Sudan’s deep state still poses a threat to the democratic process

Omar al-Bashir may be gone but the freedom of the Sudanese people still hangs in the balance. Morwan Ali/EPA-EFE

There have been a number of signs suggesting that Sudan’s leadership needs to accelerate the dismantling of the country’s internal security structures. And that it needs to develop a clear strategy on how they will work, and who will manage them. The most recent signal was a mutiny by the operation units of the General Intelligence Directorate on 14 December, 2019.

The mutiny demonstrates that disbanding the roots of the security apparatus, and the deep state will take longer than the three-year transitional period. The deep state was created by the Sudanese Islamic Movement and consolidated by former president Omar al-Bashir.

The transitional government needs to recognise the fact that, for decades, the Sudanese Islamic Movement followed by the National Congress Party embedded themselves within every institution throughout the country, including the security structures. This extended to civil society and businesses, including the commercial and banking sectors as well as the legislative system that governs Sudan.

To ensure the success of the transition process the transitional government needs to deal carefully with the fractured military, security and intelligence apparatus and isolated Islamists. Unless these forces are unified under one leadership, they could try and mobilise disenfranchised Islamist conservatives and isolated security personnel.

Part of this will require the transitional government to have a vision of governance that addresses structural marginalisation. This includes policies that draw in communities affected by the government’s decision to restrict aid in its fight against rebel groups.

The government needs to come up with plans that are innovative, sustainable, inclusive and law-abiding. And they must also allow for the devolution of powers to regions to create and embed real change.

Where it all started

The National Congress Party, which al-Bashir ran, was borne out of the Sudanese Islamic Movement formed during the 1950s. The movement originated as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, then founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The central drive was the creation of an Islamic state based on Sharia law.

After Sudan’s independence in 1956, the Sudanese Islamic Movement focused on spreading Wahhabism, a conservative Sunni religious interpretation of Islam viewed as being far-right in its religious interpretation.

During this period the Sudanese Islamic Movement acted as a pressure group through civil societies, charities and trade unions. It pushed for Sharia law and an Islamic republic. But its plans were stopped when Jaafar Muhammad Nimeiri carried out a coup in 1969.

A coup attempt seven years later led Jaafar Nimeiri to adopt more conciliatory policies. In early 1977, government officials met with the National Front in London and arranged for a conference between Jaafar Nimeiri and Sadiq al-Mahdi in Port Sudan. This became known as the “national reconciliation”. The two leaders signed an eight point agreement that readmitted the opposition to national life in return for the dissolution of the National Front.

The agreement called for the restoration of civil liberties, the freeing of political prisoners and reaffirmation of Sudan’s nonaligned foreign policy. There was also an undertaking to reform local government. The deal led to 1,000 detainees being released. This included Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the Sudanese Islamic Movement. Al-Mahdi was granted amnesty. As a result, al-Mahdi renounced multiparty politics and urged his followers to work within the regime’s one-party system.

The consequence was that the Sudanese Islamic Movement became embedded throughout Sudan’s institutions. This extended to the military, intelligence services, and other bureaucracies with support from Saudi Arabia.

In 1983, Jaafar Nimeiri imposed Sharia law in a bid to shore up legitimacy. This led to the start of the second Sudanese war with the Sudanese People Liberation Movement. Jaafar Nimeiri was ousted in 1985 and al-Mahdi took over.

Over the next decade the Sudanese Islamic Movement would go on to restructure itself into the National Islamic Front with a renewed focus on Sharia law. Pressure mounted on al-Mahdi’s government not to repeal the September laws. But he did anyway, which resulted in a coup in 1989, heralding al-Bashir and National Islamic Front to power.

The Sudanese Islamic Movement would later divide into two groups; the National Congress Party under al-Bashir as chairman and the Popular Congress Party led by al-Turabi until his death in 2016.

The legacy

After taking power in 1989, the Sudanese Islamic Movement regime imposed a set of new laws and regulations that were made to help it realise its “civilisation project”.

An example included the Public Order Law of 1990. Under Article 152 of the law, women accused of indecent acts or “acts contrary to public morals” could be sentenced to 40 lashes, or a fine or both.

The civilisation project extended to the formation of intelligence agencies designed to restrict and harass opposition groups. One of these agencies was led by the Bridger-General Bakri Hassan Saleh who oversaw the internal security of the revolution. This process was rolled out autonomously of the Ministry of Interior and opposition activists were regularly arrested. Saleh was also accused of taking individuals to “Ghost Houses” to be tortured.

The National Intelligence and Security Service, now General Intelligence Service and formerly led by the Major-General Salah Abdallah “Gosh” was given similar extensive powers by the National Security Acts of 1999 and 2010. In 1991, the Popular Defence Forces was formed. Its recruits were forcefully conscripted into it, religiously indoctrinated and then sent off to fight a religious war in South Sudan.

Opposition to the regime developed on four fronts. Firstly, several coups were mounted by the Sudanese Armed Forces. Secondly, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement represented a major threat to the regime, seizing government assets and large territory. Thirdly, a alliance called the National Democratic Alliance was formed. It brought together numerous smaller parties as well as other factions, including decent and legitimate officers. In 1994 the alliance moved its command bases to Eritrea from where it coordinated attacks in Sudan.

The fourth development was the mobilisation of women and young people through university riots and protest in the 1990s. This would later galvanise people, leading to the 2011–2013 protests, and those that took place in recent years.

What next

The architecture put in place after al-Bashir was ousted on 11 April last year will continue to cause problems if reforms are not done properly. The government needs to put in place a strategy that ensures that those still active in the deep state don’t mobilise and hinder the democratic process that’s underway.

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