The Sudanese regime is at a dead-end at home and abroad

The options available to al-Bashir are very limited. He must either bow to the storm and prepare Sudan for a post-al-Bashir phase or stand his ground and fight.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Relentless. Sudanese protesters take part in an anti-government demonstration in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, January 31. (AFP)
Relentless. Sudanese protesters take part in an anti-government demonstration in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, January 31. (AFP)

CAIRO - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s attempts to quell demonstrations in the country have failed. Al-Bashir did not receive the public political support he was expecting from Cairo when he visited January 27. A few days before his trip there, al-Bashir was in Doha but so far nothing has come his way from there.

He also had high hopes to garner considerable economic support from Kuwait, where he hopped to after his visit to Cairo, but got nothing.

Al-Bashir went fishing for support from two rival states — Egypt and Qatar — and then a neutral one, Kuwait. Through his visits, he suggested he was carrying out his duties as president under normal circumstances, as if nothing was happening in Sudan. His public statements focused on bilateral and regional issues and ignored the crisis consuming his country.

Atiyya Essawi, an Egyptian specialist of Sudanese affairs, said al-Bashir’s foreign tour was “a desperate attempt to control the internal situation by seeking support that would help to calm the protests fuelled by the deteriorating economic conditions.”

Essawi said al-Bashir chose Egypt to benefit from its political expertise in dealing with similar crises, especially that Cairo, which is facing economic problems of its own, has weathered the aftershocks of the difficult austerity measures it put in place, in addition to its experience in dealing with drawn-out protests.

In Cairo, al-Bashir claimed demonstrators had fallen victim to external influence and tried to associate the protests with the negative connotations of the “Arab spring,” which is remembered by many in the Arab world for leading to domestic strife in countries such as Libya and Syria. He wanted to warn demonstrators that protests might lead to civil war.

Al-Bashir did not identify the “external parties,” except perhaps when he claimed during the early days of the protests that the exiled leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdul Wahid Mohamed al-Nur, had received support from Israel.

The allegation carried no traction in the Sudanese street.

Al-Bashir’s foreign contacts have failed to provide his regime with tangible support. The outside support it received was limited to calls for the preservation of Sudan’s unity and stability, which is a diplomatic way of refusing to condemn the demonstrations. With the escalation of the protests, some regimes fear they will sweep away the current government and leave them with problems with its successor government.

It is likely that the Sudanese regime will continue to struggle on several fronts without a breakthrough in any one of them.

Al-Bashir is conducting internal and external visits to affirm his position and to confirm that he has not been affected by what is happening in the street. However, the problem is that his official hosts abroad might grow embarrassed by his visits before their own people because, no matter how hard they try to dodge it, they could be described as al-Bashir’s supporters.

Egypt has relatively pre-empted this potential problem after al-Bashir’s visit to Cairo. Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry and Intelligence Chief General Abbas Kamel went to Khartoum after the outbreak of demonstrations. The Egyptian government urged political forces in Egypt to issue a statement of solidarity with the Sudanese people and their demands. That way, if the protests in Sudan achieved their objectives, the positive popular impressions could be an asset for Cairo.

Inside Sudan, al-Bashir has resorted to old strategies of defunct regimes. He intensified his field visits. He went to Atbara in the north and South Kordofan in the far south. He did not hesitate to visit different cities and spoke to many supporters, trying to give the impression that he enjoys wide popularity.

The contacts might have made things worse. The Sudanese protests, which started as spontaneous demonstrations, received partisan support. Trade unions and labour unions jumped on board and amplified the street protests.

The popular demands went from seeking a solution to the economic crisis to demanding al-Bashir’s departure. The latter’s promises failed to calm the street.

After an initial reaction of shock and fear, the Sudanese regime regrouped its political, security and partisan forces but he still lacks control of the street. Furthermore, the longer the crisis lingers, the hardier the protesters become, gaining confidence that al-Bashir has no external backing on top of his precarious position at home and lack of economic solutions that can reassure citizens.

Each side of the crisis, mainly al-Bashir and the demonstrators, is betting on the element of time believing it plays in its favour. The Sudanese regime is hoping that the crowds will get tired of protesting and grow discouraged.

The protesters say al-Bashir’s government could collapse at any moment. In case the demonstrations persist, the balance will tip in favour of the protesters and, sooner or later, al-Bashir could make security errors that would force the international community to break its silence.

The options available to al-Bashir are very limited. He must either bow to the storm and prepare Sudan for a post-al-Bashir phase or stand his ground and fight. In either case, his 30-year hold on power is compromised.

Essawi pointed out that the only suitable solution is to make political concessions that will have immediate effect in Sudan, foremost of which is to dismiss the current Sudanese government, form a government of national unity including the different tendencies in the country, subsidise basic necessities, such as bread and fuel, release political detainees and show full commitment to economic and political reforms.