After thousands of protesters staged a sit-in outside the national military headquarters in Khartoum on Saturday calling for the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir, leaders in the Sudanese Armed Forces and security bodies met with the beleaguered ruler to discuss his position at the helm of the country, two Sudanese military sources tell Mada Masr.
What has been dubbed a “million-man” protest stretched into its second day on Sunday, having seen thousands of protesters gather outside the complex — which also houses the National Intelligence and Security Service headquarters, Bashir’s official residence, and the Defense Ministry — to demand that the military back their push to oust Bashir, who has been in power for nearly 30 years.
Amid clashes between security forces and protesters since the outbreak of protests in December, Sudan’s Armed Forces has emerged as an important third party, with eyewitnesses reporting that the military has intervened to protect civilians demonstrating nationwide.
Despite security forces using live rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas in attempts to disperse protesters on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people were able to reach the military headquarters, where they were “sympathetically” received by soldiers, according to eyewitnesses.
The sustained popular mobilization in the three and a half months since demonstrations began in protest of high living costs and a lack of basic commodities has placed mounting pressure on the ruling circle of the Sudanese government, particularly the Armed Forces, to abandon Bashir, a subject that was broached in Saturday night’s meeting.
While Bashir rejected the overtures of some senior officers among the military’s leadership who called for him to resign, Egypt, one of Bashir’s staunchest supporters since the protests broke out, is still considering transition plans in order to ensure “an orderly transition of power within the regime” if necessary, according to an Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
The high-level General Intelligence Service delegation, which Egypt sent to Sudan on Friday ahead of the protests to consult with Bashir and senior military leaders on the latest developments in the country, emphasized its focus on a contingency plan, according to the official, who says that Egypt is looking to keep power away from the Sudanese wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian delegation is still in the Sudanese capital. But the current impression on the Egyptian side is that,“Time is running out for Bashir, and we might see him out of office sooner than we expect,” the Egyptian official tells Mada Masr.
Saturday’s “million-man” protest, which was called for by the Freedom and Change Coalition operating under the banner of the Sudanese Professionals Association, coincided with the 34th anniversary of the 1985 Sudanese uprising that toppled the regime of former dictator Gaafar Nimeiry.
In its call for protests, the SPA urged demonstrators to stage a sit-in outside the Sudanese Armed Forces headquarters and refuse to leave until Bashir leaves office, in coordination with other protests across the country.
When protesters began making their way toward the military headquarters on Saturday morning, they were met by pushback from security forces, who conducted an “unprecedented” arrest campaign, taking hundreds into custody within a few hours, according to Lena Ahmed, an activist who took part in the Sudanese Armed Forces headquarters protests.
However, Ahmed tells Mada Masr that hundreds of protesters stormed the gates of the Sudanese Armed Forces headquarters and were met with jubilation from low-ranking officers and soldiers.
“The military officers responded positively to the people’s chants of ‘One army, one people,’ and ‘The army is with us,” says Ahmed.
Ahmed adds that she saw military officers distribute water to protesters and provide first aid services to some of those injured or suffering from tear gas inhalation following clashes with security forces.
Another protester from Burri, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that an Armed Forces colonel led the protests himself in the Burri district, which has become a significant symbol of the Sudanese uprising after many were killed there.
By the close of the night, some protesters volunteered to collect food and water donations, while others began to prepare to continue the sit-in, erecting tents in front of the Armed Forces headquarters.
With protesters camped outside the military headquarters, Bashir and several leading Armed Forces and security forces convened to discuss how to handle the mounting popular pressure calling for his resignation.
Two Sudanese military sources with access to the details of the hours-long meeting say that there were strong disagreements when some senior officers called for Bashir to step down and transfer power to the military in order to avoid the deterioration of the security situation in the country.
However, the same sources say that Vice President and Minister of Defense Awad Ibn Auf staunchly supported Bashir.
While reports circulated earlier in the evening that an abdication of power and flight to Cairo was imminent, the Sudanese military sources impugned the validity of these reports.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2008 for committing crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Darfur, becoming the first incumbent head of state to be wanted by an international court, with two outstanding ICC-issued arrest warrants against him.
The fragility of Bashir’s position was a pivotal point of discussion during a mid-March meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed bin al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy head of the Emirati Armed Forces.
According to the Egyptian official, Nahyan and Sisi pledged to support Bashir during the remainder of his presidential term for as long as possible, after which a “smooth handover of power” would be facilitated.
The source told Mada Masr at the time of the meeting that the primary problem in devising a transition plan is that there is no consensus on Bashir’s successor between the ruling elite of Sudan, extending from the National Congress Party to the military leadership, and regional countries.
One of the contingency plans discussed during the meeting between Sisi and Nahyan, according to the source, would be to install NISS head Salah Gosh as president.
Gosh, according to the source, has been trying to convince Egypt and the UAE that he is capable of taking over if Bashir is removed from office.”
Bashir, however, remains entrenched in office for now, having deflected the criticism leveled at him in Saturday’s meeting.
A Saturday statement issued by Information Minister Hassan Ismail downplayed any disloyalty on the part of the Sudanese Armed Forces, affirming the military’s commitment to the country’s leadership. Ismail praised what he called the “patriotic spirit” of various state institutions in dealing with protests outside the Armed Forces headquarters on Saturday.