Is there a revolution brewing in Sudan? It is a difficult question to answer because of Arab confusion on what constitutes a revolution and what one actually looks like after the Arab Spring. The Sudanese people may not be very interested in the terminology but they are becoming more and more convinced that their actions are heading toward “change.” They are fed up with their regime’s unjust economic and social policies.
A few days ago, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the target of a massive student and popular protest. Following the example of many of his peers, the president tried to mitigate the street’s momentum by downplaying the protest’s importance. One of his assistants came forward to tell the crowd, “It would be easier for you to lick your own elbows than to topple the regime!” What he wasn’t expecting was that a large number of activists and websites would take him up on this “challenge.” Calls were made for massive demonstrations in many areas on Friday 29 — the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Bashir’s ascension to power through a military coup. The day has been dubbed “the Friday of Licking Elbows.”
In the Sudanese street today, there are strong indicators that the movement will be more sustained and widespread than before. The opposition has succeeded in mobilizing a large number of Sudanese who are enraged at the government’s austerity plan, which has resulted in up to 50 percent increases in food and fuel prices. The Sudanese people attribute the austerity plan to the government’s weakness, which, like South Sudan’s government, depends on oil revenues.
The way in which Bashir has dealt with growing public frustration has been revealing. Time magazine reported on the large discrepancy between what Bashir has said about the Sudanese protests and what activist Dalia Abdel Moneim wrote about them. Bashir allegedly said: “Those who are burning tires are small in number... I was riding in an open-air car, and when the people saw me they shouted Allahu Akbar,” while Moneim wrote that “The event we have been waiting for has finally arrived. It is now our turn to say enough. The people have succeeded in raising their voices in standing up to Bashir and his ilk.”
But what was it that led the situation to reach its breaking point? According to what Khalid al-Tijani, the editor of Sudanese newspaper Elaph, told As-Safir, it was simply “the measures that punished the citizens, who are actually victims of the regime’s failure in managing public affairs and in accepting responsibility. Meanwhile, those who brought this country to this state of affairs are not being held accountable.”
He also said that “the regime’s economic performance was so bad that the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, swallowing the poison of harsh austerity measures is necessary to avoid [bankruptcy].”
In that context, Tijani, who has repeatedly written about the regime’s disastrous economic policies, posed “the pressing and pivotal questions that the officials try to avoid.” The most important among them are: “How, why, and who was it that brought the Sudanese economy, which is rich in resources and opportunities, to this unprecedented and catastrophic failure? Why would the government’s harsh measures, which are devoid of any serious reforms and any innovative strategies, lead the country out of the current impasse? Why are government officials insisting that [these measures] are the only way to resolve the crisis? And if the officials truly have a solution then why have they waited until after disaster struck?”
According to Tijani, we must first list the causes of the problem. He said: “An accurate diagnosis is not in the government’s interest because it would point to the only way that the disaster can be resolved... One of the government’s most painful confessions came when it recognized that partitioning the country and separating the south was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That revealed all of Sudan’s economic diseases, which had until this point been veiled by easy oil money.”
Tijani regretted “this belated recognition by the political and economic leaders in the party because they are the ones who told the public that fragmenting the country and allowing the South to secede would be a cakewalk that would not affect the North. It was only after that citizens discovered that it was North Sudan that was a burden on the South and not the other way around.”
Tijani then asked, “What happened to the 25-year strategy for a total recovery, or the first 5-year plan in that strategy? What about the agricultural renaissance that the government said began a few years ago?” Instead, Sudan has ended up a net food importer, spending billions of dollars.
In this context, it must be noted that the government “justified” the crumbling state structures by pointing to the fact that local and regional authorities are — for the first time — divided based on racial and tribal affiliations. This was decided upon at the behest of certain tribes in order to satisfy them. This unprecedented development required the government to make peace with many of the groups that threatened the country and to let them share in power.
In the end, Tijani said, “The catastrophe is on its way” as long as the regime continues to avoid taking political responsibility for the country’s problems. This would not only lead to the toppling of the regime, but also to the chaotic collapse of the Sudanese state. No one knows how such a scenario would play out.
The above facts explain only broadly what is behind the Sudanese popular movements. There is also the international factor. It is known that international forces are heavily present in Sudan, especially after South Sudan’s secession, and those international forces’ known economic and strategic interests make them continuously try to control the country’s direction.
In this context, a high-level Sudanese source explained to As-Safir how the US and Israel are playing a major role in impeding Sudanese projects, particularly ones that benefit the North’s development. The source highlighted the country’s vast agricultural potential, which is not being used in spite of the many agreements it has signed with Gulf countries as well as the repeated offers to exploit its agricultural wealth. [The Gulf countries] backed down from these deals at the last minute for unknown reasons.
In contrast, in an article titled “Sudan Needs a Revolution,” Foreign Policy magazine estimated that the vast popular mobilization in Sudan needs international support. This starts with media coverage and extends all the way to strengthening sanctions. The US and China also have important roles to play.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the government in Khartoum is not a monolithic entity, but rather a conglomerate of various interest groups: the military, state security, the ruling party, elite businessmen, tribal alliances, the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups. Sudan’s experience with the Islamists indicate that the Sudanese are not seeking further Islamization, but rather economic and social development. These demands converge with those from many other parties.