People power: Activist Alaa Salah leads a protest against Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum on April 10
People power: Activist Alaa Salah leads a protest against Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum on April 10

Sudan is not the country you may think it is — a hardline, genocidal, Sharia-based military dictatorship battling fractious rebels deep in its oil-rich deserts and mountains. That’s the country you may have imagined under the presidency of Omar al-Bashir — that is, before the eruption of an "Arab Spring" that toppled the longtime autocrat this month.

But that’s only part of the story: at the convergence of the White and Blue Niles, where the capital, Khartoum, is situated, water-skiers cut their wakes, while teenage girls in jeans play ten-pin bowling in shopping malls; at Omdurman, whirling dervishes in long green robes spin themselves into a trance in the Sufi tradition; while in Al Fasher, in Darfur, couples tryst in its public gardens.

And yet this is indeed a deeply troubled country, fraying at the edges. About 300,000 people were killed between 2003 and 2008 in conflict in its three western Darfur provinces — a conflict with distinct elements of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that resulted in the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant of arrest for Bashir in 2010.

The independence of South Sudan in 2011, concluding decades of war that left about 2.5-million dead, took a third of Sudan’s land area and three-quarters of its oil — and provoked secessionist movements in the country’s Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions.

Nonprofit watchdogs accused Bashir’s regime — which came to power by coup d’état in 1989, outlawing political parties and instituting Sharia law — of embezzling $9bn in oil revenue. It was the collapse of the agricultural sector that tripled bread prices last December, precipitating the mass demonstrations and bloody clashes with the feared National Intelligence & Security Service (NISS), that culminated in Bashir being ousted by the military on April 11.

But the transitional ruling military council, headed by General Awad Ibn Auf, was immediately thrown into crisis. Some military units actively defended protesters against NISS assault, while Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chief of Sudan’s land forces, negotiated face to face with protesters staging a sit-in outside army headquarters in Khartoum.

Within 36 hours, Ibn Auf had stepped down and Burhan — reputed to have cleaner hands — was installed as transitional leader.

Little is publicly Burhan, but he "oversaw Sudanese troops fighting
in the Saudi-led Yemen war and has close ties to senior Gulf military officials", Reuters reports.

Independent Sudan analyst Paula Cristina Roque tells the FM that the fall of Bashir "provides an important opportunity for change and reform in Sudan".

She says: "During his tenure he systematically destroyed all forms of opposition and mass mobilisation — which in the past had seen very strong student, union and other movements connected to the Communist Party. He also astutely weakened other political parties, securitised the state and waged war on several fronts for three decades while facing international pressure and, more recently, economic hardship."

Nevertheless, this resilience proved insufficient in the face of "months of popular protests and a recalculation by the different branches of the security apparatus".

Several observers have noted the unusual leading role of women — for Sudan, at least — in the protests.

While Roque warns that there are "many risks and obstacles ahead for a democratic transition", early signs are encouraging. The military has assured the safety of protesters, provided they remain peaceable, and offered the country’s opposition groups the opportunity to appoint a prime minister.

Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan reported that the military council has said it wants to retain just two cabinet portfolios — those of defence and the interior — though these are the backbone of the security complex.

Opposition parties agree on the need for a swift transition to democracy, but are divided on how to achieve this and in what form.

"If there is the opportunity to begin a reform process, other groups and opposition forces need to be included in this transitional government — including groups from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the east and Darfur," says Roque. "There needs to be representation from all stakeholders otherwise this won’t be a sustainable transition."

But with Egypt backing the transition, and with the regional political temperature already cooled by the opening of political space in neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia, the prospect of a democratic Sudan suddenly seems to be within reach.