JUBA, South Sudan — The fall of brutal dictator Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan for 30 years, should have been met with elation. Instead it's mired in anger.
It took minutes for “joy to turn to ash,” said 26-year-old Sudanese activist Elzahraa Jadallah, who took part in the mass protests that filled the streets of the capital Khartoum for months on end, calling for the end of Bashir’s rule and the beginning of democratic civilian rule.
But on Thursday, Jadallah watched with horror as Bashir was ousted in a military coup and replaced by his own military regime. Since then, the army has taken control, imposing a three-month state of emergency and a two-year transition period.
The move has left the country in a state of deep uncertainty.
“I was devastated. It really crushed me,” said Jadallah. “The government’s recycled itself. Everything is going to be the same.”
Jabillah is hardly alone in holding this view. A joint letter from Sudanese and African civil society organizations published on Friday accused the regime of “sacrificing Bashir,” to ensure its own survival, and saying it didn’t share the “protestor’s goal of a peaceful and democratic Sudan.”
“The government’s recycled itself, everything is going to be the same.”
Now, protestors have vowed to keep fighting until they get what they want: a civilian government, led by and for the people.
“This isn’t what people went out to the streets for,” said Jadallah. “It’s not what people lost their freedom for and definitely not what people died and gave their lives for.”
Sayda Mohamed Sherif of the Sudanese Congress Party, an opposition group involved in the protests, vowed to keep protesting.
“We refuse the new government,” she told VICE News.
Al-Bashir came to power in a bloodless coup in 1985 and has since ruled with an iron fist. Infamous for his brutality and repressive regime, the 75-year-old is the only sitting head of state to be arrested by the International Criminal Court. In 2009, he was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was later charged with genocide for atrocities committed against civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region. However, that same year the African Union refused to cooperate with the war-crimes arrest and wouldn’t acknowledge the warrant, according to a report in 2009 by Amnesty International.
Though his removal is seen as a victory for the months-long protest movement, the military man originally slated to take over as head of state, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, was considered even worse. The former vice president and defense minister was sanctioned by the United States in 2006 for his role in orchestrating the genocidal campaign in Darfur, where under his command hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.
On Friday evening, barely 24 hours after he was sworn in, Ibn Ouf stepped down under mounting pressure from demonstrators. And in a victory for protestors on Saturday, Sudan's notorious spy chief, Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh, more widely known as Salah Gosh and considered al-Bashir's number two, also stepped down. Sudan’s transition to civilian rule will be led by the army’s inspector general, Abdel-Fattah Burhan.
Although some celebrated the moves as a step in the right direction, many demonstrators remain wary of the military’s motives.
“It’s not good at all,” Durra Gambo, a 38-year-old protestor in Khartoum told VICE News on Saturday. The new leader might have a cleaner record than Ibn Ouf but he still has “black” periods, she said, referring to his involvement in Yemen. Burhan oversaw Sudanese troops who fought in the Saudi-led Yemen war and has close ties to senior Gulf military officials.
“We should all stand strong. Until we can return our country to its people.”
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an opposition party that’s spearheaded the protests, wasn’t swayed by the military’s gesture either, and encouraged protesters to stand their ground until they get what they want. The military doesn’t appear to have regional support, either. On Thursday the African Union condemned the takeover, saying it wasn’t an “appropriate response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people.”
Payton Knopf, advisor to the United States Institute of Peace and former U.S. diplomat, said that any military regime, with or without al-Bashir, will have a hard time being considered legitimate by a broad swathe of the Sudanese public.
Analysts said that the coming weeks could turn violent as the military confronts continued protests and rival factions within its ranks.
More than 70 protestors have been killed Sudanese authorities since December when the demonstrations began across the country, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch. At least 16 people were killedand 20 injured in demonstrations on Thursday and Friday alone.
Advocacy groups are calling on the military to show restraint.
“Emergency laws must not undermine people’s rights and the transitional authorities should allow Sudanese to peacefully protest and speak out,” said Sarah Jackson, deputy regional director for East Africa at Amnesty International. “They must respect the rights and end the repression that characterized al-Bashir’s rule.”
Magdi el Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, said that while the protest movement remains defiant it lacks a clear proposal for leadership, which might hinder its ability to take back power from the military.
Going forward, demonstrators should form an umbrella group and let its leaders negotiate with the military council, the International Crisis Group recommended in a report Friday.
In the meantime, the Sudanese who spent months fighting for freedom and change say they won’t give up until their demands are met.
“We should all stand strong. Until we can return our country to its people,” said protestor Gambo.
Cover: Sudanese protestors gather in front of central military headquarters during a rally demanding a civilian transition government, in Khartoum, Sudan. Salih Basheer / Sputnik via AP