President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, is facing the most serious challenge to his regime to date. Now entering their fourth month, nationwide protests calling for regime change are continuing in defiance of the national state of emergency declared by the president on 22 February.
The government has responded to the protests with a brutal security crackdown. Peaceful demonstrations have been fired on using live ammunition, and thousands of arrests have been made, with some detainees reported to have been tortured.
President Bashir has appointed a new government, installed military and security officers in all state governorships, issued emergency decrees banning unlicensed protests, established emergency courts, and deployed large numbers of security forces on the streets.
But protests continue to take place almost daily, with support from nearly all sectors of society. Disenfranchised youth who have grown up under Bashir’s regime have been joined on the front line of the demonstrations by women who have suffered harassment and humiliation by the public order police, as well as independent professionals.
These new social forces are starting to influence Sudan’s political landscape, and the protests have become a social and cultural phenomenon reflected in art, music, poetry and social greetings. However, there remain powerful segments in Sudanese society that have a vested interest in sustaining the regime.
Root causes and responses
Sudan’s economic crisis – the initial catalyst for the protests – is rooted in institutional corruption, neglect of productive sectors, and massive spending on the security apparatus at the expense of basic services.
The protests are not just about economic hardship, however. They are the culmination of years of anger at the regime’s corruption, repression, and atrocities in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, together with the prospect of the constitution being amended to allow Bashir stand for a further term as president in 2020.
The government has been unable to solve Sudan’s economic crisis, which has accelerated since US sanctions were revoked in 2017. The measures needed to stabilize the economy and set Sudan on the path to recovery require far-reaching political reforms – including a new social contract and guarantees of respect for human rights – that could threaten the regime’s survival.
So far, the government’s response has been to print money and try to address the economic crisis through security measures, while the president has been touring the Gulf states looking for financial bailouts.
Attempts to externalize blame and incite ethnic tensions have backfired and created a greater sense of national solidarity. President Bashir’s offer to reopen the government-controlled National Dialogue, which was terminated in 2016, also seems unlikely to gain traction in the absence of a conducive environment, particularly as its previous recommendations were never implemented.
Although the president has announced that he will step aside from party politics and suspend plans for constitutional amendments, many believe he intends to buy time and stay in power.
Sudan’s main opposition political groups, including the Sudan Call alliance and the National Consensus Forces, and professional and civil society organizations, have signed a Declaration for Freedom and Change, calling for a transitional government, peace and accountability.
The Declaration provides an organizing centre and a political platform to work on transition plans and articulate alternative policies. But this alliance needs time to become a coherent political force, and this depends on keeping the streets alive.
Conscious of the need to avoid the chaos seen in other countries in the region, all the opposition forces, including armed movements, have emphasized the need for the protests to remain peaceful.
A network of patronage
In 1964 and again in 1985, the army sided with popular revolts in Sudan to bring a swift end to previous military dictatorships. But President Bashir has spent the last 30 years working to ‘coup-proof’ his regime.
He has created multiple security forces, shadow party militias and an extremely powerful National Intelligence and Security Service, politicized the army and other state institutions, and enabled regime insiders to take control of key sectors and companies within the economy. All are part of Sudan’s Islamist ‘deep state’, and a network of patronage that constitutes a formidable barrier to regime change.
Nevertheless, there are some members of the incumbent National Congress Party who do not want Bashir to stand for re-election again. Latterly, Bashir’s response to the protests has been to step aside as party leader and reposition himself as a unifying figure for the nation. He has brought in his trusted ally Ahmed Haroun as acting party chairman to weed out Islamist opponents, including those loyal to the influential former senior presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie.
Like Bashir, Haroun is subject to an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for atrocity crimes in Darfur. The president has also installed loyalists in key government posts, including Mohamed Tahir Eila as prime minister, and Lieutenant General Awad Ibn Awf, the defence minister, as first vice-president.
The president’s calculation appears to be that he can weather the current protests – and counter opposition within the regime – by controlling the army and the security forces. The army high command benefits financially from the system, and was recently reshuffled to consolidate loyalties. However, if popular pressure and economic hardship continue, those who believe their duty is to protect the nation above the regime could well break ranks.
The international response
President Bashir has been trying to stay neutral between rival blocs in the Gulf crisis. With his recent appointments and dismissals, he may be hoping to please Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while also seeking to reassure Qatar by nevertheless retaining loyal Islamists in senior positions. Sudan harbours the ambition of taking over the chair of a restructured Intergovernmental Authority on Development from Ethiopia, although this could be thwarted by the current crisis.
In addition to its long-standing strategic partnership with China, Sudan enjoys strong support from Russia – one of its major backers on the UN Security Council – and has recently been building up military cooperation with Moscow.
Over the last three years, the US, the UK, the EU and others have pursued a ‘phased engagement’ with Khartoum, treating it as a partner on counterterrorism, migration, trade and regional issues. But the protests may force a rethink.
The Troika (the US, the UK and Norway), Canada and the EU have all condemned the regime’s excessive violence, urged the release of detainees, emphasized the need for political and economic reform, and warned that their future engagement will be affected by the Sudanese government’s actions.
If these warnings are to be taken seriously, Western governments should suspend talks on normalization and bilateral strategic dialogues while violent repression continues; engage seriously with a broad range of parties calling for reform; and support an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged recent human rights violations, bearing in mind that domestic inquiries in Sudan have not previously resulted in accountability for perpetrators or justice for victims.
The current protests have become a war of attrition, with neither side willing to give up. What is clear, however, is that pressure for change will continue to come from the Sudanese street, and that the government has not articulated answers to the root causes of the crisis.
Dame Rosalind Marsden, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme.