Al-Bashir’s three-decade rule faces its gravest threat
It is a month since spontaneous popular anti-government protests broke out throughout Sudan, and on Sunday professional unions representing teachers and pharmacists joined what has become an almost daily denunciation of Omar Al-Bashir’s three-decade authoritarian rule. His ironclad grip over the country’s fortunes seems to be waning. Protesters, mostly young men and women, have dared tear gas and live bullets, and their demands have changed from denouncing recent hikes in the price of essential goods to calling for Al-Bashir’s overthrow.
Eight years since the eruption of a wave of popular protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, the Sudanese people have finally risen up against a ruler who has been in power since 1989, when Al-Bashir toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi in a military coup. Since then, he has allegedly rigged three presidential elections to remain in power.
Under his rule, the central government continued to wage war against secessionists in the south but eventually lost that struggle in 2011, when South Sudan became independent. That loss cost what remained of Sudan billions of dollars in oil revenues, thus exacerbating an already difficult economic situation. Al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur. Making the situation worse was a series of US economic sanctions imposed on Sudan in the 1990s for its associations with terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda. These sanctions were lifted in 2017 by the Trump administration, which cited that the regime had made improvements in humanitarian issues and was cooperating in counterterrorism cases.
Al-Bashir had blamed the sanctions for the country’s ailing economy and high poverty rates, rejecting accusations of mass corruption and discrimination in favor of ethnic Arabs. But, when his government ended fuel and wheat subsidies to improve its credit status with international lenders, protests broke out.
The president has flip-flopped in his reactions to the popular protests, praising demonstrators at one stage and promising reforms, but later accusing outside powers of seeking to derail his regime and describing protesters as “traitors, mercenaries, agents and heretics.” Even as his government denied claims that it was using excessive power, at least 40 people were killed, according to independent sources, and evidence was mounting that Al-Bashir had unleashed a wave of mass arrests and intimidation against his own people.
The Sudanese president finds himself in a difficult position as protests spread to loyalist towns and provinces.
As the protests gained momentum, a number of political parties that were in coalition with the ruling National Congress Party announced they were pulling out. Al-Islah movement decided to withdraw its deputies
from Parliament in protest, dealing a blow to Al-Bashir’s ruling coalition. Making things worse is the fact that professional unions have joined the mass protests and there are calls to declare a state of civil disobedience across the country.
Al-Bashir has rejected calls for his removal from office, saying that only the ballot box can decide who will rule Sudan. Presidential elections are slated to be held next year, but critics fear that caving in now will give the regime the chance to clamp down on the opposition and rig future elections.
The president’s power comes from the army, which has played a fundamental role in Sudan’s political history since its independence in 1956. So far, it does not appear that the army is ready to step in, but that remains a possibility and may even present a compromise. One of Al-Bashir’s main concerns if he accepts a deal to leave office is that a future government may be willing to extradite him to face trial at the ICC.
One of his tactics to deal with mass protests is to use the country’s clergy in a bid to dissuade opposition. Known for their deeply religious background, the Sudanese people generally hold Muslim clergy in reverence. Last week, Al-Bashir held a meeting with members of Sudan’s Clerical Association, who handed the president a list of demands. These included taking immediate measures to improve people’s livelihoods and human rights. But it is not clear that, even if Al-Bashir adopts these conditions, the protests will end.
Al-Bashir finds himself in a difficult position as protests spread to loyalist towns and provinces. He can do little to improve the country’s economy, as the government is dependent on foreign assistance. As the protests enter their second month, with no signs that the crackdown is working, the opposition is gaining strength on a daily basis, with more professional unions and political parties joining the movement.
Aside from willingly leaving office through a political compromise, all eyes will be on the army, which has so far been silent. The possibility of an internal coup that removes Al-Bashir and brings another strongman to power is likely, but the question is would the protesters accept such an outcome?
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010