Behind the Foiled Sudan Coup

A coup in Sudan would only have installed another faction of the Muslim Brotherhood into power, as true supporters of democracy haven't been able to unify behind a leader.

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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, speaks during a press conference in Khartoum Monday, Sept. 25, 2006. Bashir lashed out at the U.S., saying Washington's plans to create a "new Middle East" were behind an international push to replace African Union peacekeepers with U.N. forces in war-ravaged Darfur.

Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Natsios served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan.

On November 22 Sudanese government officials announced they had arrested 13 senior government officials and some civilians in connection with a foiled coup plot. The conspiracy provided more evidence that the Sudanese government's hold on power continues to erode as it fights rebellions in three regions of the periphery of the country and the economy continues to deteriorate. Tanks roamed the streets of Khartoum, the capital city, near the residences of senior government officials including President Omar al-Bashir. Two days after the arrests a faction in the government publicly warned Bashir not to mistreat those arrested, which suggests that the coup plotters may have far more support within the government and the ruling party than had been previously understood.

What distinguished this coup plot from others in the past is that it involved members of the ruling party, the National Congress Party (which is the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood), rather than opponents of the Bashir government. The former commanders of the secret police and of military intelligence—who had been among the most powerful members of the regime with a strong following within the rank and file of the security services—were among those arrested. The coup plot comes at an uncertain time because President Bashir reportedly faces serious health problems, which in fact may have precipitated the coup. In August he traveled secretly to a hospital in the Gulf for medical procedures and in November he went to Saudi Arabia for additional treatment. While the official statement has been that he had a benign tumor removed from his throat, creditable sources say that he has throat cancer and may be terminally ill.

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The coup plot may reflect a power struggle within the ruling National Congress Party over Bashir's successor. Sudan has been unstable since it gained independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956. Two civil wars have taken place between the North and Southern regions of the country since independence, even as three rebellions in Darfur, in the west, have occurred. These internal conflicts have led to the death of 4.3 million people. In January 2005 a peace agreement was signed between the North and the South ending the most recent civil war, and as a result South Sudan became an independent state on July 9, 2011. Many elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the more hardline factions of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan attacked President Bashir and his vice president, Ali Osman Taha, who negotiated the North-South peace agreement, for giving too much away to the South in the peace process. One of the subtexts of the coup may be delayed opposition to the North-South agreement within the ruling party and the failure of President Bashir to end rebellions in three other regions of the North.

The Bashir government is drafting a new constitution which declares Sudan to be an Islamist state despite the opposition of powerful voting blocks in the country which insist Sudan should be a secular state with democratic institutions that protect human rights. The government has ignored this substantial opposition and is proceeding with its radical Islamist vision for Sudan even if that vision rips apart what remains of the country. But the coup may also be a function of the growing economic and political crisis facing Sudan. Three regions of Northern Sudan in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, and Southern Blue Nile are in open revolt against the Bashir government over whether Sudan will be a secular or Islamist state in the future and over the concentration of the country's resources in the Khartoum area while the periphery of the country is mired in poverty and underdevelopment. The rebel commanders from the three regions have nearly 60,000 troops under their command, and as a result the central government has been unable to defeat the rebellions.  

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The North lost billions of dollars in oil revenues when the South became independent which caused a large deficit in the national budget. While 70 percent of the oil reserves were in the South, the oil pipeline to transport the oil to Port Sudan and the refineries to refine the oil are in the North. When negotiations broke down in late 2011 between the North and the South over oil transport fees, the Bashir government began diverting the South's oil and selling it on the spot market. The South in response turned off nearly 900 oil wells precipitating a political crisis in both the North and the South.

In May President Bashir told his military commanders to prepare for a new war between the North and the South. In response to Bashir's demand for military mobilization, 700 military officers signed a letter to him warning that the military could not fight a new war because it had been weakened by successive purges of the officer corps to prevent a coup, by political promotions of senior officers based on loyalty to the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than military competence, and by massive diversion of military resources through corruption.

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The officer corps was reportedly enraged by reports that Bashir and his government had stolen as much as $9 billion of government revenues and moved the resources to the Gulf States, Iran, and Malaysia. Bashir became so sensitive to criticism over the corruption issue that anyone caught talking about it was arrested. While the government sought to cope with the revolt of military commanders, the economic crisis worsened. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Sudan's Gross Domestic Product declined by 7 percent in 2012. Inflation has been rising rapidly, particularly for food and gas, civil servant salaries have been frozen or reduced, government workers have been laid off because of budget deficits caused by the drop in oil revenues, and then a 50 percent decline in the grain harvest took place caused by drought.

These successive crises have now been followed by this most recent coup plot. All of this confirms what outside analysts have long suspected—that the Bashir government is in its worst crisis since it seized power in a coup in 1989 and that the internal cohesion and discipline of the ruling party is now collapsing as Bashir's health deteriorates, the economic crisis worsens, and rebellions rage in the periphery. In any case a coup would have resolved little as it would have simply brought to power another faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose policy prescriptions for Sudan have destabilized the country. The true democratic opponents of Bashir's party within Sudan have been unable to coalesce behind a single unified vision or creditable leader. The best Bashir's opponents can do now is to watch and follow Napoleon's famous maxim—"never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake".

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