Seeing Egypt through Sudan’s lens

Could Sudan’s 1985 military coup provide clues about Egypt’s post-revolution future?

Egypt Sudan
Unprecedented protests in Egypt have overturned what seemed like Mubarak’s immutable ruling system [AFP]

People took to the streets in their thousands demanding the end of the government. They marched on the headquarters of the state broadcaster which had been churning out the government line. The president fell. The army took charge.

Cairo in 2011? No, Sudan in 1985.

As I watched the unprecedented protests in Egypt that have overturned what seemed like the immutable ruling system of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, I have constantly found myself thinking of the last time I had a front-row seat at a military takeover.

I keep wondering whether the coup in Sudan, which marked the first step towards a civilian government, albeit one that only lasted four years, provides clues to what will happen in Egypt.

To me, it suggests the jubilation I witnessed in Cairo on Friday is just the first step and protesters will return to their homes only if they are sure the officers now in charge will dismantle the old order and deliver civilian rule.

I was a teenager when I watched Jaafar Nimeiri, Sudan’s president, tumble. My parents had a house with a veranda overlooking the Nile. Along the riverside ran a road that led to Radio Omdurman, the main broadcasting building.

There was no better place to watch the coup unfold.

Demonstrators in their thousands marched up to the state broadcaster’s building, the government’s mouthpiece, chanting “Ya Nimeiri, Ya himar” – “Oh Nimeiri, you donkey”.

Popular discontent had grown as the economy, weak for years, gradually disintegrated leaving millions impoverished.

Rations and shortages

My father, an expatriate worker, once spent 60 hours, sleeping in our family car, waiting to get four gallons of fuel. That was our weekly ration. We had to queue for bottles of cooking gas. Eggs, sugar and flour were in short supply.

That was the daily struggle for a Western family living on a good salary. For Sudanese, multiply the battle to survive many times. Sudan’s pound went into free fall.

Patience ran out. The demonstrators demanded change and the army stepped in. They threw out one of their own. Nimeiri was an army officer who had seized power in 1969.

Here’s where the usual African script for military coups changed. Suwar al-Dahab, the army officer who took charge, promised he would hold elections in a year’s time. Few believed him. But exhausted, the people trusted him. He delivered.

In 1986, Africa’s largest country by land area at the time, riven by a civil war between north and south, held multi-party elections. A civilian government took office.

Until Tunisia’s revolt in January, it was the last time an Arab people – northern Sudan is Arabic-speaking – could claim to have changed their government by a popular movement.

The parallels with Egypt are far from perfect. Like Sudan, it was a combustible mix of economic and political anxieties that drove Egyptians onto the streets.

Egyptians throughout the country demanded Mubarak go, blaming him and his allies for high prices, unemployment, a yawning gap between rich and poor and political repression.

On Friday, they achieved what they could hardly have imagined was possible. They showed the people could control the streets and make Egypt ungovernable. The people decided. Mubarak fell. A military council took charge.

The council has pledged to meet the people’s demands. It has promised to lift emergency laws in place for 30 years, which have been used to crush dissent. Crucially, it has promised free and fair elections.

Military leaders

That will be a novelty in Egypt. The November parliamentary poll was blatantly rigged. Hardly a seat in the lower house went to a member of the opposition. Most of the main opposition forces in Egypt simply boycotted the contest.

Egypt has held just one multi-candidate presidential election. In 2005, Mubarak predictably swept up the votes. Ayman Nour, his main rival, came a distant second and was then jailed on charges that he said were politically motivated.

With a military council in charge, Egypt may be able to re-write the constitution. The existing document, occasionally amended with cosmetic changes, was written to ensure Mubarak and his clique had a built-in guarantee of power.

Now many Egyptians, waking up to a new order, are starting to wonder what comes next.

Are the armed forces really ready to put civilians back in charge? Will they hand back power they seized in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his “Free Officers” overthrew the monarchy? Is Egypt’s most powerful institution, the only one to survive the tumultuous events, ready to take a back seat?

The message from many protesters is clear.

“Civilian, civilian” was one of the chants greeting news when it reached Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s political earthquake, that Mubarak had quit and the army was in charge.

The officers now ruling Egypt are led by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister. He regularly sat next to Mubarak at military parades showing off the army’s might. He has been in his post for 20 years.

Many Egyptians hope Tantawi will show allegiance to the people who dared to challenge Mubarak’s security apparatus. After 18 days of protests, they do not look like a people ready to accept the old formula of power backed by the army.

In 1985, a military commander in a country on Egypt’s southern bordered delivered on his promise. For the Sudanese, it proved a brief experiment in civilian rule. Three years after the 1986 election, another military officer seized back control.

What I witnessed in Sudan a quarter of a century ago was an amazing moment when history seemed to be rewritten. A military officer defied the sceptics, Sudanese and Western alike, and kept his promise to establish civilian rule.

I wonder if I will see it happen again. I wonder if the Egyptians will be ready to go back to their homes if the army does not deliver.

Edmund Blair has been Reuters bureau chief for Egypt and Sudan since 2009.

He has reported from the Middle East for much of the past 20 years. As a teenager, he saw first hand Sudan’s 1985 military coup.

Source: Reuters