KHARTOUM (Reuters) - 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 Ali Osman Taha 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.
Sudan and South Sudan came close to war in April after they disagreed over how much money land-locked South Sudan should pay Khartoum to use its oil pipeline to a port on the Red Sea.
In peace talks in Addis Ababa, capital of neighboring Ethiopia, over the past few months, Khartoum’s delegation was noticeably divided between those who have earned the south’s trust, and “those who want to fight”, as Western diplomats described Sudanese military leaders.
Many hardliners in Khartoum - both religious and military - have never forgiven Bashir for the 2005 peace agreement which paved the way for secession. Thousands of army officers and government officials alike remember heeding calls from Muslim clerics to fight the southern “infidels”. They still see the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which now rules South Sudan, as the enemy. When Bashir flew to Addis in September to meet his southern counterpart Salva Kiir, some of those hardliners spoke out.
Eltayeb Mustafa, an uncle of Bashir’s and the editor of the al-Intibaha newspaper, wrote a column accusing the defense minister, who was at the talks, of abandoning the fight against the rebels to enjoy himself in Addis. Then Mustafa and several other radicals issued a statement urging the government to pass a new Islamic constitution.
When a deal to end hostilities and restart southern oil exports was finally signed in September, Mustafa denounced parts of it. Security agents have since forced the paper to tone down its rhetoric, he said. At least one edition has been confiscated.
“There are conflicts inside the Islamist Movement,” he said, referring to the religious arm of the ruling party. “It’s meant to lead the NCP but it just follows the party. The NCP needs an overhaul of its structures.”
Mustafa has business holdings that benefit from Bashir’s rule and is therefore unlikely to push his nephew too far. But by providing a platform in Sudan’s most-read newspaper, he is encouraging people to question the status quo.
In the Liberation Party’s Khartoum headquarters, spokesman Ibrahim Osman said Bashir’s government had failed to establish a true Islamic state.
“The government does not apply Islam, not at all,” he said. The government allows adultery. “You find women wearing inappropriate clothes in the streets, in public gardens a mixing of sexes, in clubs there are mixed parties with men and women exactly like in the West.”
Sudan already applies a stricter version of Islamic law than most Arab countries, flogging people for drinking alcohol and banning conventional banks.
But its Islamists have splintered into smaller groups in the past decade: groups that sometimes clash, sometimes find common cause. These include former religious fighters who call themselves “Saihun,” or travelers in Arabic, and occasionally meet to share nostalgic tales and moan about the government.
“This government has lost any credibility. They steal state resources,” said a Saihunite who helped organize a meeting in Khartoum in July. Like others, he would like the NCP and its old religious wing to reunite.
“Bashir needs to go,” he told Reuters. “We need a new start.”
Both north and south have been forced to make savings since the oil dispute. In Khartoum, that is shaking up the patronage system that Bashir and his predecessors have used to keep allies onside. Well-paid state jobs and perks such as Toyota Land Cruisers have been cut.
The government has tried to attract foreign investment from Asia and Europe. But the storming of the German embassy cut off one of the last Western countries with normal ties to Sudan.
German firms are among the few from the West doing business in Sudan. Lufthansa has been flying to Khartoum for half a century, and German construction firm Lahmeyer helped build a controversial dam on the Nile.
Diplomats say more than 50 German firms had confirmed their attendance at a conference in Berlin scheduled for October - a rare opportunity for Sudan to speak to foreign firms, which are often wary of U.S. sanctions over its human rights record and unresolved conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere.
Khartoum says that violent protesters simply ran out of control. But Reuters television footage, accounts from witnesses and diplomats as well as official comments show the government’s attitude to defending the embassy was lackluster at best.
On the morning of the march, a Reuters reporter outside the embassy saw not a single policeman.
Minutes before the crowd attacked the embassy, Sudan’s state news agency flashed news that Khartoum had summoned the German ambassador and U.S. charge d’affaires to protest against the U.S. film, linking Berlin to the latest outrage. According to the foreign ministry in Berlin, it had earlier summoned the Sudanese ambassador to ask him to ensure the embassy’s security.
The three-storey embassy is easily protected by closing two junctions. The following Friday, during smaller protests, the police did just that. But on September 14, police used tear gas cannons as the crowd approached but then stood back as protesters smashed windows, pulled out furniture and started a fire at the front gate. Several people climbed onto the roof to tear down the German flag and raise an Islamic one.
Policemen helped protesters to climb down afterwards, as editor Mustafa celebrated in front of the embassy.
After an hour, the protesters boarded buses provided by the Khartoum municipal government, and drove to the U.S. embassy where a larger police force was waiting. Several people made it into the compound and raised another Islamic flag.
Diplomats say Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti privately apologized to the German ambassador, but he has avoided public remorse. When his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle requested an official explanation, Karti issued a statement that Sudan regretted the violence and would pay for some of the damage. Events might have been different had Berlin spoken up against the cartoons, the minister said.
The embassy attack has fuelled a growing sense of paranoia in Khartoum. Bashir has held far fewer public rallies in the past few months. In October a government official said the president had undergone minor throat surgery in Qatar but was healthy. Last week, Bashir flew to Saudi Arabia for what the state press agency called “minor surgery”.
Even if he holds onto power, Bashir’s control of events seems severely diminished, according to Western diplomats. Last month, sitting in the parliamentary library not far from where the Blue and White Niles join, Rassul, the radical preacher who tore up the call for a peaceful march, said the attacks were inevitable.
“Violence was necessary, my brother. It needed to turn violent. You cannot insult Prophet Mohammad.”
The Liberation Party’s Osman agrees, but says embassies were the wrong target. “The right place to go would have been the government which allows such embassies to be here.”
Reporting and writing by Ulf Laessing; Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith