The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sudan revolts (again)

%22Should we pack?%22 - by Khalid Albaih.png

"Should we pack?", asks President Omar al-Bashir wife's as protests in Sudan continue. The answer is no - his rule in Sudan is stable enough he doesn't need to keep a toothbrush on his person at all times and Saudia on speed dial. But Sudan's President, who claims he will not seek "re-election" in 2015, cannot exactly trust the men he pays to bug the country's phone lines these days, either. 

He cannot, apparently, even trust his own uncle: Al-Tayeb Mustafa, the paper's owner and a critic of the ruling party, has been ordered to stop publishing the leading Sudanese daily, al-Intibahafor the duration of the protests. The paper's editorial criticism of slashed subsidies and reporting on the country's insurgencies has proven too much for the President, who has ordered other papers to shut down as well.

Closing the daily down is just one of the steps the government is taking to diffuse coverage of the protests. Sky News and Al Arabiya were forced to close their offices, and access to the Internet was also temporarily cut off. It was restored, though: presumably because the security services need it to infiltrate protest circles online to false flag and blackmail people.  Sudan has gone down this route before - preventive detention, torture of detainees, closing down newspapers, and forcing foreign correspondents out  - when demonstrators held protests last June on the anniversary of the coup that bought al-Bashir to prominence in 1989. This time around, at least 70 people have been killed, and some 700 arrested (the numbers of dead and detained may be even higher). Once again, al-Bashir has dismissed the protestors (last year, he infamously described them as "elbow lickers"), but unlike past demonstrations where most of the participants were students, "those involved were … middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country," with significant female participation through silent solidarity and other actions.

As succession begins to be discussed, the ongoing protests will weigh heavily on the minds of the security services vying for advantage and favor - al-Bashir is likely to retain his office in spite of his pledge. In April, as term limits and constitutional changes were discussed, Sudanese daily "The Citizen" reported that the NCP (al-Bashir's ruling party) has effectively split: an old guard camp "consider[s] President Umar al-Bashir an asset, a guarantor of their influence unlikely to accept a political arrangement that would threaten the grip of the NCP over the state institutions, let alone expose the security establishment to closer security or drop the blanket immunities that protect its members," while a group of Young Turks from the clergy and paramilitary forces "have come to see [the President] as a liability and his continuation in office a threat to the power of the NCP in the short term and the political chances of the Islamic Movement in any future dispensation." It is the latter group which has been emboldened by the protests that began two years ago, yet it is hardly clear that they will move against the President and those closest to him so long as he lives, no matter how many lawyers, students, writers, and even well-to-do housewives come out against his rule.

But the camp followers of the NCP are presiding over a shrinking revenue pot. Peter Dörrie notes at Think Africa Press that the President's uncivil society is, like the rest of the economy, running on fumes: "Sudan spends almost a quarter of its GDP on its military and waging several internal wars. With its well of oil money running dry, a military caste unwilling to accept any cuts to its budgets, and few foreign allies willing to pick up the tab, the regime had to look for something to cut." That something - once again - is the welfare net, specifically gas subsidies people depend on for cooking and driving. That, and the much harsher response to this fall's protests than before, brought a much larger slice of society out into the streets.

Dörrie wonders if Khartoum's recent arms sale binge is at all aimed at a buildup against South Sudan - where 3/4 of Sudan's former oil fields now lie as a result of the region gaining independence. A referendum on the disputed region of Abeyi is to be held this month, and a recent visit to the region by Jérôme Tubiana shows that renewed fighting - or more nationalistic protests against Khartoum - would not require much of an impetus:

Both sides know that the area will never be demilitarized. Repeated commitments by Juba to stop harboring northern rebels are unlikely to satisfy Khartoum or end rebellions in Sudan. With South Sudanese authorities not fully willing or able to prevent SPLM-N and allied Darfur factions from going back and forth across the new border, Sudanese rebels are at home in the borderlands.
Another reason both Khartoum and Juba hesitate to make too many concessions on the border is that both are rightly worried about turning disgruntled people from the borderlands into rebels. As much as the Dinka from the border areas were the vanguard of the SPLM/A during the civil war, Arab tribes such as the Rizeigat formed the bulk of the paramilitary forces used by Khartoum to fight the rebels in South Sudan and later in Darfur. Increasingly feeling they were both manipulated and not adequately rewarded, Arab fighters joined the SPLM/A (several hundred are reportedly still in South Sudanese ranks). Some have now turned up among the northern rebel groups as well.

al-Bashir's only long-term hope if the referendum fails to go in his favor would be for the world to look the other way while he escalates the border conflict so that Sudan can bargain for transit fee terms from Juba. But South Sudan would certainly not accept such terms: a short conflict could even spectacularly backfire on Sudan if it were the aggressor. The military is in poor shape from fighting against ongoing insurgencies, and apparently must now be kept in reserve to deploy against protestors. It also cannot fully be trusted: last November, an internal power struggle resulted in the arrest of several alleged putschists linked to both the parliamentary opposition and the armed forces. Loyalty from these men - confidants of the President for decades - is not guaranteed, especially with his health problems (rumors persist that the 69-year old has throat cancer) and international arrest warrants.

While talk of the "Arab Spring" coming to Sudan is somewhat misplaced - the government has been beset by mass demonstrations since 2011 - the latest happenings appear to have had a much larger impact on the public consciousness there. The government retains control of the security services and sufficient dependents among the elite, yet each outburst of dissatisfaction further dents the edifice of the state structure the President and his fellow generals and clerics have spent the last 25 years setting up. What could replace it is anyone's guess.


PostsPaul Muttersudan, protests