By Ty Joplin
Most of Sudan’s forty million people were born well after Omar al-Bashir’s initially took power: his rule has been an unshakable reality for thirty years, even as he enacted a genocide and became an international fugitive.
But the ongoing protests against him may finally topple him, thrusting Sudan into profoundly new territory in the process.
After tripling the price of bread in late 2018, a spontaneous wave of protests rocked the nation’s many cities. Almost a month from their start, the protests have only become more organized in the face of a brutal crackdown, enveloping a diverse coalition of Sudan’s lower and professional classes as well as women and youth.
Desperate to remain in power, Bashir’s security forces have killed dozens and detained hundreds of activists, journalists and opposition politicians.
In addition Al Bawaba has learned of armed militiamen in plainclothes firing into crowds; a possible sign that the regime’s security forces are over encumbered and require shady, extralegal auxiliary forces to hold back the protestors.
Omar al-Bashir took power in 1989 in a bloodless coup, and has governed with a mix of brutal police repression and economic austerity measures. But his hold on power is beginning to loosen as members of his government begin to speak out.
From the streets of Khartoum, a feeling is beginning to emanate: this is Sudan’s Arab Spring moment.
What’s Happening and Why
Protestors gather in Khartoum. chanting "the people want the downfall of the regime." (Twitter/ @mohamadalsafi)
In Dec 2018, Sudan’s government triplied the price of bread from one Sudanese pound ($0.02) to three pounds ($0.06). The move followed an all-too familiar pattern in Bashir’s governance strategy, which involves hiking up the prices of basic goods in the name of austerity and enforcing the decision with brute force.
In response, hundreds marched onto the streets of Atbara, a small city north of the capital, Khartoum. The demonstrators overwhelmed the ruling party’s local office and set it ablaze—a symbolic act that pointed the blame at Sudan’s economic woes squarely at Bashir’s regime.
Hours after however, protests began to emerge throughout the entire country. “Because of the economic crisis experienced by Sudan,” says one Sudanese journalist living and working in Khartoum, whose identity will be withheld to ensure his safety, “the protests moved to the other regions of Sudan.”
Almost immediately the army and security forces were deployed to put down the protests. Security forces in Qadarif, a small city southeast of Khartoum, violently repelled protestors with live fire, killing eight on Dec 21.
In just five days of protests, Amnesty International reported that 37 protesters had been killed. After nearly a month of protests, the number of deaths is likely far higher.
The journalist on the ground in Khartoum witnessed plain clothed militmen serving as an auxiliary force to the official governmental force: “There was heavy police and army deployment, but there were [also] militia elements and men in civilian uniform with Kalashnikovs,” firing into crowds, he relays.
Sudan’s security forces have been struggling to contain the protests and have been forced to release many detainees soon after they are captured due to budget and space constraints. These extralegal militiamen, of which little is known, may be responding to the regime’s lack of official resources to suppress the burgeoning uprising.
The myriad grievances the protestors maintain against the government are specific, but indict the general way their lives have been governed for the past thirty years. Bread price hikes and fuel shortages have strained the working and middle class in Sudan to breaking point, while austerity measures against pensions have caused chaos for others’ ability to plan for a stable future.
Omar al-Bashir (AFP/FILE)
Meanwhile, those connected to Bashir’s regime are spotted driving white Land Cruisers, a now infamous symbol of the wealth and inequality in Sudan. The cars have become a venerable symbol of the regime’s exclusive opulence to the detriment of millions.
“The state of the economy has been the immediate catalyst, but it's important to remember that the economic crisis is a political crisis,” Maddy Crowther, co-founder of Waging Peace, an NGO dedicated to stopping the Darfur genocide and other systemic rights violations in Sudan, told Al Bawaba.
“The main reason is that people realize why there is high prices for bread and shortages for fuel,” Ahmed al-Mahmoud activist told a senior Sudanese government official on Al Jazeera on Jan 7. “The main reason is this government. The corruption this government has been working [with] for 30 years.”
“Sudan is guilty of decades of economic mismanagement and poor governance that has marginalised certain communities, concentrating wealth among a narrow and corrupt elite and dividing citizenship on racial and ethnic lines,” Crowther said. She has begun to notice that Bashir’s regime of ‘divide and conquer,’ is beginning to break down in the face of overwhelming solidarity among Sudan’s racial, ethnic and class lines.
“Recently, after Bashir tried his usual trick of blaming a Darfuri plot for the uprising, protestors chanted "you're racist and arrogant and we're all Darfur,” she added.
Why These Protests Are Different
Sudanese anti-riot police (AFP/FILE)
Sudan is no stranger to mass demonstrations and social unrest, but these protests are among the first to seriously threaten Bashir’s hold on power.
What sets these demonstrations apart is the diverse composition of the protestors and their perseverance: they have been marching through Sudan’s streets for nearly a month, braving life fire, tear gas and torture to call for the regime’s ouster, and the government is beginning to falter.
“As the weeks passed, [the protests] do seem to comprise a broader cross section of society with professional associations and opposition groups a little more organized now,” observed Jehanne Henry, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, to Al Bawaba.
One of the emerging leaders in the protests is the Sudanese Professional Association, which is an umbrella group that includes many of Sudan’s professional workers unions. The protests have also seen active participation from women and youth—a sign that many sects of Sudanese society understands the stakes of these protests to be potentially game-changing.
An early sign that these protests stand out was the police’s initial response: “What made these protests feel qualitatively different, at least in the beginning, was the refusal of some elements of the security services to follow orders,” Crowther said.
“A similar refusal has preceded all other successful uprisings in Sudan. If the military had followed suit then we may have witnessed regime change already, but for now at least it seems they're toeing the line.”
Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch confirmed to Al Bawaba that this particular crackdown appears less violent than others, but cautions that this may be due to not having enough information on the police’s response to the protestors outside Khartoum.
When security forces have brutally attacked protestors in an attempt to coerce them back into their homes, protestors have doubled down and responded by calling more urgently for the overthrow of the regime.
Other elements of Bashir’s regime are beginning to slowly crumble.
On Jan 1, 22 political parties, many of which help form the current government reportedly signed a memo, which called for the dissolution of the replacement of the current government, a move confirmed by a source on the ground in Khartoum.
Al Shafi Ahmed Mohamed, a senior official in Bashir’s own ruling National Congress Party who was once its secretary, split from the government and called for Bashir’s resignation in a stunning sign that Bashir’s inner circle is beginning to turn against him.
“In a sense, whether [Bashir] goes now, or can weather this storm, it’s clear international powers now need to be more actively preparing for a post-Bashir Sudan, and begin to help domestic civil society adopt measures that will dismantle what has effectively become a police state,” Crowther told Al Bawaba.
Though Bashir himself has hunkered down and defended his rule at least until the planned 2020 election, the protest’s growing power has irreversibly changed Sudan’s political landscape.
With every other uprising, predicting what comes after them is impossible, but one thing is clear. When asked whether descriptions that these protests were truly Sudan’s new Arab Spring moment, the anonymous Sudanese journalist simply responded:
“Yes, the Sudanese Arab Spring.”
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