Protesters in Sudan want end to al-Bashir's 30-year rule

Although the protests are small, they show no sign of ending and many are seeking a change of regime.
Saturday 19/01/2019
Anti-government protesters in Khartoum's southern business district of El-Kalakla, January 15. (AFP)
Anti-government protesters in Khartoum's southern business district of El-Kalakla, January 15. (AFP)

KHARTOUM - Weeks of protests pose a serious challenge to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's 30-year rule, just as his party prepares to change the constitution to allow him to seek another term.

The protests began December 19 over soaring bread prices, one result of a deep economic crisis that started when the southern part of the country seceded in 2011, taking oil wealth with it.

Authorities' crackdown on the demonstrations fuelled the anger. At least 24 people have been killed, officials said, and hundreds have been injured. Activists said the death toll is at least 40.

Although the protests are small, they show no sign of ending and many are seeking a change of regime.

Al-Bashir is defiant. The 75-year-old blamed the protests on foreign "agents" and challenged his opponents to seek power through the ballot box.

Why did the protests start?

The protests began in Atbara, a city in north-eastern Sudan known as a stronghold for anti-government activity. Several thousand people took to the streets after the government tried to end a bread shortage.

As a result of the measures, the price of some bread tripled and, although there had been bread queues for months, people were angry about the price rise.

Authorities quickly changed the policy and scrambled to crush the protests, declaring a state of emergency in Atbara and imposing a 6pm-6am curfew but the protests had already spread to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan and to al-Qadarif in the south-east, and then Khartoum.

"It is not protests anymore. It's almost a full-fledged revolution," said Mohammad Osman, a Sudanese political analyst.

He said the scale of the protests was unprecedented. "Multiple constituencies are joining forces against al-Bashir's regime to achieve radical change," he said.

Protesters were also angered by cash shortages due to restrictions on withdrawals aimed at keeping money in the banks, which are struggling to find cash.

However, what started as a protest about living conditions turned into one about the regime. Echoing the 2011 uprisings that swept other Arab countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, their common cry is: "The people want the regime to fall."

Sudan was once seen as the breadbasket of the Arab world but protesters say years of mismanagement have turned it into a failed state. They blame al-Bashir for South Sudan's secession and for Sudan being placed on a US list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

How serious are they?

The numbers in Atbara have dwindled from the initial thousands but hundreds take part in near daily protests in cities around Sudan, despite the crackdown. They are the most sustained under al-Bashir's rule.

In September 2013, dozens of people were killed in a few days of protests sparked by a cut in fuel subsidies. Authorities put the death toll at 84 but rights groups said up to 200 people died.

In January 2018, Sudan saw protests sparked by bread subsidy cuts but they were short-lived.

"With the protests continuing for a fourth week... the situation is open to all possibilities," said Abd al-Latif al-Bony, a political science professor at Khartoum's National University. "Each side is trying to totally cast out the other side, which is dangerous for the stability of the country."

How vulnerable is al-Bashir?

Al-Bashir has long been the uncontested leader in Sudan.

The opposition includes several political parties whose leaders are in Sudan and several armed groups led mainly from abroad or from conflict zones in southern or western Sudan.

Members of opposition parties have joined the protests, which are mainly led by a little-known group of trade unionists called the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). With a weekly programme of demonstrations circulated on social media, the SPA has eclipsed the traditional opposition parties.

Al-Bashir is the head of the Islamic Movement party, which has a similar ideology to the global Islamist organisation the Muslim Brotherhood. He also has direct control over security forces, including the feared Rapid Support Force of former militias loyal to the ruling party, which he has often used to crush dissent.

His position has been eroded by the economic crisis that sent inflation soaring to approximately 70%.

Al-Bashir's supporters said they fear the protests may embolden small but influential factions in the ruling party who oppose changing the constitution to allow al-Bashir to seek a new term in office in 2020.

Who could take over if al-Bashir falls?

Since independence in 1956, autocrats blamed for some of Sudan's worst woes have taken power through military coups. The military stepped in at least twice -- 1964 and 1985 -- to back popular uprisings.

However, al-Bashir has filled key army posts and those in various security apparatus with members of his Islamic Movement. Still, Sudanese opposition parties look to the army as an acceptable body to lead any transitional period until new elections were organised.

While military officers who had brought positive change to Sudan in the past were not public figures, al-Bashir's deputy, Bakri Hassan Saleh, a former army general could step in to fill any political vacuum.

Local experts said intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh, also known as Salah Gosh, an Islamist with huge influence in Sudan, was another likely candidate but he does not have a military background and that could limit his chances.

Experts said the worst scenario would be a mutiny or a split in the armed forces if the army is asked to crush the protests.

They said al-Bashir, facing the prospect of a trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a war criminal for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur, will likely resist any attempt to force him to step down, which would put Sudan at risk of civil war.

Why does Sudan matter internationally?

Sudan was long isolated by US economic and trade sanctions first imposed in 1997, shortly after the country harboured Osama bin Laden. The sanctions were lifted in October 2017.

Al-Bashir has sought better relations with the United States by offering security cooperation but has also courted Russia.

He has sent troops to shore up a Saudi-led Arab alliance trying to curb Iranian influence in Yemen. However, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been slow to deliver aid to Sudan, suspicious of al-Bashir’s ties to their Gulf rival Qatar and to Turkey, which has a foothold on Sudan's Red Sea island of Suakin.

Sudan is also a key player in the Horn of Africa, an area where international powers are competing for influence.

A sprawling country of approximately 40 million people, it is also a key transit route for African migrants seeking to reach the Mediterranean en route to Europe.