The large-scale and wide geographic spread of protests in Sudan over the past few weeks pose a greater threat to the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir than ever before in his thirty-year grip on power. After the mobilisation over the period of weeks, the demonstrations on Thursday, 24 January were possibly the largest that Sudan has ever witnessed since the country’s independence. Sparked on 19 December 2018 by bread price hikes and foreign currency shortages, the uprisings mutated into direct calls for the regime’s downfall and for Bashir’s removal, epitomised in the pithy slogan “Tasqut bas!” (Let it [the regime] fall; enough!).
The protests began in the small town of Atbara, which, like most of the country, has been suffering the ill effects of the government’s austerity measures implemented through its 2018 budget. The budget removed bread subsidies, causing prices to triple from around one Sudanese pound a loaf to three pounds. The currency was also devalued thrice in 2018, and now stands at around fifty Sudanese pounds to one US dollar, down from six pounds to the dollar at the beginning of 2018. Worsening matters, inflation is at seventy per cent, and with shortages of currency, cash withdrawals have been restricted. Significantly, since 2011, Sudan has had to cope with the loss of around seventy per cent of government revenues as a result of the secession of the south to form South Sudan, which produced seventy-five per cent of Sudan’s oil. The economic crisis has been aggravated by economic mismanagement, patronage and wars in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces where the government attempts to militarily suppress dissent in a similar manner to what it previously had unsuccessfully attempted in the south. These combined problems have drained state coffers, and Khartoum is seeking an IMF bailout.
Originally initiated by youth, the protests rapidly grew and escalated to include a broad spectrum of the society; it is currently led by the Sudan Professionals’ Association (SPA), a large organisation with members – mainly engineers, doctors and teachers – in and outside Sudan. The uprising spread throughout the country, including to Darfur, in spite of the government’s heavy-handed response, which resulted in fifty-one deaths and 1 000 arrests to date. Opposition parties, including the influential Umma Party and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) joined the protests. Umma’s Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former Sudanese president, recently ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Sudan from Egypt to participate in the protests. The involvement of these political forces, coupled with the government’s initially repressive approach, contributed to protesters’ demands evolving from economic to political calls for the regime’s ouster.
In addition, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) both suspended peace talks with the regime in an attempt to deliver additional pressure. Significantly, the protests are different to those in 2012-13, which were concentrated in the capital city. The current protests have sprouted in areas outside Khartoum, including in many rural areas, resulting in the regime being unable easily to contain them. Moreover, they are more representative of all sectors of Sudanese society, and the leading organisation, the SPA, is independent, not reliant on the state for political survival, and has much respect in Sudanese society. The SPA has also been able to leverage its links with the Sudanese diaspora, many of whom are professionals with influence in their host countries, as a means of amplifying the protests. The regime’s attempts to contain the protests by restricting the flow of information has thus been rendered largely impotent.
Protest leaders insist that their actions will remain peaceful, and, except for an initial attack on the offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), that guideline is being adhered to. Even JEM leader Gibril Ibrahim, while expressing full support for the protests, said his group will not provide armed protection for the protesters, arguing that the best protection for them was their insistence on peaceful demonstrations.
Slogan on a wall in Sudan: 'You resemble the night when tyrants die and the revolution wins.'
Bashir reacted to the protests relatively quickly, within a week after the protests began. He initially insisted that the grievances were solely economic, and argued that the government would institute measures to mitigate citizens’ suffering. Later, on 31 December, he also tactically criticised the use of live ammunition by security forces, and established a committee to investigate protester deaths a day later. This was his attempt to contain protests, position himself as supporting legitimate demands and to dissuade protesters from advocating regime change. However, he also sought to externalise the reasons for the protests, claiming that they were sponsored by foreigners, and proposing that elections were the only method of initiating political change.
Although the protests indicate that the regime is facing unprecedented domestic pressure, Bashir’s position within the region remains strong, and his position in the international community has not been shaken much. By deploying troops to Yemen he has ensured backing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which also want to ensure that Sudan does not become an Iranian ally. Simultaneously, he receives support from Turkey and Qatar. Relations with Egypt were mended in October 2018, while Bashir’s role in concluding the South Sudanese power-sharing agreement ensures support from regional heavyweight Ethiopia. Even relations with the USA have improved, with the White House in the process of removing Sudan from its list of states it deems as sponsoring terrorism. Ties with Beijing remain warm, and Bashir is an EU partner in the attempt to limit migration from Africa to Europe. Relations with Russia too are good, and it was Russian nudging that persuaded Bashir to visit Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, in an attempt to break his isolation from the Arab world. It is no great surprise, then, that the crackdown on Sudan’s protests have received little condemnation from foreign states, which, in the cases of Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey, have promised aid in fuel and wheat. Significantly, Russian private security personnel, likely sanctioned by the administration, are assisting Bashir to contain protests.
With this weight of external support, a likely scenario moving forward is Bashir’s withdrawing his candidature for the 2020 presidential election. Although the NCP endorsed him as its candidate, and Egypt is insisting he stands, the current protests, coupled with the fact that the 2005 constitution will need amendments for him to run for a third term, will render his candidacy increasingly difficult. The NCP decision caused schisms within the party and the military. Influential figures such as former presidential advisor Amin Hassan Omar and former National Security and Intelligence Services head Nafie Ali Nafie opposed Bashir’s candidature. They might use the protests to force Bashir to step down in 2020.
However, it seems unlikely that there will be enough of a rupture within the NCP to ensure Bashir’s overthrow as an immediate response to the protests, especially since global powers are intent on ensuring regional stability. Events on the ground may however change arbitrarily, as was seen in the 24 January protests in Port Sudan, where military officers clashed with NIS officials, forcing the latter to extricate themselves from attempts to contain the protests. If such intrastate tensions become more widespread, the regime will find it much more difficult to contain the protests. Significantly Al-Bashir instituted a minor purge within the military in September 2018, indicating that he does not fully trust the institution’s loyalty. All of this, however, does not guarantee the sustainability of the uprising. As the uprisings in countries north of Sudan in 2011 showed, loosely organised uprisings with powerful slogans do not necessarily lead to revolutions of regime change.