President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, is experiencing one of the most protracted popular uprisings of his three-decade reign. The removal of government subsidies and subsequent price hikes on basic commodities sparked the initial protests on Dec. 19. Although the Sudanese government dismissed them as bread riots and deployed security forces to disperse protesters and discourage future protest actions, the government’s crackdown and inability to articulate a satisfactory response ignited more demonstrations and a nationwide call for Al-Bashir’s ouster. Over the past three months, the popular uprising coalition has expanded and coalesced on the demand for an inclusive democratic transition without Al-Bashir. Protest activists and organizers have established their capability to sustain the mobilization, momentum, and turnout of the popular uprising; however, Al-Bashir remains intransigent and has instead increased his dependence on the military and intelligence services. This standoff will likely continue and potentially escalate into more violence in the coming weeks or months unless the uprising coalition seeks a compromise with factions from the ruling coalition and elicits defections from within Al-Bashir’s power base.
Sudan Activist Protests and Tactics
The ongoing popular uprising has distinct features compared to the intermittent anti-austerity protests that have flared up in Sudan since 2011, making it unlikely that the government will succeed in suppressing them permanently. Previous protests were confined to major cities and primarily involved students and the urban poor. The current uprising originated in the peripheries of cities and rapidly spread to the rest of the country. Protesters represent a diverse coalition of activists and organizers from all segments of Sudan’s society, including youth, students, the unemployed, farmers, day laborers and the underemployed in urban areas, and professional associations. Traditional opposition political parties and armed opposition groups from Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan have also joined the popular uprising; however, they have allowed the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) to spearhead the coordination of protest actions across the country.
The SPA, an umbrella organization of professional unions, has consistently tapped into existing activism, localized grievances, and shifting tactics to sustain nationwide anti-government sentiment. In Eastern Sudan, unions targeted the sale of Port Sudan’s port handling services to a foreign company. In Northern State, environmental activists turned out against mining operations. In El-Gezira State, farmers protested the government’s sale of vast amounts of agricultural land. In all Darfur states and the other conflict regions, organizers focused on the regime’s lengthy and expensive war on its population. And across the country, the uprising has highlighted women’s and youth activism against restrictive public-order codes.
The SPA has also adopted a range of protest actions and tactics that reduce the costs of resistance while maintaining the momentum of the uprising, such as using Friday prayers and funerals of government crackdown victims to stage widespread and angry protests. At the same time, the SPA has organized several targeted protests, where segments of the population take turns in taking part in demonstrations, thereby minimizing the daily exposure of all those involved to the government crackdown. Other tactics have included staging strikes, sit-ins, clean-up events, and civil disobedience campaigns. The SPA has increasingly called for disruptive protest actions to put pressure on the functioning of the state, such as withholding payments on utilities and taxes, boycotting government and affiliates’ business interests, and blockading transportation routes. The staging of multiple traditional demonstrations and innovative protest actions across the country has clearly overstretched the security forces and undermined the effectiveness of the government crackdown.
Al-Bashir’s Power Base and Government Response
President Al-Bashir’s responses to the uprising over the last three months indicate that he fully understands the severity of the threat to his rule. However, he has been unable to envision a political transition that does not involve him. Al-Bashir initially demonized the protesters as foreign infiltrators and/or ethnic-others from marginalized regions such as Darfur. The government deployed its security forces, empowered further by the declaration of a national state of emergency, Feb. 22; so far, security forces have killed more than 60 protesters and detained hundreds of activists and political opponents. When his divisive and repressive tactics failed to dampen the resilience and momentum of the uprising, Al-Bashir also offered conciliatory messages and promised to re-start a national dialogue that was launched in 2016 after the sporadic protests of 2011-2016. The coalition of protesters, including the traditional political parties and armed opposition groups, rejected this mechanism, as the original dialogue was shelved without any substantive and inclusive reforms.
The popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985 succeeded in toppling incumbent regimes only when the military refused to use indiscriminate violence on protesters and sided with the uprisings. There is no indication thus far that the army or any factions within the security services will support the current anti-government protests. Al-Bashir has undertaken a series of measures to consolidate his control over security forces and decrease the possibility of a military overthrow of his regime. Al-Bashir allowed the security forces to seize state economic institutions and lavished them with a costly patronage system. Over time, he also created his own parallel security structures and militias, including the Janjaweed – now renamed as the Rapid Support Forces. These security forces were implicated for committing war crimes in the conflict regions and are now reportedly deployed in the streets to prop up the regime. Al-Bashir has further entrusted security institutions with sweeping emergency powers to crackdown on protesters. He has appointed military and security officers into cabinet positions and state governorships, rewarding loyalists and linking their fates to his.
The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Islamists within the ruling coalition constitute the rest of Al-Bashir’s power base. Some members within the NCP have voiced concerns at the use of violence on protesters; on March 14, the Parliament shortened the martial law from one year to six months. The NCP and the Islamists of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) delayed endorsing Al-Bashir’s desire to run for re-election in 2020, thus forcing him to suspend 2020 preparations. However, the Islamists are uneasy with the protesters’ denunciation of restrictive political Islam and the inclusion of armed opposition groups in the uprising. The Islamists have consistently played critical roles in past uprisings and would insist on a continued influential role in Sudan’s politics. The PCP’s recent press releases underlined the need for an inclusive transitional government, but the coalition of protesters have not publicly approached the ruling party or the Islamists for discussions on a compromise government without Al-Bashir.
Likely Future Conflict Scenarios
The deteriorating economic conditions and the political marginalization that led to the uprising have worsened in the last three months; all of Sudan’s 18 states are experiencing acute shortages of fuel, basic commodities, and cash. Al-Bashir’s tour of the Gulf countries raised only a loan of $300 million from the Arab fund, a cash injection insufficient to alleviate the cuts in subsidies and the scarcities in supplies.
The protests will continue, but it is uncertain whether the deadlock between the coalition of the popular uprising and the Sudanese government can be maintained indefinitely. A possible scenario is that Al-Bashir will increase his crackdown on the protesters; Al-Bashir has been restrained in dealing with the current protesters compared to the brutal violence he unleashed on previous uprisings and insurgencies. In the 2013 protests, for instance, security forces killed more than 200 protesters and crushed the uprising within a few days. The current protests, however, are widespread and it is unclear if an indiscriminate use of violence can end the popular uprising.
On the other hand, the protesters have been disciplined in staging a non-violent campaign and avoiding clashes with the security forces. Furthermore, the protesters have not been directly disruptive and threatening to Al-Bashir’s power. The regime’s response and the interaction between protesters and security forces could change dramatically if protesters intensify recent tactics of blockading government businesses and facilities, including ports and airports.
The coalition of professional associations, traditional political parties, and armed opposition groups in the popular uprising have issued the Declaration for Freedom and Change, a draft proposal for a transitional government. However, there is no indication of a compromise with factions of Al-Bashir’s ruling coalition. The only defections from the incumbent regime have been by smaller political parties. If the protesters seek to transition from protest actions into forming a representative and accountable government, they will have to abandon their quest for a complete regime change and articulate a compromise with the Islamists in the PCP and powerful factions in the NCP.
Advice for Personnel or Business Operations in Sudan
- Avoid all protests, demonstrations, and gatherings; large crows and areas with a heavy security presence; even peaceful protests can spontaneously result in clashes between security forces and protesters.
- If unrest erupts near you, leave the area immediately and seek shelter in a non-governmental building such as a hotel when possible.
- Avoid places of worship, particularly since the largest protests were formed immediately following Friday prayers.
- Roads can close during demonstrations, and there can be a blockage of all transportation means; foreign nationals are advised to rely on transportation provided by local contacts.
- Stock up on bottled and food supplies due to shortages of basic commodities.
- Carry important identification and travel documents with you at all times; be polite and nonconfrontational if stopped at a security checkpoint.
- Comply with authorities’ restrictions on the amount of foreign currency a visitor should take out of Sudan (EUR 10,000); foreigners or locals need an import declaration for any amount exceeding EUR 10,000.
- Maintain contact with your diplomatic mission.
- Establish contingency plans to depart the country if security conditions become unbearable.
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