Egypt’s experience under the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived rule has seemingly had a heavy impact on the ruling regime in Sudan. To prevent a popular ouster from being repeated, Khartoum has sought to control the military establishment by tightening its grip on key positions and appointing a number of its loyal leaders to senior official positions. It also sought to take the reins of the Islamic movement, given its moral and popular influential role in many Sudanese issues. Through these two tools, the regime in Khartoum believes that it has succeeded in repairing cracks and preparing to confront external challenges. However, with cracks turning into splits and problems escalating, the recent repair may be to no avail.
President Omar al-Bashir’s decision on Dec. 8, 2013, to replace influential leaders has led to various reactions. Some have considered it a soft coup from within the palace to get rid of icons who have long been in their positions. Others have considered it an operation to embellish the image of the regime and confront the expanding street demonstrations. Another group viewed the issue as a step toward reshuffling the cards of the presidential house in the near future. While changes at the ministerial level seem normal, it is strange that Bashir would send away his first vice president, Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, and appoint Gen. Bakri Hassan Salih instead. Bashir also dismissed Vice President Al Haj Adam Youssef and the strong Nafie Ali Nafie and replaced them respectively with Hassabo Mohamed Abdel Rahman and Ibrahim Ghandour as assistant to the president. In a move that carries multiple political connotations, the parliament saw important changes, too, namely the appointing of al-Fateh Ezzeddine as house speaker instead of Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir, who recently resigned, and Issa Buchra instead of Sami Ahmed Mohammed as vice speaker.
A game of musical chairs
A superficial interpretation indicates that the changes are designed to bring in new people and protect the regime from the rifts that have started to affect a group of its pillars. An in-depth interpretation says otherwise; most notably, it speaks of an attempt to contain public outrage, which the opposition has taken upon itself to employ politically to convey an image suggesting harmony between the people’s resentment and the opposition forces’ plans and hopes to reach a popular formula to overthrow the regime, the Egyptian way. Bashir brought about changes at the top of the pyramid to defuse any unexpected violent moves and avoid deadly strikes. Sacrificing prominent figures is easier than shaking up an entire regime that has become subject to collapse amid rising tension, as a result of both the sharp rise in prices and an increased exploitation of the protests. The tensions were also heightened by the armed clashes in the country's western and southern parts, the tense relations with its closest neighbors (Juba and Cairo), and a potential intensified foreign attack due to human rights violations.
On the other hand, this climate has allowed some leaders to aspire to the highest position, particularly since a year ago Bashir said he would not run for office in 2015. This gave the impression that Bashir wanted to step down quietly. Speculation has begun to point at two persons, namely Ali Osman Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie. Those with close ties to the regime in Sudan know that each one has ambitions, and each holds cards that may help him to achieve those ambitions. The influential military establishment, however, had a different opinion, and Bashir's trust in both officials was not at the level required. Taha has good ties with Western parties, most notably Washington. He is known to be the sponsor of the 2005 Naivasha Peace Accord that gave the South the right to self-determination and secession. Bashir fears that suspicious connections may cause him to be overthrown while in power, or to be handed over to the International Criminal Court after he leaves power. Moreover, the mysterious Nafie has succeeded over the years in establishing a security network that has become a threat to some military and political leaders. It provides him with a database that can be easily used to serve his interests.
Two birds with one stone
The recent change hit these two birds with one stone, to the advantage of Gen. Bakri Hassan Salih, who has always been loyal to Bashir, the military establishment and the Islamic Movement. Through all of the positions he previously held — as defense minister, minister of presidential affairs and member of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation — Salih provided honest advice and loyal service. He was familiar with the most sensitive files. Moreover, with his appointment as deputy secretary-general of the Islamic Movement last year, [Salih] brought together the two most important covers in Sudan (the military establishment and the Islamic Movement). Speculation about preparing him to replace Bashir in the next elections was not unfounded. Given his personal qualities, partisan qualifications and loyalty to both the military establishment and Bashir, Salih is not likely to sacrifice the president following his arrival to the palace. This obsession has preoccupied the Sudanese president, who was worried about Taha's opportunism and has not trusted his intentions should he succeed in removing the president from power, particularly since the experience of his mentor Hassan al-Turabi is still in mind. Taha sided with Bashir in the well-known dispute with Turabi in 1999, throwing aside all of the teachings of his mentor. His pragmatism was confirmed in several positions as he managed to keep his position in the palace and thwart every attack that threatened him.
The removal of Taha from the Islamic Movement almost a year ago is the basis for what happened to him recently and is what opened the door to his smooth political removal. The same applies to Nafei, who worked for a long time in the dark. When he began to show up and interfere in different cases, he sent different parties around the bend.
Sudan’s political, economic and security legacy is too complicated to say that a change of people could lead to a change in policies. The changes are not sufficient to make ordinary citizens feel that the standard of living is gradually improving, decrease the level of tension in the various states and make opposition forces believe in the possibility of introducing reforms that open the way to a real national consensus. The quick step taken by Bashir in the past few days is merely an attempt to protect himself from the likelihood of betrayal by some of his close associates. It also involves the desire to avoid the rough change that the military institution — given that it is the only institution still able to find solutions in Sudan — may find itself forced to make, in light of the deterioration of most aspects of life. The differences that the ruling National Congress Party has faced have weakened its moves, which has enticed some political forces to attack a number of its current leaders. Perhaps the removal of Ghazi and his group will not be a unique event.
If Bashir has taken a final position not to run in the upcoming elections, the likelier alternate candidate would be his first deputy, Gen. Bakri Hassan Salih. He embodies two of the most important circles, namely the military establishment and the Islamic Movement. The critical changes that have occurred have led to the removal of two political obstacles in his way. The positive results of his affiliations remain to be seen, not in firmly running matters, but rather in his ability to convince people that there has been a real change in the country. If the failure goes on, it will not only cause him to be ousted early but will also shake up all of the regime’s officials, whether behind the scenes or not. Anger has reached its peak among citizens. Economic sedatives or political tranquilizers no longer work.