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Situation Assessment 11 February, 2019

Protests in Sudan: Drivers and Prospects

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Protests in Sudan that broke out on 19 December 2018 have reached a state of equilibrium between the governing regime and the opposing forces. The regime has not been able to quell the relentless protests as it had done in the September 2013 uprising yet nor have the protestors managed to make any headway in reaching their goal of toppling the regime that has reigned for three decades. The uprising continues but remains limited to a group of youth and students, despite expanding geographically and diversifying protest mechanisms. The movement has not been able to draw in bigger sections of society. Yet this movement, despite its limitations, presents the greatest challenge ever faced by president Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

Characteristics of the “December Uprising”

This uprising is distinct from its predecessors in that it is a dynamic movement of young people, students and intellectuals who have a critical awareness of the entire post-independence governance experience in Sudan, both militarily and democratically. Although it is still unable to mobilize the masses to an extent that can break the deadlock. This movement is also distinguished by its proliferation across all regions of Sudan, and by the participation of women, which will have a huge impact in defining the next phase. Furthermore, this uprising has lasted far longer than the “October 1964” revolution that ousted Ibrahim Abboud and the April 1985 revolution that toppled President Gaafar Nimeiry.

One of the most prominent features of this movement is its preservation of its peaceful character and its rejection of all forms of violence; over approximately two months of protests in Khartoum, there has not been a single incident of vandalism reported, nor has the movement been stained by slander or criminal charges. Notable also is the participation or support of a large number of Sufi orders, which will have repercussions, given that religious leanings in Sudan are predominantly Sufi.

Ever since the suppression of the September 2013 uprising, in which 200 people were killed, the youth and student opposition were able, through volunteering, digital networking and social media, coordinate and organize to greater effect. This online movement has found an opportunity to become a remarkable action on the street as living conditions intensify. Since the beginning of the uprising, the government has been quick to shutdown Facebook and WhatsApp platforms, but the widespread use of smartphones and VPNs has enabled users of all ages to circumvent the government ban. One of the indicators of the success of this wide networking is that the number of participants in one of the groups sympathetic to the uprising on the Facebook platform reached 1.5 million people.

Behind the Continuation of the Uprising

A number of reasons have played an essential role in the persistence of the protests, most importantly:

1. Regime Hegemony and the Closure of Public Society

The al-Bashir regime took extreme measures to ensure its endurance in power following the June 1989 coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to governance. He imposed what he called the policy of "empowerment"; excluding anyone who hesitated in their loyalty to him from away from government jobs, especially the army and police, to be replaced by his supporters. He was also active in the hunt for trade unionists and political activists, imprisoning their leaders and exiling others. The regime targeted the two major parties, the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, applying pressure and incentives to break up. A group of parties emerged from those two, which enabled the regime to push them to form collaborations of convenience in power at different periods. The regime tightened the noose on traders enforced its control over the media, and undertook censorship of newspapers before their publication. This evolved into the seizure of newspapers, after printing, with the intention of exhausting them financially. Some journalists were banned from writing, and overwhelmed by security summonses and court prosecutions. The regime controlled voluntary work and closed various associations and non-governmental organizations to be replaced with regime-affiliated organizations.

Those procedures exemplify the type of measures that allowed the regime to close off Sudanese society, a factor that contributed to the outbreak of the current uprising. This movement did not emerge from organized regime opposition parties, nor from the armed movements that waged long peripheral wars against the leadership, but peacefully emerged from the youth and students.

2. The Economy and Living Conditions

The al-Bashir regime did not make any real achievements other than maintaining its control of the country where it failed to maintain national unity. And with the prolonged blockade surrounding the country, the regime never managed to manage the fertile agricultural opportunities and rich resources. It failed to provide goods and services and curb high prices. Because of the long blockade and the terrible management of the economy, the value of the Sudanese pound sank from 3 pounds to a US dollar when the al-Bashir regime took power in 1989 to 47 pounds at present day. Furthermore, the regime failed to yield any beneficial investments to the country's economy even after sanctions were lifted, due to the spread of corruption, public money looting, gold smuggling; with Sudan having some of the largest gold mines in the world.

3. Weakness of the Opposition

Public frustration increased when the two big parties representing the mass weight of the opposition, the Ummah party led by Sadiq al-Mahdi and the Democratic Unionist Party led by Mohammed Uthman al-Mirghani al-Khatim, were completely excluded from power. When dialogue was available, they understood influencing policy as as participating in quotas in the federal and regional system rather than as a struggle for real change leading to an effective democratic transition that is the basis for a development and economic renaissance in the country. They did not represent the aspirations of the Sudanese people, especially the youth. In addition, their leadership remained the sole preserve of the Mahdi and Mirghani families; Sadiq al-Mahdi and Mohammed Uthman al-Mirghani al-Khatim have continued to rule their parties for more than 50 years.

4. Foreign Policy

In addition the regime’s failure to manage the economy, ensure peace and stability and open a serious route for Sudanese political forces, its volatile and inconsistent foreign policy exceeded the point of any credibility. After many years of friendship with Iran and offering use of the facilities in Sudanese ports on the Red Sea, the regime suddenly overturned this relationship and cut off ties with the former ally. Sudan even sent soldiers to participate in the war in Yemen along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The participation of Sudanese soldiers in the Yemen war transformed the Sudanese army into mercenaries. This increased the resentment of the Sudanese regime, which alters its political positions according to what yields the largest possible financial assistance.

The most recent of these upturns was an attempt by president al-Bashir to open up to Moscow with the aim of putting pressure on Washington to complete the process of lifting sanctions and removing Sudan from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, visiting Syria and breaking the isolation of the Assad regime. It has become clear that President Bashir's options have been limited to clinging to power since the International Criminal Court issued the warrant for his arrest. International relations and even the issue of southern Sudan have thus come secondary to this issue.

5. Regime Resistance

After the many schisms in the alliance that brought Bashir to power in 1989, and the resultant alienation of his opponents in the Islamist movement and the army, al-Bashir formed a parallel force called the Rapid Support Forces to protect him. Initially, the tribal force was created to assist the army in the Darfur wars, before it came to be tasked with neutralizing the army, whose supreme command consisted of Islamist officers. After being deployed in the remote areas of the country, the force was called to be stationed in camps in and near Khartoum.

President Bashir, in parallel with his willingness to use force, has issued constant warnings to Sudanese opposition about the fate of the revolutions of Syria, Libya and Yemen, which have transformed into civil wars. However, this did not prevent the current uprising, and did not shut it down prematurely. However, the incapacity of either the regime or the uprising to resolve the conflict decisively means that there can be no change in Sudan without the army's active support for the popular uprising or the regime. There are several scenarios for emerging from this crisis:

  • President Bashir responds to the movement as well as regional and international pressure, weakens his hardline approach to internal cracks in his regime, and finds refuge from the ICC pursuit. He would transfer power to the political forces that signed the Charter of Sudanese Professionals Association during a transition period, whose task is limited to constitutional reform and preparations for a fair general election. But this scenario is unlikely, due to Bashir's personality, and the fears of those in his regime circles about political isolation and revenge.
  • A coup to overthrow al-Bashir, in which army officers will take power and restore the existing regime (as happened in Egypt). Formal measures will be taken to absorb popular anger, with a partial opening up to opposition forces. This scenario will not solve the problem, but will instead serve as the introduction to a bigger problem.
  • A consensus will be reached between the political forces and the broad spectrum of revolutionaries regarding a democratic program, in a way that increases the call on President al-Bashir to step down, and prompts the army to change its position on the regime and achieve the transition to democracy, as happened in the revolutions of 1964 and 1985.
  • Al-Bashir will convince the army to suppress the popular uprising by force.
  • A continuation of current stalemate until new variables lead to a change in the balance of power, either in favor of the regime or the rebels.

In conclusion, the solution of a consensus between political forces regarding a democratic transition program is the safest option. None of the actors have the ability to resolve the conflict decisively, alone. A number of initiatives have emerged, including the highly acclaimed University of Khartoum initiative. All parties need to engage in more dialogue, to find common ground, and to move wisely and cautiously. They should take steps to spare the country the risk of slipping into violence and chaos and insist on continuing the movement peacefully until the democratic transition is achieved at the lowest possible cost.