For the past two weeks, citizens protesting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his government have taken to the streets of several Sudanese cities, including the capital, Khartoum. These are not the first protests Bashir has encountered. But the current wave of demonstrations has been unique. It reflects a broad cross-section of Sudanese society, is fueled both by organizational planning and spontaneous emotion, and poses a serious threat to the regime.
There’s both a long and a short historical background to the protests. The long history spans the past 30 years: Bashir’s government, which came to power via military coup in 1989, has ground Sudanese society to a nub. The country’s basic institutions—Sudan’s civil service, its economy, its education system, its military, its very culture—were degraded to better maintain the government’s grip on power and to ensure its monopoly on the means of economic extraction.
Brutality and neglect were Bashir’s favored tools, and a scorched-earth response was deployed against all who expressed any form of dissent or grievance, whether marginalized tribes in Darfur or members of the press in Khartoum. Meanwhile, the government simply ignored the large swaths of Sudan, and its institutions, that could not be monetized, allowing them to fall into disrepair. Those protesting in Sudan’s streets, many of whom are not old enough to remember 1989, carry on their shoulders these past three decades of government plunder.
The short history is more strictly economic. The government has lost control over the basics. Over the past year, Sudan’s inflation rate has spiked to the third highest in the world, and shortages became apparent: of gasoline (with long lines of cars now regularly snaking around gas stations) and, more critically, of cash from the banking system. The government’s response to the latter crisis several months ago triggered further panic: setting low limits on withdrawals from ATMs and bank accounts has only upset middle-class Sudanese, who are now unable to withdraw their salaries.
The potential solutions to the protests depend on whether one takes the shorter or longer perspective on the causes. Just as Sudan’s present frustration is born of two histories, so it is animated by two needs. There is an immediate demand for bread, for gas, for cash, for medical treatment, but there is also an abstract need for reclamation of dignity and national pride from a government that has provided neither.
Bashir’s regime, however, has less room to maneuver than ever before in crafting a response. Ever since the secession of South Sudan in 2011, Bashir lacks access to that region’s oil wealth. The regime also suffers from sanctions first applied by the United States in 1997, which have isolated the country economically. Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur deepened his government’s pariah status. Ever since, Sudan has been reliant on a few regional, temperamental allies such as Saudi Arabia, a country whose largesse is patchy and conditional, extracting hefty loyalty tithes. According to the New York Times, Sudan has extended at least 14,000 soldiers to Saudi’s effort in Yemen, where they are commanded from afar by a Saudi military that does not wish to put its own bodies on the front line.
The government’s financial woes are also in part attributable to its growing patronage networks at home, including the police and army, and the Rapid Support Forces, the unofficial paramilitary units, including the infamous janjaweed militias that were decommissioned after the end of the Darfur conflict. These latter investments have been evident in the swift crackdown against protesters. Motley crews of police and security elements shoot into crowds and detain and assault journalists, activists, and opposition figures.
Some protesters have simply disappeared. Pictures of loved ones circulate on social media as their families to try locate them. To date, an estimated 40 people have died. And yet two weeks in, this has still not killed the momentum of protests.
Economic jaundice has broken a silent treaty between the government and the country’s elite. As long as there was the ability for a small politically unaffiliated bourgeois to prosper, or at least survive, then the frustration of those on the lower rungs of society was not sufficient to spark a comprehensive protest movement. But economic paralysis has spurred members of white-collar professions to mingle with the working classes in lines for daily provisions. In earlier years, Bashir recognized the importance of this co-option when he offered those members of the opposition and civil society that opposed his regime positions in government or lucrative enrichment opportunities. His inability to offer enough people a stake in the status quo might prove fatal.
But Bashir’s saving grace may be his lack of generosity when it comes to offering anyone else real political influence or mentorship. There is no obvious figure within his government who could step in and take over while a bloodless transition is negotiated, no military strongman who could force a Hosni Mubarak-style resignation and handover to a caretaker government. Traditional opposition forces such as former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi have long been eclipsed and are out of step with the mood, and new opposition leaders are fragmented.
Bashir’s longevity is partly due to this impoverishment of the political scene and suffocation of any counter-visions of Sudan’s future. Moreover, by usurping Islam for his own ends—his regime still purports to be a sharia government, although it has long ago abandoned its religious pretenses—Bashir has forestalled an Islamist protest movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has successfully rallied against dictatorships elsewhere in the Middle East. The resulting nonpartisanship of the present protests have made them more diffuse. The profile of dissent began with spontaneous street anger, but groups of professional activists soon entered the fray helping to organize protests and acts of civil disobedience. But this diversity might eventually lend the demonstrations more force. Sudan’s political vacuum could maintain Bashir in power by default—or suck him out of it.
Sudan has earned a reputation for being an inert, placid place. Washington’s sanctions cut the country off from the rest of the world, further freezing the image of the Sudanese as people suffering under the dominance of an oppressive government. But this belies the history of Sudan both before Omar al-Bashir’s regime came to power and since. The past three decades have seen an untold number of Sudanese interned, tortured, and murdered, and more driven from their homes in exile. This is but the latest uprising in a long history of objection against a government that has been trying to send the message that there is no alternative to its continued reign. But what is increasingly clear is that it is the regime itself that is out of options.
Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese columnist and features writer based in London