by Giorgio Cafiero
Widespread rage over rising fuel and bread prices, inflation, and cash shortages triggered Sudan’s daily protests. These demonstrations began on December 19 in the River Nile city of Atbara, located in central Sudan. They quickly spread to Khartoum and other cities. Early on, those on the street began demanding that President Omar al-Bashir and the minority clique around him step down from power.
These anti-regime protests are unusual in Sudan’s post-independence history. Although Sudan has previously experienced waves of uprisings and protests—October 1964, April 1985, June/July 2012, September 2013, and January 2018—the ones currently shaking the country are unprecedented in terms of how long they have lasted, the demonstrators’ diversity, and their size. As Walaa Isam Elboushi, a Sudanese engineer and activist, put it, the protests have become a “way of life” in the country.
Challenging Sudan’s Post-1989 Political Order
Opponents of the ruling government allege that Bashir, since taking power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, has led Sudan in a negative direction. The average Sudanese citizen has paid a major price for the government’s handling of internal conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile, southern Sudan (now South Sudan), and elsewhere, which have resulted in extremely bloated defense budgets and the diversion of resources away from economic development. Many Sudanese supporters of regime change argue that the country’s loss of one-third of its territory and 70 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves because of South Sudan’s 2011 breakaway resulted from Bashir’s mishandling and excessive militarization of domestic affairs. Following South Sudan’s independence, Sudan’s economy began crashing. The government responded by taking out loans, selling large swathes of agricultural land, selling gold in foreign markets, and printing a lot of money.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Sudan’s head of state on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide charges. The ICC’s warrant for Bashir’s arrest is one of the factors behind the continuation of U.S. sanctions against Khartoum—initially imposed by the Bill Clinton administration in 1993 and partially lifted by Barack Obama’s administration in 2017.
Those on the streets share a conviction that Bashir must relinquish power. Meanwhile, Bashir is vowing to stand strong and maintain power until the 2020 elections. The Sudanese state has responded to these ongoing protests with relentless force, using bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds, which has resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests. The regime has also imposed a state of emergency and a curfew in certain areas while shutting down the Internet.
Amnesty International has accused the state of “killing people in an unbridled spree that is even affecting children” and also targeting doctors in hospitals. Authorities in Khartoum, however, deny such reports while maintaining that the protestors are agents of foreign powers and rebels from Darfur. Sudan’s president has alleged that the forces killing demonstrators were not connected to the state security apparatus but were instead people “instructed to infiltrate the protests and kill the protesters in order to fuel the conflict, instigate sedition, and destroy the country.”
The Global Response
Naturally, China, with Beijing’s “non-interference” foreign policy and close alliance with Khartoum, and Russia, which joins China in having warm ties with Bashir and not criticizing Arab regimes on human rights grounds, have not condemned the Sudanese regime.
Both powers can be expected to shield Bashir’s regime from any UN resolution that the Security Council’s permanent Western members may try to pass. For their part, the United States and some of its Western, democratic allies have put out mild statements calling for the Sudanese government to release detainees held for political purposes, but they have not taken more concrete action. Given that it does not prioritize human rights in its highly transactional foreign policy strategies, the Trump administration has not surprisingly failed to raise the issue of human rights abuses in Sudan.
Particularly in light of what happened in Libya, many regional states are concerned about a power vacuum in Sudan if revolutionaries oust Bashir. They look at Sudan’s head of state and conclude: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Neither the African Union nor the Arab League has taken any action to hold Sudanese authorities accountable for atrocities, which is markedly different from the Arab League’s responses to the 2011 uprisings in Libya and Syria.
Additionally, almost all Arab states face pressures from democratic groups and activists among their own citizens, so they’re worried about the potential for the winds of change to blow across borders. This is especially so with young Arabs tuned into social media and taking inspiration from movements in other countries. That’s what happened with the uprising in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring.
Sudan has also been an important ally of wealthy Arab Persian Gulf states, which have vested interests in Khartoum. Given their investments in Sudan, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have a strong incentive to make sure that a friendly regime remains in power. Politically, the monarchies on both sides of the Qatar crisis have supported Bashir’s regime in recent years, especially after Khartoum severed ties with Iran in early 2016. With Saudi and Emirati leaders determined to limit their own countries’ casualties in the Yemen war, Sudan has been a useful member of the coalition because it has contributed forces to fight the Houthis on the ground.
For Qatar, Sudan is an important ally. Khartoum refused to join the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi-led blockade of Doha in mid-2017, demonstrating Sudan’s commitment to maintaining close ties with all six GCC members. Currently in Doha, Bashir will seek to leave the Qatari capital with a large aid package to help the government in Khartoum cope with the economic crises that initially triggered the anti-regime protests in December.
Looking Beyond the Gulf
In recent years, Sudan has moved closer to Turkey and Russia, two states that have gained greater influence in the Arab world’s security landscape. Turkey’s government expressed solidarity with Sudan in late 2018 and took seriously the Bashir regime’s narrative about foreign conspirators. “We are aware of the recent ploys against Sudan,” said the deputy chairperson of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) while in a meeting with Khartoum’s ambassador to Ankara. “We support the legitimate government of Sudan. Turkey has faced similar ploys many times.” While Bashir has been in Qatar, Sudan’s oil minister stated that in addition to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and Russia have offered Khartoum financial aid packages.
Last year, Sudan’s government reportedly was thinking about opening diplomatic relations with Israel. Even though Bashir has accused the Jewish state of playing a role in fomenting the current wave of unrest across Sudan, his decision to permit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to transit Sudanese-controlled South Sudanese airspace en route to Chad this month suggests that Bashir’s regime is still trying to keep a door open to Tel Aviv.
Khartoum’s motivations for establishing formal ties with Israel have much to do with Sudan’s desire to persuade Washington to lift all remaining economic sanctions. Earlier in Trump’s presidency, the UAE emerged as a possible diplomatic bridge between the White House and Bashir, potentially paving the way for a Sudan-U.S. rapprochement. Although the Trump administration has yet to make any major overtures to Khartoum, the Sudanese leader no doubt hopes that the U.S. president’s embrace of other autocratic leaders around the world raises the chances of a reconciliation some time before the Trump presidency finishes.
A Post-Bashir Sudan?
Sudan’s president and those in his clique believe that the Khartoum regime can wait out this period of unrest. However, the security forces’ intensification of violence only attracts more global media attention to the country. Meanwhile, the protestors, whose demands for “freedom” and “dignity” evoke memories of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, are highly disciplined and strategic in their use of non-violent means of resistance.
Will they usher Sudan into a post-Bashir era in the near term? Bashir weathered the Arab Spring revolts. But it’s debatable whether his 30-year presidency can survive this storm.
The regime may have a grave problem on its hands that no violent crackdown can quickly solve. The protests that shook Sudan in 2012, 2013, and January 2018 have now culminated in a new wave of demonstrations that pose the gravest threat to Bashir’s regime since its rise to power. Bashir might continue to stand and fight. Or he could negotiate an exit from Sudan and spend the remainder of his life in exile. Then, for the first time since 1989, someone else would take the helm in Khartoum.