Sudan claims to have foiled coup, but arrests expose growing Islamist dissent

Last week, Sudanese security forces arrested the country’s ex-spymaster Salah Ghosh and at least a dozen other people, including high-ranking military officers, on charges of attempting a coup against President Omar al-Bashir. Little information has been made available regarding the alleged plotters, but according to AFP, state media also announced that “[t]his plot is led by some opposition party leaders.” 

The arrests came a few days after President Bashir returned from a “minor” operation in Saudi Arabia — one of the few places he can travel with fear of being turned over to the ICC to stand trial for war crimes — and oversaw the appointment of one of his main parliamentary boosters as secretary-general of the nation’s Islamic Movement organization, which Bashir and his cohorts created in 1999 after falling out with the cleric Hassan al-Turabi, who in the 1980s and 1990s led the Islamist organization that helped the current regime seize power. The new appointment was strongly criticized by al-Turabi, who is now the leader of the opposition calling for Bashir to step down, and has been described in Sudanese press commentaries as a defeat for “reformists,” since it further weds the organization to the president’s own political party, the NCP. Alex Thurston notes that the political battle at the Islamists’ national conference may not have been a precipitant for the arrest of the accused plotters and other individuals, According to Thurston, “[t]he combination of military defections and Islamist dissent (and of course there is overlap between military and Islamist ranks) poses a major problem for a regime that has relied on these constituencies as pillars of its support.”

If this was a coup by dissatisfied elements of Bashir’s military/intelligence inner circle, it bears out the worst-case scenario(s) alluded to in Reuters’ and the ICG’s November special reports on Khartoum’s precarious control over the factions the regime feels it must placate to avoid being deposed by an increasingly disappointed and impoverished populace. When students and state employees have come out into the streets this this past year to protest government austerity measures, Bashir has dismissed them as “elbow-lickers,” and his security forces have cracked down on them, reportedly spiriting dozens away to be tortured in “ghost houses.” 

As an (optimistic) accounting of the “coup” in Al Quds Al-Arabi opines that “regardless of the validity of the charge against the officers of the detainees, this confrontation may have brought the internal crisis in the system to the point of no return” because “there are even signs that the important components in the security sector in turn has withdrawn its support for the regime and sided with the reform camp.”

This would be extremely dangerous to Bashir’s rule because a significant part of the criticism leveled at Bashir from his fellow Islamists stems from the 2005 ceasefire and 2011 independence of South Sudan from the north.  Since then, although Sudan and South Sudan “signed several agreements paving the way for resuming vital oil exports and creating a demilitarized zone along their contested, oil-rich border” in September 2012, South Sudan says Khartoum is delaying the implementation of the agreements because it now has “additional demands on security issues that go far beyond the scope of the 27th September agreements.”

Those “issues” are, according to the Sudan Tribune, Khartoum demanding that South Sudan oversee the disarmament of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – Army North (SPLM/A-N), which is fighting an insurgency against the Sudanese Army in several provinces bordering the new South Sudanese state, provinces which have been absolutely devastated by the ongoing conflict, in which thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more made refugees.

Sudan denies there is a humanitarian crisis, of course, yet still does its best to bar aid and outsiders from entering the region as it carries out military operations. Bashir’s government is not going through with the mich-needed September agreement because it claims that the SPLM/A-N gets its marching orders from Juba, and there is some truth in this charge.

South Sudan says it has no control over the SPLM/A-N, and this is also partly true because even if it is a kind of “stay-behind” organization, as Khartoum charges, like all “stay-behind” organization the SPLM/A-N has its own parochial interests to consider – Khartoum having been quite clear it is willing to pay a high price in civilian lives to secure this region, one of its few remaining oil sources. Moreover, Juba has enough problems trying to disarm militias within its own borders.

Leaving the military matters aside for now, though, there are still sufficient non-South Sudan-related grievances to hound Bashir. According to Reuters:

Perhaps the biggest threat facing Bashir comes from inside his party. The movement that seized power in 1989 in a burst of religious fervor has atrophied. Younger and mid-level officials are angry that the same people have been running the country for more than two decades. Many educated officials are unhappy because Sudan’s isolation curbs their career prospects.

And, from the ICG:

The NCP is in a state of confusion, extensively fractured and with no coherent strategy for addressing multiple security, political and economic challenges. Members are deeply unhappy with the leadership, its policies and massive corruption. Discontent is rising, and local chapters are increasingly challenging decisions, as well as the party’s  general orientation. Internal divisions are spilling into the  open in the form of critical memorandums and calls for reform. Different parts of the NCP – right-wing factions in the youth movement, the parliamentary bloc, the army and the student movement – have independently sent written protests to the leadership. Both enters and the ICG also note that Bashir is earning a reputation as a less-than-sincere Islamist among hardliners in the clerical establishment, such as those who helped organize the anti-Western protests this fall that saw the German embassy in Khartoum assaulted and gutted by fire over the film “Innocence of Muslims.” 

Bashir may believe he can dismiss the “elbow-lickers” – his security services moved quickly to cow them of stating any repeat mass demonstrations – and rely on old men like his Islamic Movement secretary-general appointee to hold the Young Turks in line, but given how he rose to power, he cannot be so dismissive of such dissenters as his former spymaster Ghosh and ex-special forces men known as the “Al Sa’ihun” who had been deployed in the conflict with the SPLA up until 2005.

And unfortunately for the two Sudans, if there is one undertaking Bashir can score points on despite the fuel shortages, “ghost houses” and arrests, it is upping the ante on the southern border.