Economic and political reforms are the only answers to Sudan’s growing culture of protest – By Islam Ahmed Al-Tayeb
In Sudan – the once hoped-for breadbasket of the Arab world – deadly unrest, sparked by a hugely unpopular decision to lift fuel subsidies, has made it abundantly clear that the country is struggling to maintain its current political order.
The uprising was sparked by the suspension of fuel subsidies relating to gasoline and gas canisters, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. The timing and manner the policy was implemented displayed the level of disconnect between the political elite and the impoverished masses. The suffering of the poor and vulnerable was exacerbated further by recent floods – described by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan as the worst in 25 years (over 500,000 people have been affected across the country.)
The chain of grievances can be traced back to decades of chronic economic mismanagement, poverty, rising levels of corruption, insecurity in the West and the South (which swallowed much of the budget), monopoly of power by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the hostile practices towards neighbouring countries and Sudan’s very own people. The secession of South Sudan in July 2011 and the loss of more than 75% of oil revenues have meant that the country has not been able to mask its economic fragility any longer. Sudan was left increasingly fragile, isolated and divided.
Although Sudan succeeded in toppling two military regimes; General Ibrahim Abboud in 1964 and General Gafaar Mohamed Nimeiri in 1985, its third attempt at a “˜Sudanese Spring’ isn’t bearing the desired fruit. This is substantially due to measures taken by al-Bashir’s government as soon as the uprising erupted last week. The Sudanese government has, once again, shown that it has mastered the art of crushing dissent.
Limited-scale demonstrations emerged in Wad Madani, the capital of the agricultural state of Al-Jazirah state, then spread to reach various cities including the capital, Khartoum. Security forces embarked on an indiscriminate operation attacking civilian protesters with extreme force, using live bullets which led to the death of between 100 and 200, the injury of thousands and the arrest of hundreds. The youth-led protests vanished into thin air due to the crackdown by the riot police and alleged pro-government thugs using tear gas, batons and live ammunition amongst other oppressive tactics.
In addition to the security solution, the government opted for a character assassination of the protest movement. As with neighbouring Egypt, protesters in Sudan were labelled as terrorists, linked to outside forces for instigating unrest and blamed for the violent incidents that coincided with the protests.
In an attempt to dampen any sympathy that protesters may gain after the brutal crackdown, the government linked photos of injured protestors to the unrest in Egypt and cast the blame on “˜infiltrators within the demonstrations’ for the brutality and wounds sustained by protesters.
The misinformation campaign was exacerbated further with the crackdown on local and international media outlets. Although the media coverage of the protests was limited and at times censored, even this most limited coverage was held hostage through tight state control which enforced compulsory closures, temporary suspensions of publication or pushed for voluntary closures for refusing to abide by the government’s official line. Amidst the restrictions on press freedoms, any adequate coverage of the protests and exposure of state brutality became near impossible.
Youth-led protests, remaining as scattered pockets, were confined to certain localities. It’s undeniable that the two grassroots campaigns; “˜abena’ (We refuse) and the resurrected “˜girifna’ (We’re fed up), have succeeded in building a huge momentum on the social media sphere, but this translated into only a slim mobilisation on the ground. Coordination between various groups has occurred, but only in a limited fashion. Internet connections in Sudan were officially cut off when the demonstrations gathered pace and restored subsequently on an intermittent basis. The wide arrests within the ranks of the opposition made it more difficult to build an organised protest front. Photos and videos have been surfacing via social media, but not of the scale sufficient to re-build momentum over the initial mobilisation.
The traditional Sudanese opposition remains lethargic, highly disorganised and deprived of vision. The leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) – Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi – who was Sudan’s last democratically elected Prime Minister, and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) of Hassan Al-Turabi, have both openly called their supporters to join the protests. Although they appear to have united around demands for the reversal of fuel subsidy cuts, they remain highly divided and unclear over what sort of Sudan they envision following any reform or toppling of the regime.
In spite of this, the international community has remained generally disengaged. Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, condemned the crackdown by the regime forces on protestors. Qatar remained on the fence with its al Jazeera network opting for non-partisan analysis of the situation, coupled with limited coverage. Although protestors are calling for an intervention by the United Nations (UN) or the African Union (AU), this remains highly unlikely given the two decades of alienation Khartoum has engendered within the international community.
A breakthrough could manifest through a split within the governing apparatus. More than 30 NCP officials and supporters sent a memorandum to President al-Bashir demanding the reinstatement of the fuel subsidies and implementation of swift political and economic reforms. Whether al-Bashir is ousted or runs for the 2015 elections, his party will remain a formidable political force that ought not to be underestimated by the uprising or the opposition groups. Some reports have surfaced that military commanders and police officers refused to attack peaceful demonstrators – some are thought to have fled the country. Those events make it clear that splits are emerging within the governing apparatus. Such splits will only become significant if popular mobilisation becomes more widespread.
It’s clear that the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring are having their own poisonous effect on the fragile scene in Sudan. After decades of making enemies and losing friends, Sudan – with or without al-Bashir – has a long list of hard and unpopular economic, political and strategic decisions that it will have to make. With the dwindling revolutionary appetite, weak political stamina and incoherent economic vision to engineer change, much of the revolution will highly likely remain as a deep rumbling beneath the surface. Many will prefer the devil that they know than the devil that they don’t.
Islam Ahmed Al-Tayeb is Middle East Analyst, Nile River Security at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.