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Bashir is gone, but who will lead, or seize, Sudan's revolution?

Umit Bektas, Reuters | A Sudanese protester waves a national flag in front of a barricade on a road leading to the defense ministry compound in Khartoum, April 30, 2019

Weeks after President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, tensions between Sudan’s protest movement and powerful military are mounting with regional powers ready to seize on divisions between and within rival camps.

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The posters began circulating late Sunday as Sudanese opposition representatives were holding talks with the country’s ruling military council in a bid to ensure the latest uprising does not go the way of previous protest movements, co-opted or bludgeoned into historic insignificance.

“Equality in female participation at every level,” the posters proclaimed, inviting women to participate in a “women’s march” the next day.

While opposition leaders negotiated the formation of a joint civilian-military council that would take over power in Sudan, a number of female demonstrators were protesting over the lack of women’s representatives in the critical talks.

The Sudanese uprising that led to the April 11 ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir was never just a political revolt. It has also been a cultural revolution, a shaking-up of decades of marginalisation of women, non-Arab minorities and secular figures who were oppressed or silenced during 30 years of Islamist autocracy.

Weeks after Bashir’s ouster, the future of Sudan is the source of intense debate and disquiet, with diverse actors jostling to have a say in the form and shape the country will take. Within the country’s vast security establishment, senior military officers have been rising and crashing, in a sign of the turmoil that has gripped an institution that was manipulated and controlled by Bashir.

Meanwhile beyond Sudan’s borders, regional rivals are attempting to maneuver or hijack the revolution as they vie for strategic gains in a country that straddles Africa’s Saharan and Sub-Saharan regions, with an 850- kilometre Red Sea coastline providing access to one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Military and the people tussle for power

The biggest challenge confronting the Sudanese opposition is the battle for power between the military and a civilian protest movement trying to avoid the failures of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The struggle these days is focused on the make-up of a joint military-civilian council that would take over from the 10-member military council ruling the country since Bashir’s ouster.

The opposition Declaration for Freedom and Change (DFC) -- a broad coalition orchestrating the protests – is seeking a 15-member joint council comprised of eight civilian and seven military representatives.

The military on the other hand, wants a council made up of seven military representatives and three civilians, a spokesman for the military council told reporters on Monday.

Tensions between the two camps have been rising this week, with the military council calling on protesters to clear roadblocks around the opposition’s sit-in area outside Alqiyada al Amaah, the military headquarters complex in the capital, Khartoum.

The opposition, on the other hand, has vowed to continue the protests until the military returns of its barracks and power is handed over to civilians.

But that is proving to be an uphill task amid signs of a hardening stance among senior military officers.

An ambitious former Janjaweed boss

On Tuesday, a top Sudanese general risked inflaming the situation when he said the country’s current military ruler, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, would also head the joint military-civilian council.

Burhan has repeatedly proclaimed he is “with the people” and his soldiers “will not attack protesters”.

But while Burhan has a measure of credibility since he is considered relatively clean and not part of Bashir’s inner circle, his deputy on the military council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has sparked unease in opposition ranks.

Widely known by his nickname “Hemedti,” Dagalo was a commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group that grew out of the government-backed Janjaweed militias accused of committing war crimes in the western Darfur region.

A member of the Rizeigat tribe of camel-herding Arab nomads in Darfur, Dagalo has risen from humble origins to the top echelons of Sudan’s security establishment with the sheer force of his ambition.

At the height of the Darfur conflict, he was one of the only Janjaweed commanders to grant access and an interview to a documentary film crew, a platform he used to boast about a 2006 visit to Bashir’s home, where he was “personally asked” to fight in Darfur.

When the latest anti-government protests broke out in December, RSF units were deployed in Khartoum, where Dagalo once again gave media interviews to declare his support for the people’s “legitimate” demands. Following Bashir’s downfall, he claimed to have played a major role in preventing bloodshed by helping “remove the president” -- who was his biggest patron in less uncertain times.

If Dagalo’s public comments are a measure of which way the political winds are blowing in Sudan, the former Janjaweed commander’s statements on Tuesday did not appear to augur well for the opposition.

"We are ready to negotiate, but no chaos after today," he told reporters after announcing that six security personnel have been killed nationwide in clashes with protesters while 16 others were wounded in Monday’s clashes. "There were incidents of burning of markets, looting of money," he said.

Sisi plays spoiler in the AU

Protest leaders are aware that a collapse of law and order would be the easiest pretext for a military crackdown and the start of a counter-revolution similar to what happened five years ago across the northern border.

The spectre of Egypt haunts Sudanese opposition circles with “No to the Egyptian outcome” and “Victory or Egypt” turning into popular chants at the Khartoum sit-in.

The “Egyptian outcome” refers to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s takeover of the transition process before Egypt’s only democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, could complete his term in office.

But Sisi has succeeded in maneuvering in favour of Sudan’s military leaders by giving the Transitional Military Council (TMC) additional time for a power handover to civilians.

He has managed that in his role as current chair of the African Union (AU) under the 55-member bloc’s rotating presidency system.

On April 15, just days after Bashir’s ouster, the AU’s Peace and Security Council issued a communique calling on the Sudanese military to “step aside and hand over power to a transitional civilian-led political authority” within a “maximum period” of 15 days. Failure to comply, the statement noted, would lead to Sudan’s suspension from the AU “until the restoration of constitutional order”.

But a week later, Sisi convened a meeting in Cairo of select African heads of state, which recommended a handover extension from April 30 to three months.

“One of the intentions behind such an extension is to challenge the power of the continued resistance and to push towards gradual diffusion of the sit-in,” explained Dalia El Roubi, an activist and member of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Khartoum.

Following sustained Egyptian pressure on AU members, the bloc’s Peace and Security Council on Tuesday extended the April 30 deadline for an additional 60 days, a two-month compromise that has undermined the AU’s role as a promoter of democratic principles on the continent.

Sisi’s diplomatic maneuverings over the past few weeks have not gone unnoticed by Sudanese citizens calling for the end of military rule.

Anti-Sisi sentiment is running high in Khartoum, where hundreds of people gathered outside the Egyptian Embassy on April 25 to condemn what they called Sisi’s “interference” in Sudan, according to news reports. Demonstrators chanted,“Tell Al-Sisi this is Sudan, your borders are just (until) Aswan,” referring to the border between the two countries.

‘Keep your money’

Many protesters have also been wary of a $3 billion emergency aid pledged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Sudan.

Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are widely viewed as the Arab powers most opposed to a change in the status quo in Khartoum.

Sudan’s economic woes, compounded by corruption and mismanagement, have left it particularly vulnerable to influence by its oil-rich Gulf allies across the Red Sea. Both Burhan and Hemedti have worked closely with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the deployment of Sudanese forces in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is conducting a military operation against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

While some Sudanese have called on the two Gulf kingdoms to “keep your money,” other opposition groups, including several armed factions, travelled to the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi to discuss a UAE-Saudi backed proposal for a military-led transition council.

‘Kandaka go home’

With so many geostrategic interests at stake, many activists under the Declaration for Freedom and Change (DFC) umbrella are wary of focusing on divergences within the broad opposition movement.

Many Sudanese women activists, for instance, have been dismayed about the low level of female participation in negotiations with the military council. But they are careful about voicing their grievances.

“Some believe it should be an internal discussion, that we shouldn’t speak up about it so the transition will be smooth or we will give the TMC [Transitional Military Council] ammunition to say we are not responsible,” explained Roubi.

But women, who have borne the brunt of the military regime’s hardline Islamist policies, have been at the forefront of the protest movement, with thousands gathering day after day at sit-ins across the country.

The role of women in the anti-Bashir demonstrations was highlighted by a video clip, which went viral, of a Sudanese student, dressed in a traditional taub, leading the crowd in a revolutionary chant.

Female protesters like Alaa Salah have been dubbed Kandakas after Nubian queens who ruled the region where the White and Blue Niles meet thousands of years ago. But in recent days, a new song has been making the rounds, with young male activists singing, “Kandaka go home, shafata (men) are protecting the revolution”.

The lyrics are well-meaning, Roubi explained, with the young men trying to reassure women that they can take care of the situation. But it underscored the paternalism and patriarchy that has set in after decades of Islamist rule.

“We’re frustrated. They say this is a structural issue. Well then fix it. This is the time for change. We’re in the middle of a revolution. We can’t say let’s do it later we took the lead right from the start. We’re not victims and we don’t need someone to speak on our behalf.”

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