When bread prices tripled in Sudan in late 2018, residents of the city of Atbara took to the streets in anger, protesting a repressive government that they feel is ignoring their needs. That rage led protestors to burn down a local office of President Al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party on December 19. Like wildfire, the unrest spread to other cities and towns in Sudan, fueled by youth and labor-led social media organizing.
Protestors are reacting to many different symptoms of the same problem: President Al-Bashir himself.
Protestors are reacting to many different symptoms of the same problem: President Al-Bashir himself. Their central demand is for him to step down, ending his brutal, 29-year rule. A Sudanese-American writer told Middle East Eye, “[b]read is what drove people into the streets, but 30 years of hardship and violent oppression is what is keeping them there.”
Tarig Rakhi, a young Sudanese post-graduate told Inside Arabia that people just want “freedom, democracy, and dignified living.” Protestors sang the national anthem and chanted “The people want to bring down the regime,” a slogan of the 2011 Arab uprisings, which also swept through Sudan.
An enduring economic crisis, marked by rampant inflation, stagnant industrial development, and low wages, has cultivated a strong resentment of Al-Bashir’s rule. Sudanese people have been “suffering from these problems for the last two years,” Abubakr Abdelrazig, a Qatar-based Sudanese political analyst told Inside Arabia. “The government says it will find solutions, but the crises . . . get even worse.”
This time, protestors immediately began calling for Al-Bashir’s resignation, before the government could offer hollow promises. “They are aware that the Sudanese regime is the cause of all the problems,” Abdelrazig said. “Political corruption destroyed everything in this country.” This protest movement sees regime change as the only sustainable way forward.
In the Streets
Since the protests began, their threat to Al-Bashir’s rule has grown. Rakhi emphasized that they were spontaneous, not driven by politicians, but by an array of individuals “that have in common an aspiration for a better Sudan.” Youth led the way in bringing private discontent public, he said.
Crowds numbering in the hundreds, or low thousands, have filled the streets of Khartoum and other cities in a series of protests. Organizing labor unions urged protestors to stay on the streets until the new year, to mark the country’s Independence Day on January 1.
Journalists, doctors, and teachers went on strike soon after the protests began. Security forces arrested at least eight academics at the University of Khartoum on December 6, barricading inside a faculty building dozens of others who were trying to join the street protests.
Al-Bashir’s government has reacted with violence, detention, and intimidation, as it has in past protests, including government-imposed curfews and “emergency rule” in some cities. Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman announced that police have detained over 800 protestors since December 19.
However, it is clear that security forces have used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds, notably when they marched toward the presidential palace for a second time, on December 31. Armed soldiers on the ground and snipers on rooftops had surrounded the palace. Videos showed bloodied protestors and blood on the ground. Many were arrested and wounded, and some sources reported at least three dead.
The regime acknowledged that 20 people have been killed since the protests began, including two soldiers, while opposition groups report the count at 39 and Amnesty International at 37. Human Rights Watch urged Sudan not to use lethal force in dealing with the protestors.
Al-Bashir defended the killings but also launched an investigation into the deaths.
Al-Bashir defended the killings but also launched an investigation into the deaths. “The objective is not to kill the protesters, but . . . to safeguard the security and stability of citizens,” he said. However, his own security appears to be his highest priority.
Holding On to Power
Al-Bashir, 75, has defied protestors’ demands by refusing to step down, deflecting responsibility, and saying he will not tolerate efforts to destabilize the country. He has variously accused Israel, Darfur rebels, and “mercenaries” of plotting to undermine the security, stability, and religious nature of the Islamist Sudanese state. All denied the accusations—some accused students have claimed that they were tortured into giving confessions.
Al-Bashir’s autocratic regime has ruled the country since 1989, when he took power in a military coup. Instead of uniting Sudan’s diverse peoples, he has waged brutal campaigns of ethnic violence in the Kordofan and Darfur regions.
The International Criminal Court indicted Al-Bashir in 2009 for alleged war crimes in Darfur, where his government unofficially employed the vicious Janjaweed militias to kill civilians and loot and burn villages. The conflict has been labeled both genocide and ethnic cleansing.
At the same time, he fought a protracted civil war with South Sudan until its secession in 2011. In that year and 2012, mass protests broke out, leading to hundreds of deaths and Al-Bashir’s empty promise to not seek re-election. Major obstacles notwithstanding, his regime has held a relentless grip on power.
Besides persistent violence, a failing economy has defined Al-Bashir’s rule. Although the country has potentially valuable resources, its economy remains dependent on a stagnant agricultural sector and underdeveloped infrastructure. In 2018, Sudan ranked 161st out of 186 countries in terms of economic freedom, a measure of individuals’ freedom to control their labor and property.
The regime’s violent conflicts have also kept the country in economic stasis and earned crippling, 20-year sanctions from the U.S. Al-Bashir blamed the current crisis on these sanctions, though most were lifted in 2017.
Sudan’s economy advanced when the country began to export its crude oil in the late 1990s.
Sudan’s economy advanced when the country began to export its crude oil in the late 1990s. This was cut short when South Sudan seceded, taking with it the majority of unified Sudan’s oil reserves and profits. Khartoum has largely failed to stabilize its economy after losing this major source of income and foreign exchange reserves.
Inflation has persisted in Sudan. Austerity measures lessened inflation in 2013 and 2014, but also led to major protests. Current inflation (over 68 percent in September 2018) has devalued Sudan’s currency, causing a demand for cash that cannot be fulfilled. Prices for consumer goods such as bread, flour, and beef have shot up; cash that previously could have bought a week of groceries now can barely cover one day.
Seeking to protect the Sudanese pound, the central bank policy restricts the supply of cash, but now this low supply is causing a shortage. ATMs are often empty and banks are running dry. Desperate, Sudanese are buying dollars on a mercurial and increasingly expensive black market in order to pay for goods and services.
A Khartoum resident told Middle East Eye that because hospitals only accept cash, the shortages could mean “a death sentence.”
In a vain effort to neutralize the current protests, the government announced a three-month plan to boost revenue and print more money. Mohamed Khair al-Zubair, governor of Sudan’s central bank, said on January 1 that it is seeking foreign investment from unidentified nations to help ease the economic crisis.
Sudan holds an unsustainable $43.6 billion in debt, amounting to 78 percent of its GDP.
Ezzeldeen Gafar Salim, a researcher at the University of Gezira in Sudan, told Inside Arabia that “the problem in Sudan is mainly political. [It] can be summarized in the existence of a corrupt and oppressive regime, which has been monopolizing power . . . for nearly three decades.”
Transparency International ranked Sudan the 174th most corrupt in 2017, followed only by its neighbor, South Sudan, and four actively warring nations.
Out of 179 countries, Transparency International ranked Sudan the 174th most corrupt in 2017, followed only by its neighbor, South Sudan, and four actively warring nations. Favoring loyalty over competence has boosted the elite, but crippled Sudan’s development, making it dependent on donations from Arab countries, Gafar Salim added. Gulf countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have loaned or given billions of dollars to Sudan in recent years.
Collapse of Al-Bashir’s Support Network
Al-Bashir’s friends have offered little backing during the widespread protests. While Bahrain and Qatar voiced support for the regime, his other allies—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt—have remained quiet, likely concerned about his friendly relations with their rivals.
Most importantly, the current protests also appear to be eroding the political and military apparatus that has propped up Al-Bashir for decades.
Many Sudanese politicians have taken up the call for Al-Bashir to step down. At least eight political parties once allied with Al-Bashir have quit the government in solidarity against him since December 19. “We must work on bridging the gap between the street [protestors] and the political parties,” opposition politician Ghazi Salahuddin al-Atabani said just days after the protests began.
A coalition of Sudanese opposition parties called for Al-Bashir to resign, the parliament to dissolve, and for a 100-member “transitional council” to run the country until a new government can be assembled.
The Sudanese political establishment, whether in real solidarity or out of fear of going down with a sinking ship, is nudging the regime closer to collapse. There are reports that Al-Bashir is even losing some control over the powerful military and police forces that have been long been his most ardent defenders.
This overflow of social discontent poses perhaps the biggest threat yet to Al-Bashir’s rule. Gafar Salim is unambiguous in his reading of the situation: “For me, the crisis . . . can only be solved with the overthrow of the current regime. Any other solution is futile and cannot solve the complicated problem of Sudan.”