As the world awaited President Omar Al-Bashir's speech on Friday, frantic negotiations resulted in a last-minute change of direction. Intelligence Chief Salah Abdullah Gosh had been told to announce to the world's media that Al-Bashir had agreed to step down as the leader of the National Congress Party (NCP) and would not seek re-election in 2020. However, in an eleventh hour leadership meeting prior to the scheduled announcement, a heated row broke out about Al-Bashir's agreed position. It was felt that in resigning his position and proclaiming himself as a non-partisan national President, Al-Bashir would be viewed as distancing himself from the ruling NCP and implying that it was a failed government. He would also appear to be disassociating himself from the Islamic movement which largely controls the party.
Concern was expressed by high-ranking army officers that the resignation, although partly meeting the demands of protestors across the country, threatened the army's hold on power and sidelined the Islamic movement. Al-Bashir has played a unique role in being the head of the ruling party, the Islamic movement and the army, as well as President of the Republic. Sudan has only ever had one civilian president in 63 years of independence.
Furthermore, there were fears that the removal of Al-Bashir would promote calls to prosecute members of the government on criminal charges, thereby further weakening the Islamic orientated ruling party's 30 year hold on power. Backdated prosecutions for crimes of corruption, embezzlement and criminal activity are among the central demands of the Sudan Professional Association which instigated the past two months' demonstrations against Al-Bashir's government in December.
The last-minute dispute caused Al-Bashir's address to be delayed by two hours. In the end, when the President finally emerged in front of an invited audience of 300 people in the gardens of the Presidential palace, the speech pleased some but disappointed many more. The expectation was that he would make the formal announcement that he would step down as leader of the ruling party and would confirm that he will not seek re-election. No such announcement was made; instead of completely cancelling attempts to change the constitution, he said that parliament's work on this issue would be delayed.
On Saturday, Salah Gosh was forced to take back his claim that he had been misquoted; the reality was that the agreed position had been changed. Thus, Al-Bashir remains the leader of the NCP and President of Sudan despite opposition within his own party and popular opposition across the country.
Following Friday's announcement, a full review of the NCP's power structure went ahead to streamline the organisation and appoint new officials. Confusion and doubt remain about the timing of the next annual general conference intended to elect a new leader. Press reports on Monday quoted Amin Hassan Omer — a former presidential adviser and longstanding opponent of extending the presidential term — as saying that the party is ready to elect a new leader. "We are ready to replace Omar Al-Bashir to prove that the party is not incapable of putting forward strong candidates to replace him," he explained. "Currently the position of leader has been frozen, and the next annual meeting will be delayed until after Ramadan [May]."
No official date has been set, but the move to appoint a new leader may prove to be difficult. The appointments of the Defence Minister, Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, as Vice President and those of various other Ministers, revealed Omer, were not made in consultation with the party. Al-Bashir is under pressure from the army either to surrender the reins to the military or oversee the appointment of a military man to the head of the NCP. There is speculation that the newly-appointed Vice-President could be the favourite to replace Al-Bashir.
Nevertheless, the sense of uneasiness among NCP members concerning the election of a new leader has not stopped the rush to put forward names for a new leader. Former Governor of Southern Kordofan Ahmed Haroun is among the names, and Intelligence Chief Gosh and former Secretary General of the party, Nafie Ali Nafie, are also being considered. Strictly speaking, the winner of the leadership contest would then be put forward as a candidate for the next presidential election.
With the suspension of the constitution and the imposition of a State of Emergency, though, few believe that the scheduled elections will actually take place in 2020. The speech on Friday has been followed by a decree banning demonstrations without prior government approval, dashing any hopes of a move towards a new style of governance. Already, US Congressmen have said that sanctions on Sudan should not be lifted and the pressure on Al-Bashir's government should be intensified.
Had President Al-Bashir stuck to his original plan to step down from the party and announce that he would not seek re-election, there may have been a more favourable reception to his speech. Despite the State of Emergency, however, street protests and demonstration by private university students have continued, albeit with less intensity, as Sudan stumbles towards an uncertain future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.