Sudan's military coup leader, facing pressure at home and abroad to restore power to civilians, said a technocratic prime minister could be announced in a week, and left the door open for the man he ousted to return and form the new government.
Western countries have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed aid to Sudan since General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan dissolved Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok's cabinet and soldiers rounded up government ministers on Monday.
Opponents of the coup have called for mass protests on Saturday under the slogan "Leave!". At least 11 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces so far this week, and residents say they fear a full-blown crackdown.
"I am scared that this country will catch fire. We're scared these people will kill our children. There's been enough death," said a Khartoum woman in her 70s on condition of anonymity.
The coup has derailed a transition meant to steer Sudan to democracy, with elections in 2023, after long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir was toppled two years ago.
While there has been no evidence of concrete progress towards restoring civilian rule, several mediation efforts have been announced. An Egyptian source said Egyptian officials had spoken to Burhan in a bid to foster a new government.
In Khartoum, a committee of national figures has been formed to mediate and has met with both the army and civilians, a member told Reuters. A UN special representative has also offered to facilitate an agreement.
In a speech on Thursday night, Burhan said Hamdok had been offered a chance to return as prime minister.
"Until this night, we were sending him people and telling (Hamdok) ... complete the path with us," Burhan said in the speech, which was broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV. "We told him that we cleaned the stage for you ... he is free to form the government, we will not intervene in the government formation."
There was no immediate public response from Hamdok to the suggestion that he might return, but his allies have previously said he wants the civilian role in government restored and all detained ministers freed.
One minister in Hamdok's ousted government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said cabinet members were not opposed to standing aside for a new government, provided it is led and chosen by Hamdok, and the transitional agreement is restored in full.
A technocrat agreed upon by the people
Burhan has said he removed the cabinet to avert civil war after civilian politicians stoked hostility to the armed forces. He says he is still committed to a democratic transition, including elections by 2023, but favors a government that would exclude partisan politicians.
The new government would be led by a technocrat "agreed upon by different sections of the Sudanese people," who could be chosen within a week and permitted to select a cabinet, he said in comments reported on Friday by Russia's Sputnik news agency.
"We will not interfere in the choice of the ministers," he said. New members would also be appointed to the Sovereign Council, a civilian-military body which he dissolved along with the cabinet.
The UN Security Council has called for the restoration of civilian rule, while U.S. President Joe Biden says Washington stands with peaceful demonstrators.
Hamdok, an economist, was initially held at Burhan's residence when soldiers rounded up the government on Monday, but was allowed to return home under guard on Tuesday.
A source close to Hamdok said on Wednesday that Hamdok rejected any retreat from the democratic path as a threat to stability. On the eve of the coup, Hamdok had resisted pressure to dissolve his cabinet and warned the army against using violence against protesters, the source said.
Magdi El Gizouli, a political analyst, said Burhan's calculation is that he can suppress the opposition by force if needed, while counting on the backing of people who crave stability.
While it was important the army avoid violence on Saturday, Burhan's opponents must make realistic demands, he added. "Otherwise you're driving your car beyond its motor."
Egyptian officials including intelligence chief Abbas Kamel have been spoken with Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, another top Sudanese commander, in the last two days in a bid to restore calm and mediate over the formation of a new government, a security source at Egyptian intelligence said.
The coup has led donors to freeze assistance badly needed in a country where more than half the population is in poverty and hardship has fuelled instability and civil wars. After decades of pariah status under Bashir, Sudan had finally won Western aid, which has only recently begun to stabilize its economy.
Since becoming de facto head of state in 2019, Burhan has developed good ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, U.S.-allied Arab states all happy to see the downfall of Bashir, whose Islamism they opposed.