By Declan Walsh and Joseph Goldstein
As Sudan’s military announced at lunchtime Thursday that it had finally unseated President Omar al-Bashir, a brief burst of joy exploded outside the military headquarters in Khartoum where huge throngs of protesters had massed.
Nearly four months of protest, dozens of deaths at the hands of the security forces and endless chants of “revolution!” had finally come to this: the ouster of the despised leader who had ruled their vast country, plagued by famine and war, for 30 years.
But the euphoria quickly soured when the protesters realized who had replaced al-Bashir.
The somber man reading the speech on television was Lt. Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, the defence minister and a close confidant of al-Bashir. Ibn Auf, like al-Bashir, had been accused of perpetrating war crimes in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
The protesters fell silent as he laid out his terms: the release of political prisoners, but also a two-year transition steered by a military council, the suspension of Sudan’s Constitution, the dissolution of government and curfews starting at 10 p.m. that night. Loud groans and lamentations rippled through the crowd, followed by a current of anger.
New cries rang out. “We do not replace a thief with a thief,” some chanted.
“We don’t want the same guy!” shouted others. Within hours, another taunt at the regime was circulating online: “It fell once, it can fall again!”
Protesters were caught between their jubilation at the ouster of al-Bashir, a ruthless leader who promised greatness but ultimately brought war, international isolation and economic ruin, and their abiding anxiety over what will follow him.
“What has been just stated is for us a coup, and it is not acceptable,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has been organizing the protests. “They are recycling the faces, and this will return us to where we have been.”
Even by the standards of the world’s autocrats, al-Bashir, 75, had a low reputation. He was the only active leader of a nation to be wanted by the International Criminal Court, which accused him of playing “an essential role” in a genocidal purge in Darfur by overseeing the forces that killed, raped and terrorized hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Al-Bashir ruled Sudan longer than any other leader since the country gained independence in 1956, and was seen as a pariah in much of the world. In the 1990s, he hosted Osama bin Laden, inviting U.S. sanctions, and in 1998 a U.S. cruise missile struck a factory in Khartoum for its alleged links to al-Qaida.
He presided over a ruinous 21-year war in southern Sudan, where his forces pushed barrel bombs from planes onto remote villages. The country ultimately divided in 2011, when South Sudan gained independence. But al-Bashir kept fighting brutal conflicts with rebels in other parts of Sudan.
In addition, he sent thousands of Sudanese soldiers to fight outside the country, including in the civil war in Yemen, and it is not clear whether a successor will call them home.
The protesters who ousted al-Bashir on Thursday were driven, principally, by his domestic failures. Demonstrations in December over the soaring price of bread evolved into a countrywide street movement that harnessed the frustrations of many young Sudanese.
Those protests, largely ignored by the world for months, captured global attention this week. A striking photo of one protester standing on a car and wearing a white thoub — a long robe — and gold earrings as she urged on a crowd was widely shared online and called an iconic image of the demonstrations.
And the open dismay that greeted al-Bashir’s successor — another military man, cut from essentially the same cloth — suggested the protesters had learned lessons from the failures of the Arab Spring in 2011 in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Just as Algerian protesters refused to leave the streets last week after their own aging autocrat, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stepped down but left the ruling clique in place, so the Sudanese protesters vowed Thursday not to go home anytime soon.
“We insist on a civil government,” said Abdelgalil, the protest organizer, adding that the demonstrations would continue “until there is a complete step down of the whole regime.”
But in ousting al-Bashir, said to be in “a safe place” after his arrest, the military had seized the momentum. Dozens of leading Islamists and members of al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, viewed as potential political rivals to the military, were taken into custody.
“It’s basically Bashir’s henchmen taking over,” said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at Tufts University. “It stops a civil war among Sudan’s rivalrous military oligarchs, but it won’t satisfy the demands for democracy.” The drama had begun after dawn Thursday with a moment of unalloyed hope.
After five days of dramatic protests outside the military compound which houses Sudan’s military headquarters and al-Bashir’s home, a message flashed on state television and radio: “The army will soon make an announcement. Please expect it.”
Instinctively, many protesters camped at the compound gates felt they knew what it meant: al-Bashir was gone. Celebrations erupted. Protesters danced and sang, some alongside soldiers who had deserted their positions.
“I have never seen such happiness in the face of the Sudanese people,” said Sara Elnour, a 27-year-old doctor.
But in the hours that followed, no announcement came. Rumors swirled that al-Bashir’s top lieutenants — his intelligence and army chiefs, and the head of a powerful militia, among others — were huddling in secret, trying to decide who should take over.
One of them, Salah Gosh, heads the National Intelligence and Security Service, a paramilitary body notorious for torture which tried to brutally suppress the protests in recent weeks. Gosh is considered to be close to the United Arab Emirates, and has worked closely with the United States on counterterrorism in recent years.
Another was Ibn Auf, the defense minister, a former diplomat and head of Sudan’s military intelligence.
In 2007, the State Department imposed sanctions on Ibn Auf for his role in “violence, atrocities and human rights abuses” in Darfur. An American diplomatic cable in 2008, later published by WikiLeaks, said Ibn Auf had provided logistical support to the janjaweed militia, which carried out some of the worst atrocities in Darfur, and even directed attacks.
As the hours passed Thursday and people waited for the army announcement, the streets of Khartoum, the capital, filled with residents. While anxious protest leaders urged people that the work was not yet done, many in the crowd felt they were on the cusp of victory.
“We won, we won,” protesters told each other, according to witnesses.
When Ibn Auf finally addressed the nation, Elnour stopped her car to listen on the radio. Bystanders crowded around the vehicle. When the speech was over, she felt tricked.
“I saw people crying and shouting with anger,” she said. “We feel that they have tricked us and are just trying to steal the revolution.”
The military offered little information about the membership or structure of the transitional government. A senior official said it was still being debated privately by leaders of the military and security services.
Just what form Sudan’s uprising should take, though, has not always been clear. During the months of demonstrations, some protesters openly invited Sudan’s military to help them topple al-Bashir.
In early April, large crowds began to gather outside the army headquarters. Instead of dispersing the crowd, Sudanese soldiers permitted the protesters to stay and by last weekend began to block — and in a few cases fire upon — other security and intelligence forces seeking to crack down.
But on Thursday, many were adamant that civilians should forge the way forward.
“A civilian is needed, not one of these army officers, said Elsamawal Alshafee, a 32-year-old salesman. “We want a real democracy, with real freedom and human rights.”
Their demands found support in Washington and Brussels.
“The Sudanese people have been clear that they have been demanding a civilian-led transition,” a State Department spokesman, Robert Palladino, told reporters at a briefing. “They should be allowed to do so sooner than two years from now.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said, “Only a credible and inclusive political process can meet the aspirations of the Sudanese people.”
In Khartoum late Thursday, protesters streamed back to the gates of the military headquarters, defying the curfew to resume their sit-in.
Elnour said she wept with disappointment earlier in the day, but now had gathered her strength again.
“After all these efforts, this can’t be the end,” she said. “We will continue our revolution until our goals have been achieved.”