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Understanding the prospects and challenges

The current protests have clearly demonstrated that after 23 years in power the Bashir regime’s capacity for coercion is weak and increasingly de-linked from the Sudanese people.

While the attention of the Western and Arab media has focused on the historic victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate in Egypt, street protests of a scale not witnessed for two decades continued into their second week in Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities. Anti-government protests, initially led by students from the University of Khartoum, have inspired similar nation-wide demonstrations in al-Obeid, Kosti, al-Gadaref, Port Sudan, Wad Medani, and Atbara.

They began on June 16 with courageous female students at the University of Khartoum’s downtown campus taking to the streets chanting “no, no to higher prices” and “freedom, freedom.” The students initially protested the announcement of a thirty-five percent hike in public transportation fees and called for the “liberation” of the campus from the presence of the ubiquitous National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Since then, Khartoum and other cities have been sites of daily protests driven by a widening political agenda.

Echoing calls heard in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, protesters chanted “the people want the fall of the regime,” “we will not be ruled by a dictator,” and “revolution, revolution until victory.” Clearly mindful (and no doubt apprehensive) of the protesters’ slogans referencing the Arab uprisings as well as two previous popular intifadas that have removed military regimes, President Omar al-Bashir quickly insisted that this is “no Arab Spring.”

However, since they began, the protests have expanded in both their geographic reach and their social profile. Moving beyond the middle class campus of the University of Khartoum, protests now include more lower class students from other universities, supporters and activists belonging to the major opposition parties, civil servants, the unemployed and workers in the informal sector.

Moreover, despite the use of teargas, batons and sweeping arrests on the part of the State Security and Intelligence Services, the protests have expanded to include residents in the populous informal settlements and working class neighbourhoods of Buri, al-Ilafoon, al-Gereif, al-Sahafa, al-Abbassiya and Mayo south of the capital.

As the protests continued with greater force into their tenth day security forces, frustrated at not being able to stem the tide of the protests, entered the dormitories of the University of Khartoum’s Faculty of Education and set them ablaze. The students, responding to Bashir's public statement on June 24 describing the demonstrators as ‘saboteurs’, foreign ‘aliens’ and 'rogues' chanted, "we are not rogues, “you will end up dead in a sewage system", referring to how former Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi was caught before he was killed.

The government’s decision to abolish fuel subsidies and the imposition of a wider austerity package that has resulted in a spiraling inflation rate that peaked at over thirty percent this May sparked this wave of demonstrations. They come on the heels of smaller, albeit persistent, protests that have been ongoing for over a year, in direct response to pre-existing economic policies linked to the secession of South Sudan in the summer 2011. The secession of South Sudan resulted in the loss of two thirds of the country’s oil reserves, leaving Khartoum with a widening budget deficit, a weakened currency, and rising costs for food and other imports.

To make matters worse for Khartoum, land-locked South Sudan shut down its oil production in January after accusing Khartoum of charging exorbitant transit fees for transporting the South’s oil through the Khartoum’s pipeline. Following years of unprecedented oil-exports, which fueled economic growth, wherein some years featured double-digit growth figures, the financial basis that helped maintain the resilience and patronage networks of the regime effectively vanished overnight.

In response, and immediately following the South’s secession, the Bashir regime placed restrictions on the outflow of foreign currency, banned certain imports, and reduced state subsidies on vital commodities such as sugar and fuel. With a budget deficit currently estimated at $2.4 billion dollars, on 18 June 2012, Bashir imposed yet another round of more drastic, and desperate, austerity measures, lifted fuel subsides, and announced the stringent enforcement of higher taxes on capital, consumer goods, telecommunications, and a wide range of imports.

While the current protests are partially inspired by the Arab uprisings, the grievances fueling the protests are decidedly Sudanese. The students and largely unemployed activists confronting the formidable security forces in the streets of Khartoum, members of the professional syndicates, and the leaders of the National Consensus Forces (NCF, an umbrella group of opposition parties) have all argued against the government’s claim that the deep economic crisis is beyond the government’s control and the result of “malicious” traders operating in the informal economy who are smuggling fuel and hard currency at the expense of the Sudanese people.

Instead, they have noted that these macroeconomic initiatives are indefensible, and persuasively cited widely covered corruption scandals of members of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The NCF have also marshalled and publicized overwhelming evidence showing that the bulk of the national budget is allocated to the escalating military campaigns in Darfur as well as the clashes along the borders with South Sudan that began in earnest last April. Moreover, as the local media has noted, at the same time that the regime has imposed deep austerity measures, the NCP announced greater investments in government apparatuses, concerned as it is with sustaining its patronage networks and security apparatus in the context of wide-scale protests calling for the removal of the regime.

Ironically, the influential Vice President Ali Osman Taha blamed the economic crisis on the Sudanese themselves who, as he put it, have been “living beyond their means.” In a country where the majority of families rely on funds from labour remittances sent by expatriate relatives (i.e., Sudanese workers abroad) for their livelihood, Taha angered the protestors further by publicly stating that the tendency of Sudanese to maintain extended families ― where one individual works and ten others rely on his income ― is the real reason that local production and incomes are at such low levels [1]. For its part, the National Consensus Party (NCP), which also includes the Popular Congress Party (PCP) of Islamist Hassan Turabi, and the National Umma Party of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, has vowed to continue to mobilize street protests to oppose the government’s austerity measures.


The imposition of macroeconomic policies, inspired and rationalized by neoliberal principles (more than the loss of the South), has sparked the recent protests. However, the magnitude of the protests and organizational strategies utilized therein has clearly been inspired by the protests and transitions in the larger Arab world. Nevertheless, in the wake of the Arab uprisings, scholars of Sudan have been near unanimous in declaring that the Sudanese government will “not buckle” to popular protests anytime soon.

Interestingly, while the Arab region has long been viewed as immune to democratization, in the context of the Arab protests, Arab “exceptionalism” has been replaced by “Sudanese exceptionalism” in much of the analysis on Sudan. Following in the lines of scholars of Arab authoritarianism, these analysts insist, with little evidence, that Sudan’s military establishment is beholden to the government just as it has been since Bashir first took power via a military coup in 1989. That is, that the upper ranks of the military and the security forces are still loyal to his rule, that the political opposition is weak and discredited, and that civil society is even more divided than that of Tunisia and Egypt.

These are the very same factors that compelled scholars to predict the durability of authoritarian rule in the Arab world. As one Sudan analyst put it: “there is certainly discontent with the regime, but it’s unclear if enough of the right factors are present to complete the equation in Khartoum [because] protests undertaken thus far have not taken root with a broad section of the population.” [2]

The influential International Crisis Group (ICG) similarly argued that “years of subjugation at the hands of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) have yielded both political apathy and a weak opposition.” [3] In contradiction to the current expansion of protests to all of the major cities in Sudan, the general consensus among analysts is that, in the case of Sudan, the heavy hand of the National Intelligence and Security Services and corresponding fears among the population act to inhibit a genuinely popular uprising.

In reality, in recent years, deep divisions have emerged within the state security forces and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over the potential pitfalls for Khartoum associated with South Sudan’s secession, the ongoing negotiations with South Sudan’s Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) over the oil rich border regions, and on the conduct of the recent military campaigns in South Kordofan. Indeed, far from representing a unified front as in the early years of the Bashir regime there is increasing dissention within the ranks of the security establishment that has led Bashir to sack several high ranking officials for the sake of his self-preservation.

These divisions were in clear evidence when Bashir removed Salah Gosh, the long-standing director-general of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), from his post in April 2011. Gosh fell out with the powerful presidential advisor of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), Nafie Ali Nafie, after the former initiated a dialogue with opposition parties leading to fears on the part of Bashir and Nafi that he was in the process of plotting a coup against the regime.

More recently, on June 24th, in response to the continued spate of protests throughout the country, Bashir issued a decree relieving nine of his top ranking advisers, including six from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), from their positions. The move, part of a countrywide reshuffle designed to revive waning legitimacy for the regime, saw entire regional governments tendering their resignations with the exception of South Darfur State whose government simply refused to step down.

In the case of Sudan, this analysis, like that of Tunisia and Egypt in the past, does not depict the full picture with respect to the prospects of a Sudanese democratic “spring.” The question having to do with whether Sudan will remain resistant to a significant uprising, if not a democratic opening, requires an analysis that takes seriously the pitfalls made by scholars who mistakenly focused on the durability of Arab authoritarianism.

Will Sudan remain resistant to democratization? The answer to this question hinges on an understanding of factors long associated, albeit mistakenly, with the durability of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. These include the fact that Arab countries possess weak civil societies, have middle classes beholden to state patronage for their survival, and opposition political parties, which are either weak (i.e., Egypt and Sudan) or simply non-existent (i.e., Tunisia). However, as the events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown, none of these conditions precluded the move towards the difficult struggle over dismantling the long-standing political, economic and social institutions of authoritarian rule. Indeed, what they have demonstrated is that a weakly organized opposition does not necessarily prevent effective mass mobilization.

What then explains the divergence in Sudan from its northern neighbours? And how can we evaluate the potential for a similar popular intifada leading to another period of democracy in Sudan? For Sudan, the answer is relatively straightforward: it lies in the Bashir regime’s capacity to maintain a monopoly on the means of coercion. As analysts of Arab authoritarianism have usefully demonstrated across the region, when the state’s coercive apparatus remains coherent and effective, it can face down popular disaffection and survive significant illegitimacy [4].

Conversely, where the state’s capacity of coercion is weak or lacks the will to crush popular protests, the unraveling of authoritarian rule in the Arab world and elsewhere may begin to occur. In the case of Sudan, the current protests have clearly demonstrated that after twenty-three years in power the Bashir regime’s capacity of coercion is weak and increasingly de-linked from the Sudanese people. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), demoralized and weakened from fighting armed insurgencies Darfur and in two southern border states (i.e. South Kordofan and Blue Nile), has so far chosen not to step in against the protesters. At present, the regime is relying on the Police, but most particularly, on the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) to crack down on the street protesters. There are already signs of discontent between the NISS and police forces in the way the security agents are handling the detentions of the Sudanese citizens.

The protestors are well aware of the political and social divisions between the NISS and the police forces, and are clearly banking on persuading elements in the police to sympathesize with their shared grievances against the state. In one of the largest and most significant protests outside the Imam Abdel Rahman Mosque in Omdurman that followed Friday prayers, protestors attempted to enlist the support of the police chanting: “oh police, oh police, how much is your salary and how much is a pound of sugar?” in a clear strategy to persuade the police, the military and members of the government to join the protests as was the case with previous successful intifadas in 1964 and 1985 known as the October and April revolutions. Nevertheless, like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt before them, the protestors and the opposition political parties in Sudan are well aware that the dismantling of a long-standing authoritarian regime will require sustained protests and popular street mobilization that would ultimately, albeit reluctantly, enlist the support of significant elements in the military establishment.

Consequently, in the case of the Sudan, the key question in the context of the current protests is not to ask whether they are of the scale of those in Egypt and Tunisia, but rather to understand the relative strength of the Bashir regime’s capacity for coercion vis-à-vis what is clearly a resurgent and emboldened civil society opposition in the country. What the examples of Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated is that the answer to this question depends on the state’s fiscal health, the level of international support, and the degree to which the state security sector is entrenched in civil society. As in other Arab countries, taken together, these factors will determine whether the level of popular mobilization and current protests outweighs the capacity of the coercive apparatus of the Bashir regime. In this regard, it is highly likely that the durability of the authoritarian regime in Khartoum will be more short-lived than most analysts have argued. This is due to a number of reasons.

First, the level of international support is extremely low. Indeed, only a few months after Southern secession the United States re-imposed economic sanctions on the Sudan. In combination with the standing ICC’s indictment of Bashir issued in July 2010, this has increased the Bashir regime’s pariah status and has resulted in important divisions within the ruling party. It has also diminished the hopes among some members of the NCP to generate much needed foreign direct investment. Second, following almost a decade of remarkable growth in GDP (real gross domestic product), averaging 7.7 percent annually thanks to oil exports, since 2010 growth sharply declined to three percent even before the secession of the oil-rich South [5].

Sudan’s already depleted oil revenues shrank by a further twenty percent after its main Heglig oil field was damaged and shut down in fighting with South Sudanese troops in April of this year. Consequently, the Bashir regime is suffering from an enormous scarcity of foreign currency with which to finance spending to shore up its support base. It is this grave financial crisis that led to the recent imposition of economic austerity measures leading to the cost of living protests. Perhaps more importantly in political terms, it has also is weakened Khartoum’s capacity to suppress dissent since over seventy percent of oil export revenue prior to South Sudan’s secession was funneled to support the military and popular defense forces in the country.

Third, as witnessed by the protests in Khartoum and throughout the north, a wide cross section of Sudanese have already mobilized in a parallel process to their northern neighbors. In addition, protests that spread to central and northern Sudan have been accompanied by cyber activism spearheaded by the group Girifna (“we are fed up”). In a pattern similar to Egypt and Tunisia, this has maintained the link between Sudanese in the country and the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens in the diaspora. Taken together, these factors have continued to weaken the capacity of the Bashir regime to forestall the call for democratization indefinitely.

The most telling and important reason for the Bashir regime’s diminishing durability is the fact that the hitherto institutionalized security sector is increasingly fragmented and the top leadership is gravely divided. Following the country’s partition, political power is now increasingly centered on Bashir and a close network of loyalists. Moreover, concerned about a coup from within the military establishment, Bashir has purposely fragmented the security services. He has come to rely on personal and tribal loyalties. The formerly strong NCP party no longer has a significant base of social support even among hard-line Islamists [6]. This division was clearly illustrated in 2011 following a much publicized dispute between two of the most influential figures in Bashir’s government: Nafie Ali Nafie and Ali Osman Taha. Nafie (Presidential advisor and head of state security) along with Bashir represent the hardliner faction in the regime, and both have vehemently opposed constitutional reforms. In contrast, Ali Osman Taha (the second vice president) has come into bitter political conflict with the hardliners by calling for inclusion of some opposition parties to help in drafting a new constitution. This significant division in the ruling NCP party, in combination with the country’s international isolation, the deep economic crisis following the South’s secession along with the loss of oil revenue, and persistent levels of popular discontent and mobilization (even if low) are strong indications that Sudan―a country that witnessed two previous popular revolts that dramatically turned the tide of national politics―may find itself drawing important inspiration from its Arab neighbors just as it continues to follow its own path and distinctive “Sudanese” trajectory.


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* Khalid Medani is currently assistant professor of political science and Islamic Studies at McGill University.
* This article was first published by Jadaliyya.

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Magdi El Gizouli, “Sudan: Khartoum-the Political Economy of Bankruptcy, Sudan Tribune, June 23, 2012, p. 3.

[2] Alex Thurston, “Northern Sudan’s Protests Sparked by Egypt and Tunisia, but will they have the same effect?” Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2011.

[3] Quoted in Jeffrey Gettleman, “Young Sudanese Start Movement,” New York Times, February 2, 2011. For a more cautious analysis that does not directly address Sudan, see Marc Lynch, “Will the Arab Revolutions Spread?” Foreign Policy, January 26, 2011.

[4] Bellin, “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective.”

[5] Medani M. Ahmed, “Gloval Financial Crisis Discussion Series Paper 19: Sudan Phase 2”, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), London: United Kingdom, February 2010, pp. 1-2.

[6] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Divisions in Sudan’s ruling party and the threat to the country’s future stability,” Africa Report, no. 174, May 4, 2011. Another strong indication of the disunity among the top leadership in Khartoum was signalled by the dismissal of the formerly powerful head of national security, Salah Gosh, from his post in early 2011.