It appears that Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum may be counting down to its demise as internal and external pressures seem poised to boil over and finally wrest the country out of his control. While the international community has imposed painful trade sanctions and the International Criminal Court has sought to bring al-Bashir to justice for his role in the Darfur conflict, Sudan’s own citizens have been increasingly demonstrative of their dissatisfaction and desire for change. During the last few years, al-Bashir has faced growing opposition from restless urban youth who are no longer willing to live with the status quo. There have also been fears within the old guard—the military and hardcore Islamists—that Sudan could fall victim to uprisings like those in Egypt and Tunisia.
In addition to the significant dislocations to the Sudanese economy caused by trade sanctions by Western countries, Khartoum has also lost significant revenues from the sale of oil produced in South Sudan’s oil fields due to ongoing disputes. To deal with these large shortfalls, al-Bashir’s government has imposed severe austerity measures on the economy, including major reductions in government subsidies, most notably on food and fuel. In response, a broad cross-section of the population took to the streets in protest. In September of this year, like their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia before them, large numbers of unemployed and restless Sudanese youth took to the streets to demand the ouster of al-Bashir and his government. Government security forces responded with a vengeance, arresting large numbers of protesters and either killing or causing the deaths of many of them.
Within the military, which, together with Islamists, has been the base of al-Bashir’s support since the 1989 coup, there is significant discontent. In addition, there is evidence that some members of al-Bashir’s party—the National Congress Party—are not happy with the president for his failure to deal effectively with the country’s multifarious problems. Today, Sudan’s economy is falling apart—there is galloping inflation, high unemployment, especially among urban youth, and many Sudanese live below the poverty level. In addition, Khartoum is still unable to deal properly with the demands of various ethnic minorities, which are waging violent protests to force the government to allow them to rule themselves. Many groups want genuine institutional reforms and a governing process that is truly democratic and characterized by the rule of law.
Added to the litany of problems Sudan faces is the fact that it remains embroiled in conflict with South Sudan over the future of the Abyei region and its rich oil reserves. The scheduled 2011 vote for Abyei citizens to decide between South Sudan and Sudan did not occur and just recently opposing stakeholders in the region have argued over when and how to hold the referendum with one group boycotting the other’s efforts. Thus, the region remains in limbo.
Hardcore Islamists, long in the president’s corner, are now warning al-Bashir that he is not likely to successfully solve Sudan’s complex problems by simply cracking down on protesters. The question now is: Will al-Bashir give in to the demands of his protesting fellow citizens and initiate the necessary democratic reforms, or will he continue to resist and eventually suffer a fate similar to the one that befell his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia?
On January 30, 2011, al-Bashir’s vulnerability to a similar uprising was first made apparent when protesters took to the streets of Khartoum and Al-Ubayyid after using online social networking sites to coordinate demonstrations. The government response was swift and extremely brutal—several students were arrested and one was killed. Sporadic and uncoordinated protests, particularly among university students, were also witnessed in the coming months. Then, on September 23, 2013, riots broke out in response to the removal of state subsidies on fuel and cooking gas in Khartoum. The violence spread first across Khartoum and Omdurman in the heart of the regime’s power base, and then to other cities in the days that followed. Protesters, calling for the removal of al-Bashir, blocked roads and set government buildings on fire. As usual, the regime responded brutally, killing more than 50 protesters according to some witnesses and arresting thousands of Sudanese citizens.
Although the Sudanese situation in 2013 is similar to the 2011 situations of its North African neighbors in terms of social frustration over incumbent regimes, Sudan differs from them in three main ways.
First, the majority of Sudanese do not use social media; hence, it is much more difficult to coordinate protests using tools like Facebook and Twitter.
Second, the government has cracked down on the press and blocked the free flow of information, further disconnecting citizens from potentially valuable information.
Third, Bashir’s regime is much less tolerant of protests and demonstrations and has demonstrated a proclivity for using as much force as quickly as possible to snuff out public uprisings. Such efforts are likely to buy only temporary reprieve for the dying regime as it clutches to power, and such responses cannot force the people to give up their demands for improvements in their standard of living, as well as for respect of their fundamental rights.
Without a credible opposition party to coordinate and peacefully channel the frustrations of restless youth into a peaceful revolution, current events in Sudan are likely to force the country into another bloody civil war. There is, of course, a possibility that, given the fact that Sudan does not have the type of institutional arrangements (free and independent press; independent judiciary; regular, free, credible and fair elections) that can provide citizens with the tools to either change their government or petition the latter for relief from tyranny, Sudan could soon become another failed state, such as Somalia. It would then become, like Somalia, a magnet for terrorists and extremist groups seeking to destabilize the region. In addition, another civil war in Sudan would flood the region with refugees and exacerbate the problems now facing many countries in East Africa. Of course, unrest in Sudan could easily spill over into neighboring countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda and create a serious humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.
Dictators and autocrats can be undone by their inability or unwillingness to learn from history, even if that history is not theirs. Given the fact that Sudan’s neighbors have been embroiled in revolutions initiated and carried out by young people frustrated by their countries’ failure to provide them with jobs and protect their fundamental rights, one wonders why al-Bashir thinks the same fate would not befall him and his regime. It has become apparent that al-Bashir is unwilling or unable to recognize the fact that the world is no longer willing to tolerate his regime’s disregard for basic human rights and that Sudan, if it hopes to regain its standing as an accepted member of the international community, cannot afford to serve as a hiding place for dictators.
At the moment, al-Bashir faces a lot of problems emanating from inside and outside the country. It would be wise for al-Bashir and his government to start constructive dialogue with the people of Sudan in an effort to develop the modalities to peacefully transition to democracy. A credible first step would be for al-Bashir to form a transitional government that includes opposition parties. One of the most important functions of such a government should be to engage all relevant stakeholder groups in democratic constitution making to develop and adopt institutional arrangements that guarantee the rule of law and, hence, provide citizens with a governing process that protects their fundamental rights and provides them with the tools for self-actualization. Of course, while institutional reforms are a long-term project, in the short term, the transitional government must put into place mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, as well as improve relations with South Sudan in order to secure the peaceful coexistence that is critical for investment and economic growth.