Precarious standoff between Sudanese regime and demonstrators

The crisis has become more complex and more difficult to manage for both al-Bashir and the protesters.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Former Sudanese Army officers are sworn in as governors in Khartoum,  February 24. (AFP)
Uniforms in power. Former Sudanese Army officers are sworn in as governors in Khartoum, February 24. (AFP)

The demonstrations that started in Atbara and moved to many other cities in Sudan initially demanded solutions to deteriorating economic and social conditions. As the Sudanese regime insisted on not responding to the demands, the demonstrations spread and various political and trade-unionist forces entered the fray.

The unrest, initially grass-roots and spontaneous, morphed into protests in which political motives and conventional organising prevailed.

After consolidating control over Sudan’s administrative and political institutions, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir intensified his crackdown. In addition to appointing Mohamed Taher Ayla prime minister, al-Bashir selected Defence Minister Awad Mohammed bin Auf as his first deputy and installed senior military and police officers as governors for Sudan’s 18 provinces.

Al-Bashir’s attempt to shield his reign with a military layer drew increasing internal criticism. Amani al-Tawil, director of the Africa Programme at Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, said al-Bashir’s resorting to the army reflects his desire to capitalise on regional polarisation and conflict.

Tawil noted that the army’s direct and close involvement in governance could prove beneficial to the protest movement in the medium term, provided the demonstrations continue in a way in which they cannot be ignored by regional powers or the military establishment.

He said the situation is unlikely to last long, given the intensity of the protests since the announcement of recent measures.

The security clampdown by al-Bashir has led some Western countries to abandon their silent stance. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway criticised the trend towards militarisation.

Developments in Sudan revealed the difficulty for both sides of finding direct solutions to the crisis. The gap between each side’s visions is quite substantial.

The protesters know that violent escalation to oust al-Bashir would lead to clashes with security forces, which have become ubiquitous in the streets following the declaration of a state of emergency. Martial law gives security forces the last word in Sudan and could lead to the fragmentation of the country’s vast territories.

The government recognises that excessive violence will lead to more casualties and more external criticism. This is why al-Bashir has threatened a “big stick” approach without really doing it, except at a minimal level, to prevent the tensions from getting out of control.

Hiba al-Bashbishi, a professor of political science at the Institute of African Studies and Research in Cairo, said al-Bashir had resorted to the army to protect himself from the risk that demonstrations could turn violent.

However, and considering the loyalty of most army officers to al-Bashir, the situation in Sudan could turn catastrophic if the military collided with the population in the streets.

Al-Bashir has resorted to the security solution to deal with the crisis because he wanted to circumvent the economic dimension of the crisis since promises of financial aid from friendly regimes have yet to materialise.

Undoubtedly, the sanctions imposed on Khartoum by the United States and the UN Security Council prevented potential donors from contributing or were a welcomed excuse not to rescue the Sudanese regime.

Al-Bashir did not progress, not even one iota, in dealing with the real cause of the protests because his government does not have the resources to bridge the significant deficit it faces in many sectors.

The crisis has become more complex and more difficult to manage for both al-Bashir and the protesters. So, the balance of power between the two sides is back to square one in the sense that, when one side wins, the other automatically loses. The prospects of finding a safe way out from the crisis have much dimmed.

The protesters are determined to remove al-Bashir from power and, by brandishing the slogan “Just let him go,” they are signalling that they are adhering to the unity of the rest of Sudan after the secession of the south and determined to save their country from the disastrous scenarios faced by Syria, Libya and Yemen.

The protesters discovered that the Sudanese regime is suffering from major internal problems, both at the level of the ruling National Congress Party and the level of the Islamic Movement, which represents its popular base. There is even suppressed anger and tension among some ranks in the security forces.

These signs encouraged the protesters to exert excessive pressure on the ruling regime as they were joined by other opposition forces and important professional organisations. Their goal was al-Bashir’s departure from power.

The Sudanese president has taken steps that make his removal from power difficult. From the beginning, he did not pay attention to the demonstrators’ economic demands, which could have saved him the current predicament.

He wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway because he lacked the means to respond to the demands. The opposition is now jumping at this opportune chance to put an end to the rule of the Islamists by encouraging a popular uprising.

Al-Bashir seems to have learnt the lessons of the 1965 and the 1984 uprisings in Sudan, as well as those of the revolts of the “Arab spring.” So, he has resorted to the military to safeguard his rule or at least to safeguard his life in case he has to step down.

The Sudanese protests seem different from protests elsewhere. The situation is at a deadlock and the crisis is expected to continue for some time because the balance of power on the ground is almost equal. The demonstrators are relying on their numbers and the government is relying on its security apparatus. A direct confrontation would be costly to all.

Bashbishi said al-Bashir could end the demonstrations by satisfying some of the protesters’ demands and then take advantage of the truce to strike political deals with those leading the demonstrations or take control of the situation by using the army.

Both the Sudanese regime and the opposition are comfortable with the current situation of no-peace and no-war and find it a suitable exit from the dilemma.

Observers anticipate a scenario in which al-Bashir is replaced by a military figure who can gather enough consensus and absorb the political, economic and social anger. Otherwise, it could be the deluge.