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Sudan’s internal power struggle amid economic woes

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech during the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan on 28 April, 2017 [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir delivers a speech during the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan on 28 April, 2017 [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]

Last month’s shock reappointment of Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh, known as Gosh, as the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) was a snap decision that stunned the country’s intelligence community but sent the clearest signal yet that President Omar Al-Bashir is in no mood to loosen his grip on power or to play out the last two years of his presidential term quietly.

Amid growing economic woes and related protests, those close to the Presidential Palace have witnessed Al-Bashir’s growing frustration at the events leading up to the lifting of US economic sanctions back in October last year. The end of the 20-year embargo did not bring the expected improvements in the Sudanese economy and came after months of promises of financial assistance from the Gulf States through the strengthening of Sudan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, despite the solidarity with the Gulf States shown by Khartoum, notably the presence of Sudanese troops within the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen conflict, pledges of support for Sudan have not been fulfilled entirely. In addition, since the lifting of sanctions, international banks have been slow to do business with Sudan, which is still officially regarded by the United States as “a state sponsor of terror”.

Worse of all, say local sources, Al-Bashir felt personally humiliated when the Arab states fell silent and Western public and media outrage prevented him from attending the Riyadh summit with US President Donald Trump in May 2017. Al-Bashir was sidelined in the discussions with foreign powers because of the indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has also seen dignitaries visiting Khartoum and having lavish reception meetings with the Foreign Ministry and the Vice-President but avoiding any direct dealings with the President himself.

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The decision to demote Intelligence chief Mohammed Atta to the Foreign Ministry and reinstate Gosh — the man who was once arrested and accused of plotting a coup against Al-Bashir’s government — is a remarkable turn of events. Sources close to the President say that he was angered and felt betrayed by the antics of Taha Osman Al-Hussein, the former State Minister to the Presidency and director of the Presidential Office, who was fired after establishing secret channels supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their dispute against Qatar, a move that was contrary to Sudan’s declared neutrality at the time. Al-Hussein, who is a Saudi Arabian citizen, had been responsible for strengthening Sudan’s ties with the Gulf States but is understood now to be working against Al-Bashir’s government from his new position in Riyadh.

Reports also say that Al-Bashir had become increasingly frustrated by the advice of the intelligence community, many of whom were affiliated with the former National Congress General Secretary Ali Nafie Nafie, and some of whom opposed the idea of Al-Bashir seeking a third presidential term. As such, the decision to appoint Gosh – a trusted ally — has been regarded clearly as a move to reassert Al-Bashir’s authority over the executive and judicial branches of government and turn Sudan’s fortunes around.

Sources that I spoke to say that the appointment has rattled the “Nafie Nafie” faction and, significantly, the influence of its members who had once either encouraged the President to lock up Gosh or stood by idly during the intelligence chief’s incarceration, has been curtailed dramatically. Indeed, Gosh has been given a free hand and has moved swiftly to oust those in the opposing faction, intensifying the power struggle between the two sides.

His first decisions were to remove the Deputy Intelligence Chief, Osama Mukhtar, and to arrest and imprison Abdul Gaffour Al-Sheriff, the former head of the political intelligence division and the most prominent figure in the opposing faction. According to sources, Al-Sheriff is paying the price for helping (or at least not preventing) major businessmen to monopolise the commodities market unfairly and fuel the steep increase in prices following the removal of government subsidies at the beginning of the year. Some of those businessmen have also been arrested and detained pending trials for establishing illegal cartels, racketeering and illegal profiteering. The arrests have stabilised the foreign currency market with the US dollar now standing at 32 Sudanese pounds; that’s a fall from a 45-pound high.

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Al-Bashir is hoping that Gosh’s style of national security management will help silence internal opposition within the intelligence services, smooth over external hostilities and re-establish the President’s popularity rating, paving the way for a possible third term in office. That management style holds that every facet of the citizen’s life impacts on national security and that the job of the intelligence services is to engineer social cohesion through initiating and supporting community projects. In the past, local football matches, group marriages, supporting martyred soldiers’ families and various charitable projects have all been the domestic role of Sudan’s security services.

In addition, Gosh’s management style in dealing with external affairs is to ensure that the national intelligence services work in tandem with each other and with transparency against common threats. His promise to return Muslim Brotherhood members to Egypt may not result in expulsions, but greater transparency may increase trust on both sides. Similarly, Gosh is known to be a fierce nationalist and is tasked with reducing the influence of Eritrea’s intelligence services along Sudan’s eastern border.

On the external front, Gosh has moved swiftly to use his influence to attempt to resolve the stagnant negotiations with Sudan’s neighbours. This weekend’s invitation to the new Egyptian Spy Chief Abas Kamel, the creation of a consultation committee and yesterday’s visit of the Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, are all events driven by Gosh’s office. The hope is that his role will lead to a steady resolution of some of the most difficult foreign policy issues, namely the Halayeb Triangle border dispute and the Darfur and two areas’ conflict.

Much rests on the shoulders of one of Sudan’s most powerful men who appears to have the confidence of most members of the intelligence community who believe him to be strong on corruption and charismatic enough to charm and pacify Sudan’s detractors. Just two months into the job, sources say that the President feels reassured that, for now, the right decision was made and internal divisions will subside rather than intensify.

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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