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Will Sudan's new PM bring in change or maintain political tensions?

The swearing in of General Bakri Hassan Saleh to the office of prime minister, the first in almost 28 years, marks a new chapter in Sudanese politics and a hope of real political change.

Saleh is an erstwhile friend and confidante of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and was one of the key figures in the 1989 coup which brought the Revolutionary Council, now the ruling National Congress Party to power. Bakri, as he is fondly known, is tipped to replace the Sudanese leader if Al-Bashir decides to relinquish power in 2020.

The decision to create a Prime Minister's Office came after a two-year long National Dialogue with opposition groups. Lawmakers passed the new law last December and Saleh's appointment leads the way for a cabinet to be appointed not by him, but by Al-Bashir who, under the new legislation, retains much of his executive powers.

Saleh, 68, who holds onto his current post as first vice president described his appointment as an "historic moment" harmonising all political parties and powers. But that view is not shared by some analysts like Khalid Tigani, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Elaff, who views the changes as "broadly a continuation of Bashir's rule".

Throughout the past few years, the issue of who will replace Al-Bashir has been the burning question at the centre of Sudanese politics. Despite assurances in 2015 that he would not seek re-election, Al-Bashir stood and won a landslide victory that was boycotted by the Sudanese opposition. The 73-year-old president has undergone five major operations in the past five years, two on his throat and another is believed to have been exploratory heart surgery. Worst still, there are unconfirmed rumours that he is suffering from cancer.

Given his health difficulties, chances are Al-Bashir will have to step down, but it remains unclear what direction the country will go when his rule finally comes to an end. Analysts view the forthcoming period as a test for Bakri Hassan Saleh to demonstrate his leadership qualities. Saleh has held many key positions in the Bashir administration including positions at interior, defence and presidential affairs ministries. He is, by all accounts, an uncontroversial figure who has preferred to stay out of the limelight throughout the turbulent years of Sudan's political upheavals. Noticeably, during the differences between veteran politician Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi and President Al-Bashir, Saleh took a conciliatory stance but remained firmly behind Al-Bashir's leadership.

Al-Bashir's retention of the bulk of executive power means he remains responsible for hiring and firing the cabinet. However, Saleh will need to find answers to the massive economic problems that face Sudan following the succession of South Sudan in 2011, following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 which ended a 22-year-long conflict. Prior to the split about three quarters of crude production came from the south and accounted for more than 85 per cent of Khartoum's export earnings, an estimated $7.5 billion dollars, according to the World Bank.

Saleh must also find answers to the continuing conflicts in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile that have seen two million people displaced and a death toll rise to tens of thousands. As well as finding a formula that would unite the political opposition and avoid the sporadic civil disobedience protests and rising discontent sweeping through the country, threatening Sudan and the stability of the region.

Until now, the government's narrative has been that the "Arab Spring" which affected Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries in the region has not been a feature in Sudan. Posters and photographs circulated on social media show the civil war and destruction in Yemen, Syria and Iraq with captions that read: "Thank God for the peace in Sudan". That message has resonated with much of the population, but the government remains cautious that peaceful street protests, civil disobedience campaigns and a rising discontent with the country's spiralling cost of living might transform into violent uprisings.

Feeling of optimism

The signs are if Hassan Saleh shows promise the leading office of prime minister could again become the most powerful office in the land, reducing the president to a symbolic figurehead, as it was before the 1989 overthrow of the elected government led by Sadiq Al-Mahdi. Alternatively, Saleh's retention of the position of first vice president appears to leave open the possibility for full executive powers to be given back to the president and the position of prime minister to be rescinded.

Much depends on the ongoing perennial struggle between the army and members of the Islamic front who still hold positions and are policy makers in government, but continue to be overshadowed by army generals in key positions. While those genuine differences are being played down, inside Sudan in most political circles, there is a feeling of optimism. Old government rival parties, such as the Popular Congress and the Reform and Renewal faction of the Umma party and the Democratic Unionists, all attended the inauguration to support Saleh and keep up the demand and momentum for political change.

Yassir Abdullah Ali, a political observer and member of the ruling National Congress Party told MEMO: "Bakri, has a very calming influence over the opposition, he is viewed as a conciliatory figure and the opposition have pledged to work with him."

Absent in the national dialogue was former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi who returned from exile in January this year after a two-year absence. He told his supporters that he had returned to achieve peace and democracy. Yassir Ali told MEMO that despite the 82-year-old veteran politician's absence, there remains a possibility that his involvement in the process of change seems likely to have been a precondition for his return to Sudan.

With just under three years to the next presidential elections, commentators expect to see a jostling for positions of power that could either bring about expected and welcome change to the country's fortunes or could fuel political tensions resulting, as it has done in the past, in arrests and the detention of political opponents who – according to the ruling party – have overstepped the lines and rules of engagement imposed by the government.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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