Protests in Sudan won't fade away and the country's leader is fast running out of options.
Anti-government protests have gripped Sudan for the last ten weeks. Triggered initially by rising bread and fuel prices, demonstrators are now demanding an end to nearly 30 years of President Omar al Bashir’s rule.
The economy has been deteriorating since the breakaway of South Sudan in 2011 effectively claiming 70 percent of Sudanese oil wells, a significant source of foreign currency. The country is plagued by high inflation, with the Sudanese Pound losing 70 percent of its value against the US Dollar at the beginning of the current unrest. Khartoum says the economic crisis is a result of IMF-led structural changes since late 2017. It also alleges that the protests are infiltrated and fuelled by ‘traitors and foreign agents.’
Demonstrations, which have peacefully begun in 14 out of Sudan's 18 provinces, have resulted in clashes with security forces as protestors tried to enter government premises, including the Presidential palace in Khartoum. The two sides provide conflicting figures of the casualties. The government said 31 people died in the 10-weeks-long uprisings, while opposition groups, as well as human rights groups, put the number around 51 deaths and over 2,600 arrests.
President Bashir, who has led the country since 1989, has refused to step down but his government promised immediate economic development, without further clarifying how it intends to achieve that goal. Bashir promised wage increases for the civil servants and increased health insurance. Last month lawmakers passed Sudan's 2019 budget, which aims to reduce the inflation from 70 percent to 27 percent. Additionally, Khartoum mobilised considerably large rallies across the country to counter the anti-government uprising. None of these measures has stopped the protests.
Last Friday, the embattled president declared a year-long national state of emergency across the country and dissolved the national government as well as all elected regional governments and replaced all state governors with senior military officials.
Bashir fired his long-time ally General Bakri Hasan Salih as vice president and replaced him with General Awad Ibn Awof—another hardliner and former defence minister who has been subject to American sanctions in relation to his role in Darfur conflict when he was the military intelligence chief.
On Monday, Bashir banned public protests and trading fuel products and announced new regulations on trading and transporting gold and foreign currency.
However, the decision was immediately met with new rounds of protests with thousands of demonstrators in the capital Khartoum and Omdurman. The protest organisers as well as the opposition Umma National party have both rebuffed the new measures and called for more demonstrations to pressure Bashir to resign.
What makes this standoff unique?
Political and civil unrest is not new to Sudan. In 1964 and 1985, peaceful revolutions led by trade unions, professionals, political parties and backed by the military have toppled Sudanese ruling governments.
In 2013, at the beginning of the economic meltdown following South Sudan’s secession, the government violently cracked down protestors, resulting in the death of 185 people, according to Amnesty International. The current unrest spearheaded by trade unions, professional associations and opposition political parties shows no sign of abating. Anti-regime groups show unprecedented resolve, and nationwide protests continue and are expected to continue, in different parts of the country in the forthcoming days and weeks.
It can be argued the worsening economic hardships have resulted in the protestors losing faith in the government's promises. They believe the only way out of the crisis is Bashir’s peaceful removal from the power.
Secondly, the rate of the defections from the ruling coalition led by the National Party Council (NPC) has increased the resolve of the protestors. Since the start of the protests in mid-December, around 20 parties have defected from the government, abandoned the national dialogue and thrown their weight behind the opposition. These parties who call themselves the National Front for Change (NFC) issued a memorandum in early January calling the president to dissolve the government and the parliament. Bashir rebuffed those calls and reportedly told them to prepare for 2020 elections.
Another crucial factor is political Islam. The NFC includes some religious parties like Sudan Reform Now and Umma Party, both former allies of President Bashir. These groups did not dominate the 1964 and 1985 uprisings, but they were instrumental in Bashir's capture of power in the 1989 military coup.
Turning over a new leaf
In light of this standoff, President Bashir has several options to put off the uprising. First, he may decide to embrace the call of the opposition and voluntarily step aside, thus creating an inclusive transitional government that would set a date for democratic elections. Additionally, Bashir may decide to not seek a third term in the upcoming 2020 elections and assemble a new coalition government that would address the economic meltdown. Bashir recently declared he would contest for Sudan’s top office after the ruling National Congress Party, which he leads, nominated him for the party’s candidate. Both of these options would most likely allow President Bashir to negotiate an exit strategy in exchange for judicial amnesty and would save the nation from further clashes at least for now.
The final and most costly scenario would be that Bashir clings to power and incite further violence and economic paralysis. The country already faces an armed rebellion in the states of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. Further violence could result in a full-blown civil war similar to that of Syria, with Sudanese people paying dearly.
Conflict in Sudan would mean more regional instability. The country’s neighbours including South Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Chad to some extent have been unstable for many years. Instability in Sudan would also negatively affect international trade and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, which has already been hit hard by the war in Yemen and piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Finally, Sudan is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in Africa (currently 2.2 million IDPs and 695,000 refugees from South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Eritrea). A war in Sudan—a country of 40 million—would result in a new wave of refugees to Europe. For this reason, the international community would have to support the Sudanese authority in resolving the current unrest before it is too late.
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