Sudan Risks Coup More Than Popular Uprising

Distinct points of divergence between the popular discontent in Sudan, compared to countries involved in the Arab Spring, inform observers of possible turns the situation in Khartoum might take in coming years.

al-monitor People take part in protests in Khartoum, Sept. 25, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.

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sudan protests, omar al-bashir, national congress party, islamic movement, arab spring

Oct 9, 2013

When demonstrations started to sweep Khartoum, as well as other Sudanese cities, some political circles expected Sudan to join what is known as the Arab Spring uprising. ... Other circles felt the Sudanese situation to be different from its predecessors, and noted that the country has already experienced such protests before, with the regime succeeding in keeping the situation under control. A third current says that the particularity of Sudan may feed popular demonstrations that could intensify, leading [Sudan] either to a soft change from within the country, or to a deep tunnel of chaos, coups and fragmentation. Below is a discussion and analysis of the details of the Sudanese scene.

In reality, the country has experienced a good share of popular demonstrations, which have led to the overthrow of two regimes in nearly two decades (1964 and 1985). Occasional protests over the last few years, which have become more volatile in the past two years, began on the campuses of the University of Khartoum, spreading out to a number of streets and squares. Yet, the official security agency was able to control them. Based on that, the sentence “Sudan has had its share of revolutions” circulated among some [Islamic] leaders following the outbreak of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

This sentence, which I heard directly from Hassan al-Turabi, seems to be a truth communicating something different than it intended, meaning Turabi wanted to defend the regime with which he disagreed. Yet, his belief in the Islamic project is bigger than his political disagreement with President Omar al-Bashir. The National Congress Party (NCP) leaders relied on this conclusion and enjoyed nearly three years of relative psychological stability, until the current demonstrations broke out on Sept. 23 and opened the floodgates to a comparison between past and current demonstrations.

Points of similarity

An objective comparison shows a set of similarities between events in Sudan and neighboring Arab countries, most notable among them being the economic reasons and motives as uncontrolled price hikes have hurt a large group of citizens. This factor is probably more pronounced in Sudan, since the demonstrations immediately followed the government's decision to lift fuel subsidies. Yet, those who took to the streets to protest against the policies of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya are still remembered.

The implications of Sudan’s protests have grown more pressing due to their association with political blockage, as well as the absence of democracy and genuine political reforms. This was an important shared similarity between all the regimes that faced the Arab Spring revolutions. Moreover, the fuel stocks that gave the demonstrations momentum, which originally came from the heart of a marginalized social class, provided [the demonstrations] with a high level of continuity.

On the other hand, all regimes, whether those overthrown or those that are still pending (like President Bashar al-Assad in Syria), agree on resorting to the security services to suppress the demonstrations. Although there are different estimates, at least dozens of people have died and hundreds have been injured and imprisoned in Sudan. Moreover, the oppression of local and Arab media outlets and the rejection of the protesters' demands are also means used [to implement this crackdown].

The Sudanese government has tightened its grip on publications, prevented the publication of some newspapers, canceled the licenses of Arab satellite channels, refused to retract its decision to lift fuel subsidies and remained committed to its political position. Furthermore, claims of a conspiracy have been raised. The Khartoum regime has immediately pointed the finger at external parties, and considered the Sudan Revolutionary Front — which consists of the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi faction and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North — responsible for calling for the derailing of peaceful demonstrations, and the infiltration of members affiliated with the front to kill demonstrators.

On a political level, the most important point of similarity is the lack of planning and advance preparations, and the absence of a partisan opposition. The opposition  has tried in Sudan to take advantage of the unorganized demonstrators and use them as a political card in the extended battle with Khartoum.

All this talk that Sudan is different from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya [first appeared] to be partially true. It turned out to be completely false, however, after the Tunisian experiment was repeated in Egypt, and the Arab Spring countries fell like dominoes. The Sudanese situation, though, has pronounced points of divergence. So far, there are not growing, popular masses at demonstrations. In Sudan, the barometer has fluctuated. The absence of a goal and a [leading] figure has given the Sudanese government a relative advantage in containing the scale of the demonstrations.

In Egypt, the police were a central target that led to the toppling of the whole regime. In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi inspired the revolution and helped it spread. In both Libya and Syria, regional and international powers stood behind the revolutions. In contrast, these same factors have not been at play in Sudan.

Yet some are trying to use the recent murder of pharmacist Salah Sannhouri at the hands of security forces as a symbol, where there are attempts to form a popular mental image surrounding his death and to unleash anger at the regime. Many mourners intended to embarrass Vice President Nafie Ali Nafie while he was expressing his condolences, kicking him out. Yet, this attempt was unsuccessful since Sannhouri lacked the exciting, dramatic or humanitarian dimensions that pluck at the heartstrings of the Sudanese people. The government was also able to prematurely extinguish the incident via political and social means.

The Islamic movement here and there

The most interesting point of divergence concerns the structure of the Islamic Movement, where an integral part is present in power with the NCP, and one of its branches, the Popular Congress Party (PCP), remains in the opposition. It has incited demonstrators to continue [their demonstrations], accused them of corruption and of stealing public funds, criticized their policies and called on the president to depart.

In addition, 31 members of the ruling party signed a memorandum on behalf of the “reformist movement group” that considered the regime responsible for the consequences of what would happen, and called for genuine reforms in the interest of the citizens. This move generated strong reactions, as some considered it the first defection in the Islamic Movement’s structure, after what happened with Turabi in 1999. Among the most prominent figures is Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a former political adviser to the president. The emergence of this wing revealed the depth of the differences and conflicts in the movement, and Bashir’s failure in controlling them.

In addition, the ruling party succeeded in controlling the main positions in the majority of security bodies. The Bashir regime is relatively similar to the Mubarak regime in Egypt in terms of the loyalty of the army, police, media and judiciary institutions. Yet, the main difference is that the two regimes espouse different doctrines. While in Egypt, there is a purely national [loyalty] siding with the citizens, loyalty in Sudan has a stronger religious base.

While the Islamic movement has spread widely and controls large parts of official bodies, many national members have been marginalized. This factor may be the most important in keeping the demonstrations under control, which, if they were to lose the strong support of the state, would be losing a strategic wing for their success. Those who review the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia in particular would recognize the role assumed by this tool in the success of the revolutions.

Based on this angle, the particularities of Sudan require the observer to consider three aspects:

First are the numerous security challenges. The regime is fighting fierce battles on the Darfur front, in addition to two other fronts in the provinces of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. These battles have inflicted great losses on the regime and have compelled it to undertake maneuvers that have sapped its energy.

The country’s complicated geopolitics has imposed agendas the regime does not wish to discuss since the choice of secession has become a constant burden haunting the regime. Amid current protests, tribal and separatist bias — or at least demands to acquire new gains and pressures to implement old promises, especially pertaining to distributing power and wealth — will find fertile ground. All of this represents additional burdens that encumber the regime, rendering it prone to blackmail and ready to walk through the dark path of revolutions.

The second aspect is that the opposition enjoys a significant share of political and grassroots power. Some traditional parties have popular wings. Although it is true that they failed to topple the Bashir regime in the past, they have, nonetheless, delivered severe blows, compelling the regime to resort to political maneuvers to weaken these parties. Despite this, the latter still enjoy reliable popularity amid a state of boiling tension in some Sudanese provinces.

The effects of this issue will escalate in the event that the opposition has entered into communication with the revolutionary front, which previously threatened to invade Khartoum. If both parties reach a phase of coordination and cooperation, the regime will be dragged into a delicate spot, giving protesters a margin to move forward without having to comply with any security pressures.

The third aspect is a coup d’etat from within the regime. There are two groups that make this scenario plausible, the first being the army, which is seemingly dissatisfied with the performance of Bashir. Previous signals that indicated he wouldn't be running in the 2015 presidential elections led some sources to affirm that the next president would undoubtedly be a member of the army.

Following the indecisive final stance of Bashir, and as political and economic crises worsen, the army may find itself compelled to smoothly topple Bashir, for fear that escalating protests would impose a leadership from outside the military. Additionally, this change could be used to absorb the wrath of the public.

The second group is the Islamic Movement, whose main components are utterly dissatisfied with Bashir and his close circles. They have dealt with his exclusionary practices and his endeavors to control decisions within this movement. This was shown during the conference that Bashir held a year ago, during which he got rid of his main competitors and rivals in one fell swoop. There are indicators within this movement revealing that it is in a state of alert, waiting to take advantage of demonstrations to diminish the Bashir phenomenon.

In all cases, protests are likely to serve as a turning point in the life of the Sudanese regime in its current form. The factors controlling its political, security and economic aspects, in addition to the impatience of some foreign circles, have reached a zenith and no longer accept coexistence with a dying regime. The question is: Will the end of the regime be by its own hand, or will it be subject to an unexpected popular blow that will drag the country into a vicious circle with unknown repercussions?

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