Why Washington has changed its view of protests in Sudan

The time factor is no longer useful to those who use it in power and rely on it to overcome demonstrations.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Sudden interest. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference, February 15.  (Reuters)
Sudden interest. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference, February 15. (Reuters)

Statements attributed to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sudan indicate a shift in the United States’ position. “We hope that the people’s voices will be heard and a transition will be achieved,” Pompeo said.

Before those words, delivered February 15, it seemed the US administration was not very interested in what was going on in Sudan, believing perhaps that Khartoum could contain the situation.

The degree of US interest in Sudanese affairs depends largely on the issues of fighting terrorism and handing over extremists. The US media have not given the protests in Sudan a great deal of attention. Eight years ago, uprisings that swept many Arab countries were top news in the United States.

Clearly, specific determinants have made the Trump administration opt for a relatively accommodating attitude towards the Sudanese regime. Once again, Washington suddenly forgets all about democratic values it is seeking to entrench in the minds of the world and not heed the right of the Sudanese people to protest.

At the top of the list of these determinants, we find US President Donald Trump’s atrophied view of human values and his materialistic beliefs. He probably believes that by observing neutrality about the situation in Sudan, there is a chance to maximise US interests there if the al-Bashir regime rides out the crisis and ends the protests with minimal bloodshed in the streets.

There is also the US administration’s complex attitude towards former President Barack Obama’s legacy and his support of the “Arab spring” uprisings, which, it must be said, left the Trump administration with a few regional crises on its hands.

Trump and his administration have overcome some of them but the repercussions have made Washington hesitate before supporting new uprisings. The Americans fear the re-emergence of dark scenarios attributed to the United States with the purpose of bringing down the regimes in the region. The United States’ support of popular uprisings in Arab countries caused a lot of damage and ruined relations with some.

The reports that reached the Oval Office must have painted a scenario in which Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was going to crack down on the demonstrations with various tools, including an iron fist, bargaining, exploiting divisions and a palace coup, if necessary.

The Sudanese populace has sustained the street protests for about two months, with no sign of relenting. On February 22, al-Bashir went so far as to declare a year-long state of emergency to try and quell the protests.

The crisis has taken a political dimension and is no longer confined to economic demands. Obviously, the protesting masses are willing and ready.

In its dealing with the crisis, Khartoum was counting on the notion that previous popular uprisings in the region became suspect in the eyes of many people because of their negative political outcome. That hypothesis could be true and was probably behind some support that Khartoum received.

However, protests have been recurrent in Sudan and that is an indication of the extent of anger and frustration pent up in the country. People would rather confront the regime, even if it costs them dearly. In many countries, including the United States, the public started paying attention to the situation in Sudan and gradually sided with the protesters.

The signs of the change in the American position are significant on many levels. They indicate that al-Bashir is running out of ideas and will not remain standing in a long confrontation with protesters. The crisis may get out of control at any time and it may be too late for al-Bashir to secure financial aid that would alleviate Sudan’s economic crisis and convince the masses to calm down and abandon the opposition.

Many countries visited or addressed by al-Bashir, secretly or publicly, did not provide him with the required support. People must have feared the possibility that standing by him might hasten his downfall. The battle for his succession would kick off and become terrible if his successor was picked from outside his circle.

That street protests continue in Sudan, with the demonstrators becoming innovative in keeping the flames burning, indicates that al-Bashir did not understand the political lessons from Arab countries that tried to stop the people from taking to the street. For the masses to take to the street is easy. What’s not easy is getting back them into their homes.

The uprising in Sudan is different from those of 1964 and 1985 in terms of circumstances and mechanisms. Unlike those, this one might lead to a radical change.

The time factor is no longer useful to those who use it in power and rely on it to overcome demonstrations. On the contrary, it has become a positive tool for protesters who realise that the regime has nothing to mitigate the crisis and know that time may turn in their favour.

The developments in Sudan all point in this direction. Al-Bashir has not been able to resolve the crisis and there are no indications he will do so soon, either by securing economic assistance or by ensuring that major international powers do not get impatient with Sudan.

This works in favour of the protesters. There are going to be surprises in Sudan’s political future. The signs are evident every passing day as protesters roam the streets and al-Bashir fails to come up with solutions.