Sudan has been gripped by popular protests since December, representing the most sustained challenge to President Omar al-Bashir’s 30 years in power. The protests were sparked by a tripling in bread prices and an inflation rate of 65% – and rising.
Sudan is one of the few African countries in which citizens pioneered post-independence popular uprisings that forced the ruling military regimes to step down. This happened in 1964 and in 1985. As a result popular uprisings are viewed as a way of redefining the peoples’ social contract with the state.
The recent uprising was triggered by a government decision to lift subsidies on essential commodities, most significantly bread. More broadly, it’s a manifestation of the structural economic, political, and social fragility of the state of Sudan.
Unlike previous uprisings, these protests have been engineered by young people as well as middle-class professionals who are well informed. They are also well connected and equipped with enabling technology and social media that the regime is ill-positioned to contain.
There is no doubt the uprising has weakened the authority of Bashir and political Islam in Sudan. It’s likely to persist. Meanwhile, elements of the government are determined to repress the protests until the movement is worn out.
In my view Sudan is at a crossroads. Some observers see Bashir as having no option but to fight back at any cost. The protesters, on the other hand, are determined to see regime change. If the confrontation continues, Sudan is destined for a bloody boiling point and chaos that may deteriorate into a scenario similar to that of Syria or Libya.
The situation in the country is already incredibly fragile given that Sudan is arguably one of the worst performing states in the world. The current climate marks a low point in the country’s tumultuous history which included a political Islam programme being adopted by the National Congress Party in governing Sudan after gaining power through a coup d’état in 1989. This in turn resulted in separation from South Sudan.
There are possible options to end the impasse. But the good ones would require Bashir to accept mediation, and to stand down, or indicate that he won’t stand for reelection in 2020. There’s also, however, the possibility that he digs in his heels and brutally suppresses the uprising.
Bashir’s fragile base
The uprising seems to gain more strength and re-energise itself the more the government uses violence to suppress it.
It’s significant that 22 political parties, including Islamist political parties, have withdrawn from the national dialogue initiated by Bashir. Their January 1 call for him to step down and form a sovereign council and a transitional government is a political blow to the president’s standing.
Many observers also believe that the army has shifted from its absolute allegiance to Bashir to a neutral position and are even siding in some instances with the protesters. The National Intelligence and Security Service, a loyal and integral part of Bashir’s ruling party, has started blaming the government for its mismanagement of the economic crisis. This has further weakened the control of Bashir over the affairs of the government.
Even the special military force, called “The Rapid Support Force”, that was formed to protect Bashir and his regime has cut a lower profile during this uprising.
With the erosion of Bashir’s political base, the National Congress Party is divided and he retains only a few loyal supporters from his party. Besides the division within the party, there is also friction among the regime’s supporters. The Sudanese Muslim Scholars Association, a body of state sponsored clerics that’s perceived as conservative and loyal to Bashir, has, in an unprecedented move, criticised the government for the economic crisis. It has called for the responsible officials to be held accountable.
Likely paths forward
One option would be for Bashir to voluntarily resign and hand over power to the national army along with a technocratic government to oversee the transition to constitutional democratic governance. Provided that he can find a host country to ensure his safety and protection from arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court, he may choose to leave the country as did the former Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
If he was afforded some protection he could decide to stay in the country, as did the former Sudanese president, Ibrahim Abboud, in 1964 and former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Such a move would likely quell the protests and spare the country the risk of more widespread violence.
But this option is unlikely as the national army may be too politicised. Moreover, some protesters may not accept Bashir avoiding accountability.
The second option is for Bashir to undertake that he won’t stand in general elections in 2020. This would allow the formation of an inclusive government of national unity to oversee the transition to a constitutional democracy.
Under this scenario, Bashir would publicly apologise for the atrocities committed under his rule and bring charges against those responsible for the killing of protesters. As part of the transition process, he would commit to a national dialogue that would help create a conducive political environment for power-sharing. This would also ensure the participation of moderate Islamist members, as has been the case in the Tunisian transitional process.
This option is likely to be entertained by Bashir and accepted by the protesters if a trusted body facilitates it.
But some protesters may not agree with any option other than Bashir stepping down.
The third option is for Bashir to declare a state of emergency and to try and violently suppress the uprising. This would result in more bloodshed and may trigger a violent response from protesters. Under this scenario, Sudan could descend into a protracted and fragmented conflict that could result in massive displacement and immense human suffering.
Without mediation – both internal and external – Bashir’s instinct and pride may predispose him to this route.