Sudan protests: How did we get here?

Last week, I lost a bet. Two days after the current protests started in Sudan on Wednesday, December 19, I said on Al Jazeera that I would be surprised if the regime of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan lasted till Friday morning.

A week later, al-Bashir’s troops are using brutal violence to suppress the protests. But I stand by my initial assessment. Having suddenly lost all residual legitimacy, the current regime is facing an apparently unstoppable surge of popular anger, even by earlier Sudanese standards. Massive violence will only make matters worse. Only a miracle, or a major miscalculation by protesters, will save it from its inevitable fate.

How Sudan got here

Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in June 1989, promising to end a situation of food shortages and economic meltdown similar to the ones he is presiding over today, complicated by rising insecurity and escalating civil war. However, his regime then exacerbated the economic woes and escalated the civil war exponentially.

As if this was not enough, the regime engaged in various external adventures, supporting Saddam Hussain’s foray in Kuwait, alienating a large number of regional powers and facing accusations of supporting terrorism. The result was international isolation, with more adverse impact on the economy.

A number of developments saved the regime. In 1999, oil production started in South Sudan, slowly easing the economic hardship. A split within the regime that same year, ironically improved its chances of survival.

When religious leader Hassan al-Turabi, the regime’s erstwhile Godfather, lost a power struggle, the impression was created that a more “moderate” wing of the ruling Islamists was now in charge. Discreet intelligence cooperation with the United States followed, coupled with overt cooperation on tackling the civil war. This eventually led to an internationally acclaimed peace agreement.

A new constitution was proclaimed in 2005, together with a government in which power was shared with former Southern rebels. Opposition parties were permitted to function openly and given seats in parliament.

However, just as the regime was coming out of isolation and revelling in a newly acquired legitimacy and relative economic prosperity, horrendous atrocities in a new war that broke out in Darfur in 2003 brought unprecedented international opprobrium. Al-Bashir was indicted in 2008 for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Then South Sudan voted to secede in January 2011, in an uncanny coincidence with the Arab Spring.

Surprisingly, no massive protests erupted then, in spite of attempts by young activists to emulate their peers in other Arab countries in organising protests using social media. The response was remarkably lukewarm. On the appointed day, even the organisers failed to turn up. Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud, the late secretary-general of the Sudanese Communist Party arrived with a handful of his supporters to find the square empty. He sarcastically scribbled a note addressed to his supposed fellow protesters on a piece of cardboard which read: “We called, but you weren’t in”.

A more substantive wave of protests erupted in the capital Khartoum in September 2013. However, brutal action by the government swiftly put an end to those, at the cost of more than 200 lives in one week. This only intensified and broadened anti-regime anger. However, the protests also lost momentum because many were alienated by the violence that accompanied them. Pro-government media exploited that element ruthlessly (as it is doing today, but with less success).

The regime then launched a process of “National Dialogue” in early 2014. An apparent breakthrough happened when al-Turabi, who became the regime’s bitterest and most effective adversary, suddenly agreed to join in. The process looked promising until al-Bashir showed his real hand and refused to give any meaningful concessions.

Participants wanted a new constitution and actual power-sharing. However, the regime insisted on holding a rigged election in 2015 to give al-Bashir a new term, ignoring opposition demands for a postponement, and arguments that the president had already served the two terms permitted under the 2005 constitution.

The whole process unravelled and things were back to square one. The economy went into a tailspin, in spite of the lifting of US sanctions by the Obama administration. The government made things worse by drying up cash in the banks to stem a downward spiral in the value of the currency. The majority of the Sudanese, who live on a pittance, were suddenly unable to access their own funds in the banks, which compounded their misery and induced an economic downturn.

The callous insensitivity of the regime to this misery and its preoccupation with getting the president a new term through amending the constitution fueled popular anger.

What will happen with the protests?

Ominously, the current uprisings started in the northern Sudanese town of Atbara, formerly a railway hub, and neighbouring Berber, which happens to be my hometown. It then spread to various northern riverain towns, before reaching other outlying towns, and finally Khartoum. This all happened within 24 hours.

The riverain region is widely trumpeted as (or accused of being) the regime’s stronghold since most of its strongmen hail from there. Regardless of the validity of this claim, the fact that the protests were ignited there should be very worrying for al-Bashir and his circle. The regime depends mainly on a core of hardline Islamists but the majority of those have also deserted. The regime has compensated by enlisting an assortment of constituencies and a raft of opportunists, including a contingent of the notorious Janjaweed tribal militias that terrorised Darfur during the last decade.

However, the rhetoric of the bulk of the leaders of the revolution is harshly and uncompromisingly anti-Islamist. There is a reason for this. The regime has probably done much more to discredit Islamism than the usual anti-Islamist suspects in Egypt and the UAE.

For most Sudanese, Islamism came to signify corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty and bad faith. Sudan is perhaps the first genuinely anti-Islamist country in popular terms. But being anti-Islamist in Sudan does not mean being secular.

The bulk of protesters use a pious language of which even hardline Islamist would approve. However, the strident anti-Islamist rhetoric and threats of reprisals against all regime supporters might cause many of those to circle the wagons around the regime for self-protection. A vicious spiral might impose itself, with the regime using massive brutality as it feels cornered, thus intensifying the mass popular anger against it and fanning the flames of more protest.

The resulting polarisation would be disastrous for a country that needs peace more than anything else. The regime is trying to repeat the 2013 “success”: Threatening and using mass violence, while working hard to sow divisions among the people rising against it.

Its chances of success are slim, given it has nothing to offer other than fear and polarisation. Al-Bashir has been given more chances to redeem himself than any other ruler in the region. I once counted seven major occasions when he could have opted to bring the country together and move it forward. Each time he has chosen his narrow interest and that of the small corrupt clique around him.

If he wants to avoid the fate of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and other failed Arab despots, he would be wise to join deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Jeddah and allow the country to heal and put itself together again without the unnecessary agony.

Sudan’s revolutionary experience

Sudan is a (largely neglected) school in democratic revolutionary practice, starting with its peacefully negotiated self-government in 1953 and independence three years later. The elite used exclusively peaceful protests and negotiations to achieve their goals.

It helped that Sudan was able to play the two “colonial powers” (Britain and Egypt) against each other. Interestingly, the self-government act promulgated by the British in 1953, was used, with slight modifications, as the constitution of all democratic governments in Sudan (1956, 1964 and 1985-6). The popular uprisings of October 1964 and April 1985 proceeded according to an almost identical script.

Student protests received the backing of trade unions and professional organisations, resulting in mass protests. Political parties then joined in, and influential sections within the military refused to take part in the repression, forcing the regime to cede power. A peaceful transition followed, with minimal disruption of the state or the economy, and no reprisals against former regime supporters. The process took one week in 1964, 12 days in 1985.

The current wave of protest is different in several important ways. This was not an elite-driven process, but a genuinely popular uprising, emanating from the periphery, not from Khartoum. It is thus virtually leaderless, much more so than the Arab uprisings, where media-savvy youth played a loose managerial role.

It is also a highly polarised affair. The current regime, unlike earlier ones, does have a residual core of popular support and a hard-core militant base, heavily armed and ready to fight. Political and civil society leaders are scrambling to replay the old script. On Christmas Day, they assembled a protest led by professional organisations, which voiced specific demands of regime change. Activists plan a campaign of civil disobedience and a series of mass protests and are working to forge consensus on change.

However, if no meaningful effort is made to win over the (largely Islamist) military and enlist disaffected Islamists, conflict may ensue. The difference between a popular uprising and a civil war is the degree of isolation of the regime.

It is a supreme irony that al-Bashir’s current woes started only a couple of days after his return from a controversial visit to Syria, where he embraced his fellow genocidal despot, Bashar al-Assad. It is not known what advice he received from Damascus, but it is certain that Sudan cannot endure a “Syrian scenario” of protracted murderous carnage that would destroy what little the country has.

This article was originally published by Al Jazeera on December 28, 2018. The original can be viewed here