Sudan army chief under pressure from Islamist backers
Before Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan got locked into a brutal war with his former deputy, he was propelled to power by powerful Islamists — a tide now turning against him, according to analysts.
Burhan “does not represent a political current in his own right. He’s a chess piece in Sudanese politics,” said Othman al-Mirghani, editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Tayar.
Under the regime of Islamist-military ruler Omar al-Bashir, who himself came to power in a coup in 1989, Islamists dominated the government, building powerful networks of financial, commercial and political influence.
In 67 years of independence, Sudan has been under military rule for 55.
“Sudanese politics is therefore deeply militarised, and the Sudanese armed forces is a significantly politicised institution,” according to the Rift Valley Institute think tank.
As the army moved to oust Bashir in 2019 under pressure from mass pro-democracy protests, the country’s Islamists resigned themselves to a low profile in what seemed to be the twilight of their reign.
Bashir’s long-ruling National Congress Party (NCP) was banned, government officials were imprisoned, and the army — anxious to appease both the public and international allies — chose “an obscure army officer” to lead the transition, according to Sudan expert Alex de Waal.
‘Secure their place’
At the helm of the country during a stuttering transition to civilian rule, Burhan attempted to distance himself from the Islamists, including by releasing statements against Bashir’s old party.
A mere month before the war began with his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo — commonly known as Hemeti — Burhan called on soldiers to “end” the military tradition of “supporting dictatorial governments,” referring to the old guard.
But with “his handicaps not limited to his bumbling public speaking,” according to de Waal, he could only distance himself so far.
“Unlike Hemeti, or Bashir before him, he doesn’t have his own personal source of cash for greasing political deals, and has been forced to haggle with the military capitalists and old guard cronies on key decisions.”
According to one military analyst from the region, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, “the Islamists have worked since 1989 to gain their hold over the army.”
“Burhan tried to get rid of some of them,” he said, but was only able to dismiss a few.
The Islamists maintained powerful positions in Sudan’s security apparatus and on October 25, 2021, Burhan “bowed to pressure and launched his coup”, Sudanese author Amir Babiker told AFP.
The takeover — for which he collaborated with now-enemy Daglo — ousted civilian officials from a power-sharing arrangement that was to lead to full civilian rule.
Quickly, Burhan cracked down on a commission responsible for dismantling the financial networks and economic empires that Bashir’s allies had built.
Pro-democracy activists warned their revolution was being reversed, as several high-ranking officials from the Bashir era found roles in Burhan’s administration.
In the early weeks of the war, more top officials from Bashir’s regime escaped from prison, and the NCP itself reappeared to voice its support for the army.
“They’re taking advantage of the exceptional situation the country is in to secure their place” in the future political landscape, according to Mirghani.
According to experts, Burhan seems to be facing more and more pressure from his own camp.
On Friday, he sent a letter to the United Nations’ secretary general requesting the dismissal of special envoy Volker Perthes, who has long been the target of accusations of “foreign intervention”.
Thousands of military and Islamist supporters held protests in the months leading up to the war, demanding the UN mission chief’s dismissal.
Days before fighting began, the UN urged Sudanese authorities to investigate after a man publicly called for Perthes’ murder at a conference of Islamist parties and others linked to the Bashir regime.
In his letter, Burhan accused Perthes of bias and of stoking the war by presenting a misleading picture of the situation in Sudan.
“Without these signs of encouragement, the rebel leader Daglo would not have launched his military operations,” the letter read.
It has never been possible to verify who fired the first shots of the war, which Burhan must fight on multiple fronts in order to survive, according to Mirghani.
His own supporters readily remind the public that Burhan himself named Daglo as his second-in-command — an ambitious militia leader originally armed by Bashir to crush rebels in Darfur.
Islamist and pro-Bashir television channels in exile now accuse Burhan of giving too much leeway to Daglo, which some suggest lays the groundwork for his eventual sidelining.
“At the end of the day, he’s a soldier whose job is done when the mission is over,” Mirghani told AFP.
“This could happen with this war.”