By Ulf Laessing
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - When Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir returned a few weeks ago from a summit in Ethiopia with his South Sudanese counterpart and former civil war foe, many people here expected him to talk of peace.
Instead, the 69-year-old ruler donned his officer's uniform, waved his trademark walking stick and - once again - threatened to cut off South Sudanese oil exports through Sudan, something the northern country's battered economy can ill afford.
The International Criminal Court-indicted leader faces a succession debate at home and his rhetoric was aimed less at the South, an uneasy neighbor since it split from the north in 2011, and more at hard-line Islamists and army officers in his own circles, analysts say.
This weekend, thousands of Sudanese demanded that Bashir step down in the biggest opposition rally for years. But the biggest threat to his rule might come from dissent within the army and Islamists, the backbone of his power since he seized control in a 1989 coup.
Nobody in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has declared himself a contender, but speculation over who could run the vast African country after Bashir has increased since he indicated he might quit before 2015 elections.
Diplomats say Bashir's family has been asking him to make good on that suggestion following his throat surgery last year. Officials insist he is completely fit but he has cut down on speeches and public events.
Any handover would be complicated by Bashir's indictment at the ICC for war crimes in Sudan's Darfur region, where the government and the Janjaweed militia have been battling rebel groups from the minority non-Arab population since 2003. Analysts say he would be anxious to ensure a successor would not turn him over to The Hague to improve relations with the West.
"He would want a hardliner as successor to make sure there won't be any concession with the ICC," said Magdi El Gizouli, a political analyst and author of the "Still Sudan" blog.
Bashir is no stranger to challenges. In his 24 years in power, he has weathered protests, multiple armed revolts, U.S. trade sanctions, the loss of vital oil to South Sudan and, more recently, a coup attempt by disgruntled officers and Islamists.
While Western powers shun contact with Bashir due to the ICC Darfur charges, they worry his exit might lead to instability in one of Africa's biggest countries at a time when Islamist militants are fighting French troops in Mali and roam across sub-Saharan borders.
With its porous borders to Chad, Egypt, the Central African Republic and Libya, awash with arms from the 2001 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, an unstable Sudan could be a major security headache.
Alarm bells rang when unconfirmed reports emerged that some Mali fighters fleeing French troops had arrived in lawless Darfur in February, despite Sudan's denial.
"No doubt many horrible things happen in Sudan, but a Sudan without Bashir could be chaos," said a European diplomat. "You could have a link between Islamists here and in Mali."
ARMY IS POWER BROKER
NCP officials have played down Bashir's comments, with several calling on him to run again, fearing his exit might split the party, or indeed the country, which is dominated by three Arab tribes. Others want him to stay to safeguard their business interests.
"We will accept nobody else but you," Abu Majzoub, a senior NCP official told Bashir during a party meeting two weeks ago.
The president himself kept his options open at the event, declaring in a speech - one of his longest since undergoing surgery - that only a special NCP conference, expected for next year, would decide on the next candidate.
But newspaper columnist Mekki El Mograbi said it was too late to stop a succession debate. Middle-aged NCP cadres have been privately complaining that key positions in the government and state firms have been held for decades by the same old men.
They point to senior figures like Oil Minister Awad al-Jaz, who is on his second term in that post and has been rotated though various top jobs since the 1989 coup.
"Young people inside the NCP think it is time to take over power," said Mekki, an NCP member. "They want young people present in all government positions."
Some technocrats close to the NCP also feel the ICC charges stand in the way of better ties with the West as Sudan hopes for investment to realize its mineral and agricultural potential.
In a first public rift, senior NCP official Ghazi Salah ad-Din said in April the constitution banned Bashir from running again. The NCP promptly removed him as head of its parliamentary caucus.
To keep critics at bay Bashir cannot lose the loyalty of the army, a power broker in a country famous for coups.
By accusing South Sudan of backing Sudanese rebels he is playing to the feelings of hardliners in the army and also radical Islamists for whom the old civil war foe to the south is a natural enemy, analysts and diplomats in Khartoum say.
Some officers were enraged by a rebel attack on central Sudan in April, and dismayed by the army's struggle to seize back territory.
Bashir has since changed the army leadership under the banner of regular retirement, which offered him the chance to promote ambitious young officers and make a new start fighting rebels.
Aly Verjee, senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute, said Bashir had still the support of many in the army and NCP but the risk was that disgruntled officers might team up with Islamists who feel he has given up the religious values of his 1989 coup.
That risk was exposed when authorities unveiled in November a coup plot involving a former spy chief and 12 officers. One of them was a senior Islamist army officer, who is revered as a hero fighting southern "infidels" during the long civil war.
"The question is not whether anti-Bashir sentiment exists, but how deep it runs, how permanent it is, and how many of the leadership are sympathetic to such views," said Verjee.
The government has been at pains not to give any clues who might succeed Bashir one day.
When Japan held an African summit in June it left Sudan to choose its representative as Tokyo could not host Bashir due to the ICC charges. First Vice President Ali Osman Taha would have been the top-ranking alternative, but Khartoum only sent a state finance minister.
"It looked odd to have a junior minister sitting next to several African leaders, but I think they didn't want to send Taha since he's seen as a succession candidate," said a diplomat.
Taha would be the preferred candidate of many Western diplomats who hope his more moderate views might open a new page in relations. But as a former judge and lawyer it remains to be seen whether he would have the backing of the army.
"Bashir might think Taha is too soft and could make concessions with the ICC," said El Gizouli.
Another possible contender is presidential assistant Nafie Ali Nafie, a hardliner with security ties. He has been visiting European countries such as Norway, Sweden or Russia in recent months, which some see as a hint of higher ambitions.
(Editing by Will Waterman)