meeting of the top brass, according to the official SUNA news agency.
But if protests continue to grow and Bashir’s position becomes increasingly untenable, army leaders may soon have to redefine what they mean by “chaos”, said Mahé.
“What is the source of chaos?” she added. “Is it the protesters who want affordable bread or a government that is unable to solve the country’s problems?”