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Understanding the Significance of the Protests in Sudan

With Sudanese President Omar al Bashir facing unprecedented pressure from a diverse collection of protesters and political parties, mediation is needed to avoid a violent escalation.


Sudan President Omar al-Bashir. (Photo: US Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir. (Photo: US Navy/Jesse B. Awalt)

Popular protests have taken hold in more than 28 towns and cities in Sudan since December. Sparked by a tripling in bread prices and an inflation rate of 65 percent and rising, the protests represent the most sustained challenge to President Omar al Bashir’s 30 years in power. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies talked to Dr. Luka Kuol, the Africa Center’s Professor of Practice and a former National Minister of Cabinet Affairs for the Republic of Sudan, for his insights.

How are these protests different than previous ones that Sudan has experienced?

“The current popular uprising is different from the previous ones in terms of drivers, intensity, popularity, duration, spread, and death toll.”

Sudan is one of the few African countries where citizens pioneered post-independence popular uprisings in 1964 and 1985 that forced the ruling military regimes to step down. Popular uprising has become one of the political norms that Sudanese resort to in redefining their social contract with the state.

The current popular uprising is different from the previous ones in terms of drivers, intensity, popularity, duration, spread, and death toll. Although this uprising was triggered by the decision of the government to lift subsidies on essential commodities (most significantly bread), it is a manifestation of the structural economic, political, and social fragility of the state of Sudan. Unlike previous uprisings, these protests have been engineered by the new forces of youth and middle-class professionals that are well informed, connected, and equipped with enabling technology and social media that the regime is ill-positioned to contain.

What are some of the underlying factors behind the protests?

The political Islam program adopted by the National Congress Party (NCP) in governing Sudan after gaining power through a coup d’état in 1989 has not only resulted in the separation from South Sudan but has also caused enormous human suffering and agony that has contributed to this uprising and relegated Sudan to arguably one of the worst performing states in the world. This peaceful uprising has adopted a chant similar to that of the Arab Spring protests elsewhere in the region: “The people want to overthrow the regime” and calls for President Bashir to step down. The uprising seems to gain more strength and reenergize itself the more the government uses violence to suppress it.

There is no doubt the uprising has weakened the authority of President Bashir and political Islam in Sudan.

How resilient are the protests likely to be?

It is likely the uprising will persist and continue unabated. Meanwhile, elements of the government are determined to repress the protests until the movement is worn out. Indeed, Sudan is at a crossroads. Some observers see President Bashir as having no option but to fight back at any cost, while the protesters are determined to see regime change. If the confrontation continues to escalate in the manner, despite the civility exhibited by the protesters, Sudan is destined for a bloody boiling point and chaos that may deteriorate into a scenario similar to that of Syria or Libya.

How much support does Bashir have?

The withdrawal of 22 political parties, including Islamist political parties, from the national dialogue initiated by President Bashir and their call on January 1 for him to step down and form a sovereign council and a transitional government is a political blow to the standing of President Bashir.

“With the erosion of Bashir’s political base, the NCP is divided and Bashir retains only a few loyal supporters from his party.”

Many observers also believe that the army has shifted from its absolute allegiance to Bashir to a neutral position and are even siding in some instances with the protestors. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which has been very loyal to Bashir and has been an integral part of his ruling party, the NCP, has started blaming the government for its mismanagement of the economic crisis. This has further weakened the control of Bashir over the affairs of the government. Even the special military force called “The Rapid Support Force” that was formed to protect Bashir and his regime has taken a neutral position toward the uprising. Its leadership has also publicly criticized the government for the economic crisis.

With the erosion of Bashir’s political base, the NCP is divided and Bashir retains only a few loyal supporters from his party. Besides the division within the NCP, there is also friction among the regime’s supporters. The Sudanese Muslim Scholars Association, a body of state-sponsored clerics that is perceived as conservative and loyal to Bashir, has unprecedentedly criticized the government for the economic crisis and has called for the accountability of the officials responsible.

What are the likely paths forward?

Slogan of Sudanese protesters

One of the slogans of the Sudanese protesters—”Just fall, that is all”—spelled out in tear gas canisters. (Photo: Mohamed Gamal)

A first option is for Bashir to voluntarily resign and hand over power to the national army with a technocratic government to oversee the transition to constitutional democratic governance. Provided that he can find a host country that may ensure his safety and protection from the warrant for his arrest by the International Criminal Court (ICC), President Bashir may choose to leave the country as did the former Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. With such protections, he may also decide to stay inside the country, as did the former Sudanese president, Ibrahim Abboud, in 1964 and former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Such a move would likely quell the protests and spare the country of the risk of more widespread violence. This option is unlikely, however, as the national army may be too politicized. Moreover, some protesters may not accept Bashir avoiding accountability.

The second option is for President Bashir to pledge to not contest for the presidency in general elections in 2020 and to allow the formation of an inclusive transitional government of national unity to oversee the transition to constitutional democratic governance.

In this option, Bashir would publicly apologize to the Sudanese people for the atrocities committed under his rule and bring charges against those who were responsible for the killing of protestors. As part of the transition process, he would commit to a national dialogue that would help create a conducive political environment for powersharing. This would also ensure the participation of moderate Islamist members, as has been the case in the Tunisian transitional process. This option is likely to be entertained by Bashir and accepted by the protesters if a trusted body facilitates it. However, some protesters may not agree with any option other than Bashir stepping down.

The third option is for President Bashir to defy the uprising, declare a state of emergency, and try to violently suppress it. This option would result in more bloodshed and may trigger a violent response from protesters with some seeing armed struggle as the only way to force President Bashir to step down. This scenario could descend into a protracted and fragmented conflict similar to that of Syria and Libya and would result in massive displacement and immense human suffering. Absent mediation—both internal and external—President Bashir’s instinct and pride may predispose him to this route.

Your scenarios suggest there is a way out of this crisis via mediation. Would you elaborate on this?

A key factor across all of these factors is the potentially determinative role of trustworthy mediation. While calculations over the ICC make his situation different from Ben Ali, Bashir also has to weigh the fate of other leaders in the region who tried to fight their way out of the crisis. So, he may indeed be willing to consider alternatives. Mediation efforts from the UN Security Council or African Union may be seen as representing the honest broker that is needed.

Such a mediation mechanism may also provide a credible platform from which to mobilize the international support needed to stabilize the serious economic crisis facing Sudan, even if Bashir were to step down.