Military's Grip on Power Challenged by Sudan Democracy Protests

Mohammed Alamin and Samer Khalil Al-Atrush

(Bloomberg) -- Sudan’s transitional military council announced an end to a curfew and a commitment to hand power to a civilian government within two years, signaling that pro-democracy protests are weakening the army’s grip in the oil-producing African nation.

The moves on Saturday followed the decision of Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf to stand down as the head of the council less then two days after the military’s overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule and just hours after veteran intelligence chief Salah Gosh resigned.

The announcement of the end of the curfew and the vow to hand power to civilians was made in a televised statement by the council’s new chief, Abdel Fatah al-Burhan. But Sudan’s galvanized protesters signaled the moves may not be enough, with the main opposition coalition calling for an immediate transition.

“The coup-makers are in disarray,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and a Sudan expert. Al-Bashir “set up an elaborate political-security system that only he was capable of running,” and now they’re “struggling with the conundrum of how to maintain consensus among a divided and militarized elite, and meet enough of the demands of the protesters to have a modicum of legitimacy.”

Al-Bashir became the second regional leader after Algeria’s military-backed president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to leave this month in the face of nationwide protests. The events have stirred echoes of the Arab Spring uprisings that rocked the region from 2011.

Long-Running Protests

The 75-year-old, now under house arrest, himself took power in a 1989 coup and was one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers. His ouster followed almost four months of protests in which more than 45 people were killed in a crackdown.

Saudi Arabia has extended support to the military council and is sending aid including petroleum products, wheat and medicine, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

As he stepped down late Friday, Ibn Auf said he was seeking “to keep the solidarity of the security system, especially the armed forces.” Kamal Abdul Maarouf was also removed as deputy head of the council. There’s been sporadic violence since: at least 16 people have been shot dead by “outlaws” and 20 others injured over the past two days, Sudan’s police said Saturday in a statement.

While demonstrators welcomed the end of al-Bashir’s rule, many said it was only a cosmetic change, with other figures that Sudan’s people rebelled against still in charge. Sudan has seen a series of coups since independence in 1956.

The military council agreed to respect new freedoms for political activists and the media after a Saturday meeting with the Forces of the Freedom and Change Declaration, an alliance of the main protest groups, one of their representatives, Omar el-Digair, told reporters. Activists had also demanded the immediate transfer of power to a civilian government and restructuring of the security services.

The resignation of Gosh, who had twice served as al-Bashir’s spy chief, cheered some protesters. Amnesty International urged Sudan’s new authorities to investigate his alleged role in the killings of protesters in recent months as well as historic claims of torture and other rights violations.

But Mohamed Hamdan, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, was sworn in as vice chief of the military council late Saturday. The RSF has roots in the Janjaweed militia notorious for its attacks on civilians during the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region that began in 2003.

--With assistance from Okech Francis and Nadeem Hamid.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mohammed Alamin in Khartoum at malamin1@bloomberg.net;Samer Khalil Al-Atrush in Tunis at skhalilalatr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Maier at kmaier2@bloomberg.net, Michael Gunn, Paul Abelsky

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