Leading aides of Sudan’s former longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir are now free after reports of a prison break earlier this week amid the conflict that has gripped the country.
As figures from Sudan’s political Islamic movement, which came to power via al-Bashir’s military coup in 1989, their revival could tilt the balance of power in the war between Sudan’s army and a rival paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), analysts told Al Jazeera.
Since fighting erupted on April 15, neither side has gained the upper hand in Khartoum, the capital. That could change after Ahmed Haroun – a prominent member of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court – urged all Sudanese to back the army on Tuesday as he announced that he and other inmates had left Khartoum’s Kober prison.
His call has many fearing that he could also rally shadow militias, which al-Bashir set up to protect him and his party, to help the army.
But senior military leader General Shams al-Din Kabbashi this week tried to distance the army from the NCP by blaming the latter for creating the RSF a decade ago. Other members of the army’s top brass, which are believed to be close to Sudan’s political Islamic movement, are expected to welcome NCP officials vying for relevance with open arms.
“The army is not a monolith and, within it, there will be sympathisers [with NCP figures] and non-sympathisers,” said Alan Boswell, an expert on the Horn of Africa for International Crisis Group.
“It doesn’t surprise a lot of Sudanese if the sympathies of [NCP figures] lie with the military, but the military also kept them locked up,” he added. “I imagine there is some discomfort [from the military] at seeing these guys back.”
Al-Bashir created the RSF in 2013 to coup-proof his government from senior military generals and his own feared intelligence service, going so far as to refer to the paramilitary force’s leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo as “Hemyatee” (“my protection”).
But al-Bashir’s protector and other senior security generals toppled their former boss in the face of a popular uprising in 2019.
Since then, NCP figures and their supporters have detested Hemedti, a man that they believe is consolidating control over political decision-making and the economy at their expense, according to Jihad Mashamoun, an expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa.
“[NCP officials] never forgave Hemedti for launching a coup against them,” he told Al Jazeera. “They see that Hemedti’s interests clash with their interests.”
The leader of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, was also responsible for removing al-Bashir. However, he restored a number of NCP officials to their positions in the state bureaucracy after an October 2021 military coup which he spearheaded with Hemedti.
Analysts have said that al-Burhan had no alternatives since he failed to secure support from anyone else for the coup that put an end to Sudan’s frail democratic transition that had begun with al-Bashir’s removal.
NCP figures quickly took advantage by recapturing the justice system, which they used to release some of their supporters and reclaim financial assets that were stripped from them after al-Bashir fell from power, according to Africa Confidential, a leading source of intel on the continent.
The return of NCP officials also put them – and al-Burhan – increasingly at odds with the ambitions of Hemedti, who quickly began to distance himself from the military and the coup.
Now, Haroun and other top Bashir-era officials are backing the army to defeat Hemedti on the battlefield.
“There is a high possibility that al-Burhan will win this war now,” Mashamoun said. “I think they will then align with al-Burhan and support him in his presidential bid afterwards.”
Any significant support that al-Burhan receives from the NCP and the wider Islamic movement in Sudan could make regional actors such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates uneasy, warned Boswell.
Analysts said that Egypt is backing al-Burhan since it viewed the army as the most supreme sovereign institution, even as it pressured Sudan to turn over members or sympathisers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who fled Cairo’s crackdown since general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power a decade ago, according to news reports.
The UAE, which has more sway with Hemedti, may also step up support for the RSF due to its ideological aversion to political Islam in the region.
“The more that [al-Burhan] embraces Islamists, the more he complicates his own foreign relations and the more he risks a backlash from parts of the military that don’t sympathise with the NCP,” Boswell said.
Members of Sudan’s sprawling pro-democracy street movement have said that they are frightened at the prospect of NCP officials returning to power with the army.
Many notable activists believe that they would be targeted by NCP supporters for leading the protests that led to al-Bashir’s downfall. They also expect the army to close off all civil space.
“I’m terrified of the possibility of al-Burhan winning this war and then putting himself in power for 30 years,” said Ahmad Mahmoud, a Sudanese filmmaker in Khartoum, saying he expected a crackdown on civil society that will be “something similar to Egypt”.
Rights groups have said that el-Sisi’s government jailed about 65,000 people for political reasons, while consolidating control over local NGOs and the media.
The NCP has a long history of targeting its political dissidents in Sudan and in Egypt, two countries that share close security ties. Before al-Bashir fell, authorities pursued activists from the Nuba mountains and Darfur for documenting grave crimes that government forces committed in their regions, according to rights groups.
Jawhara Kanu, a Sudanese expert on politics and the economy, believed that if al-Bashir loyalists return to power with the military, then they will likely target members from the pro-democracy movement next.
“[NCP] Islamists are notoriously known for persecuting people and I’m sure they have been keeping tabs and tracking people down,” she said. “I think they will be a big threat [to civil society] if the military actually wins the war.”