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Sudan Feature: Tensions Rise after South Breaks Away (Laessing)

President Omar Hassan al-BashirYesterday we noted that Sudanese forces had put down a "sabotage plot", with the movement of tanks of armoured vehicles in Khartoum, in the latest evidence of tension within the country. 

In an article posted by Reuters last week, Ulf Laessing offers context:

The birth of South Sudan last year created two new nations: the south itself and a new, smaller version of Sudan, the state from which the south seceded. The shock of that event is still reverberating in Sudan's capital, as was apparent in a white conference hall one day in mid-September.

Over the preceding weeks, right-wing activists in Germany had held up derisive cartoons of Prophet Mohammad and a U.S.-made film insulting the prophet had hit the internet. A group of Sudan's state-backed clerics crowded the stage to call for a peaceful march against these perceived injustices.

But then, in an echo of the split between pragmatists and radicals in Sudan's government --- a split in part fuelled by the loss of the south and its oil --- more than 200 radical Islamists piled into the hall to demand more violent action.

"No, this statement is too weak, no way," shouted radical preacher and long-time ruling party lawmaker Dhaifullah Hassab Rassul, who grabbed the official statement and tore it up even as leading state scholar Salah el-Din Awad read it out.

To cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), another hardliner called for the destruction of Western embassies. "Tomorrow we will blow up first the German embassy, tear it down stone by stone, then the American embassy and then the Republican Palace for allowing these embassies to be here," shouted Sheikh Nasser Ridha of the opposition Hizb al-Tahrir (Liberation Party).

Reuters has been chronicling South Sudan to ask whether it is likely to flourish or fail. The same question could be asked of Sudan, the rump state the south left behind.

Sixteen months on from secession, the Arab-dominated north and its president are grappling with challenges of their own.

Sudan was unstable even before the south seceded. Now Khartoum has lost three-quarters of its oil, and inflation at 45 percent is causing pain for ordinary Sudanese. Activists encouraged by revolutions in neighboring Libya and Egypt have staged small but regular protests against the government, though Sudanese security forces have so far kept them down.

More crucially, the loss of the south has exacerbated political splits within the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup in 1989. The country's rulers, who ushered in a hardline religious state, are struggling to keep competing factions happy. Religious preachers feel Bashir, 68, has abandoned the soul of his coup, citing as evidence the secession of the Christian-dominated south. Mid-level and youth activists in Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) want a louder voice. And army officers feel the president is still making too many concessions to the south.

These splits --- civilians against military, moderates against religious radicals --- have long existed in Khartoum. In the past, though, Bashir was able to control them. The loss of the south, and especially its oil, has hurt his ability to do that. The president, who has undergone two operations in the past few months, has probably never been in such a fragile position in his 23 years in power.

That was brought home the day after the September meeting, when police stood back as protesters stormed and set fire to the German embassy, forced their way into the U.S. embassy compound, and hurled rocks at the British mission.

When police finally intervened, killing three people in clashes outside the U.S. embassy, the protest, the biggest in years, turned against the government. "The people want to topple the regime," shouted the several thousand demonstrators.

The attack killed plans for a Sudan investment conference in Berlin, estranging Sudan from one of its few Western friends. It also underscored the president's frailties. Prominent Sudanese journalist and analyst Faisal Mohammad Saleh thinks some ministers may have supported the attacks. "But they didn't expect it to be that violent. The government is now afraid of these Salafist groups. Now they realize how dangerous they are."

Bashir and other officials did not respond to interview requests. The information ministry said the government still had popular support and would overcome its economic problems thanks to an austerity plan. "By the end of this year we will actually succeed in resolving all the economic crises of 2011," said Rabie Abdelati, an adviser to the information ministry.


Perhaps the biggest threat facing Bashir comes from inside his party. The movement that seized power in 1989 in a burst of religious fervor has atrophied. Younger and mid-level officials are angry that the same people have been running the country for more than two decades. Many educated officials are unhappy because Sudan's isolation curbs their career prospects.

"There are many people in the NCP in their 40s who want state jobs, privileges and benefits from the patronage system," said Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a think tank based in London and Nairobi that promotes research and training. "They have been waiting for many years."

The president unveiled a new cabinet in December but the key jobs went to revolution veterans. The oil ministry, for instance, was taken by Awad al-Jaz, one of the 1989 coup plotters, who over the years has been minister for energy and mining, industry, and finance.

Western diplomats say almost all the big decisions are made by just four men: Bashir, his defense minister Abdel Raheem Mohammad Hussein, Vice President Aca and presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie.

Qubais Ahmed Mustafa, a 32-year-old road construction engineer and holder of various positions in the ruling party's youth wing, is pragmatic, ambitious and relatively liberal. He praises the old guard for developing Sudan. But he also wants change.

"There are some young people in the leadership of the NCP....This is good and appreciated but not the end of the road. We expect more and the youth movement wants more positions," he said. "I hope the NCP and state in Sudan will change their skin."

The NCP said last year that Bashir would not seek re-election in 2015, but party officials have tried to quell talk of who might succeed him. Last month, the party angrily denied a newspaper report that Vice President Taha --- who negotiated the 2005 peace agreement with the south --- might make a strong candidate.

Unlike Bashir and other senior officials, Taha has not been indicted by the International Criminal Court for masterminding war crimes in Darfur in Sudan's west. The United Nations estimates as many as 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur since Khartoum mobilized to squash a rebellion of non-Arab tribes who feel the government neglects them. In 2009 and 2010 the Hague-based ICC issued warrants for Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide, making it difficult for him to travel abroad. Bashir denies the charges, saying they are part of a Western conspiracy. But there is little doubt the charges have hurt him, even at home.

"Bashir is seen as a burden because of the ICC indictment," El Gizouli said.

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