(Protesters marching in the streets of Khartoum; Source: Girifna)
Two weeks after the outbreak of the largest and most violently repressed popular protests faced by the National Congress Party’s (NCP) regime: what is next for Sudan? In the hope of providing elements of an answer to this large question, this issue of Sudan Democracy First Group’s (SDFG) Sudan Update offers an overview of the different actors’ positions at this critical crossroads.
The protests were largely spontaneous, fueled by the Sudanese people’s refusal to pay the price for the governance failures of the NCP regime, the rampant corruption and its inflated expenditure on the security sector at the cost of spending on development and social services. Numerous online videos and photos indicate that the protests were joined by masses of students, unemployed youth and ordinary people in populous neighborhoods who shoulder the brunt of Sudan’s spiraling cost of living. Protests were documented in many neighborhoods in Khartoum, such as Kalakla, Jebra, Haj Yousif, Shambat, Adurushab, Burri, and Wad Nubawi, amongst other. Outside of Khartoum State, protests in Nyala, Atbara, Kassala, Gadarif, Wad Medani and Port Sudan were also reported. With little indication of how the regime will ward off the economic collapse it had warned was imminent if subsidies weren’t lifted, or address the protesters’ concerns, the continuing protests could be a prelude to further outbursts of public frustration and even bloodier crackdowns. (Cartoon caption: “Security kills children during protests in Sudan; by Khalid Albaih; https://www.facebook.com/KhalidAlbaih)
A slogan carried by a protester clearly reflected the predicament of both the regime and the political opposition: “I am not a “saboteur”; I am not a politician; I only want to topple the regime.” Recent events have seriously undermined the public legitimacy and popularity of the regime. However, the political and armed opposition face tremendous challenges in winning the trust and support of the population at large. For starters, traditional opposition actors in central, northern Sudan would have to present a unified front and clear reform programs to rally the public behind them. One week into the protests, opposition parties, youth groups, and professional associations stepped up their efforts to do just that and unify the political purpose of the protests. The armed opposition of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) also reached out with an offer of a broad political alliance and unilateral ceasefire if the protests succeeded in toppling the regime.
Opposition Political Forces
The National Umma Party’s (NUP) Sadiq al-Mahdi declared, in a memorial rally for victims of protests held at the NUP’s headquarters on October 1st, that the NCP regime has reached the end of its life. He launched a call for “changing of the regime,” under a consensual “National Charter Front” to oversee a transition process. Al-Mahdi also criticized the government’s handling of the demonstrations and called on his supporters to join the street protests. Al-Mahdi stopped short of endorsing the call for toppling the regime, prompting skepticism from those, including many in the NUP, who believe that the ruling NCP will never voluntarily concede power, and is unlikely to honor agreements it signs with other forces. Several supporters interrupted al-Mahdi’s speech, unhappy with what they saw as ambiguities in his position, exacerbated by the role of his son and heir apparent as Bashir’s presidential adviser and the prominent position of another of his sons as senior commander in the repressive National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). (Image: Banner during the memorial services for martyrs in Umma Party HQ; Source: Rasd Sudan)
Members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) headed by Osman al-Mirghani, which is the only mainstream party participating in the NCP-dominated , demanded the reinstatement of fuel subsidies. After the NCP’s refusal to heed its call, statements by several prominent DUP leaders indicated that the DUP is willing to consider withdrawing from the government (Arabic). However, other leaders indicated that might not happen, and the DUP had yet to effectively withdraw from the government at the time of writing. Hassan al-Turabi of the Popular Congress Party joined the Umma Party and called on his supporters to join the protests. In a televised interview, al-Turabi warned against the continued disintegration of the state, if Bashir continues to cling to power.
Within the NCP’s own ranks, a group of 31 top leaders, including four members of the politburo, claiming to represent a reformist branch within the regime, publicly released a letter calling for the reinstatement of subsidies and criticized the harsh crackdown on protesters. In retaliation, President Bashir established a commission to investigate the signatories, highlighting the seriousness with which the party is dealing with the division. On another front, the Sa’ihoon, a group of disgruntled, former members of the Popular Defense Forces and the military, released a statement criticizing the government’s economic mismanagement and calling for their supporters to join the protesters on the street. Since their emergence in 2012, the Sa’ihoon have been very vocal in criticizing the government and have been accused of masterminding the coup attempt in November 2012. Abdel Ghani Ahmed Idris, a spokesman for the group, indicated that they no longer considered themselves a reform faction within the NCP and suggested it was weighing other options. (Image: Ghazi Salahuddin Al-Attabani; Source: Sudan Tribune).
The Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Army – Abdul Wahed (SLA-AW) and the Sudan Liberation Army – Minni Minnawi (SLA-MM), announced that it will “consider and develop a military plan including all what could enhance the peaceful uprising and accelerate the process of change,” without providing many details. It also announced that it will agree to a ceasefire and join the civilian political process upon the regime’s fall. Additionally, the SRF announced the joining of an Eastern Sudan-based rebel group called the United People’s Front for Liberation and Justice to its ranks. (Image: SRF soldiers; Source: Sudan Tribune)
The National Congress Party refused to bow to the pressure of the streets and various political forces and to undo its decision to remove fuel and other subsidies, which triggered the protests. On October 1st, during a televised event, dressed in full military fatigue, President Bashir proclaimed the protests to be a foreign conspiratorial plot led by outside interests. The government continued to expand its preemptive detention campaign, arresting members of the National Consensus Forces, Sudan Congress Party and members of youth groups. The government refused to take responsibility for the fatal shooting of over 200 protesters as attested by the chief medical coroner. On 6 October, the government began to release some female detainees in an attempt to appease the growing calls for their release.
Analysis and Policy Recommendations
The nature and intensity of the protests on the streets of Sudan’s major cities, in particular Khartoum, will dictate how the political situation will unfold. However, the government’s response and whether the opposition groups can take the initiative will also be crucial. The government’s number one priority will be to continue to suppress and crush the protests on the ground, as it attempted to organizationally cripple any coordination amongst the opposition forces. Bashir’s appearance in full military fatigue on television is significant, as it is meant to dispel any rumors about the fractures within the military and to demonstrate his full control over the armed forces. Divisions within the regime will only worsen if the protests on the ground continue and gain more traction.
The biggest challenge facing the disgruntled youth and civil society is how to maintain the momentum of the protests in light of the government’s repression and the lack of decisive action by the opposition. The regime is determined to hold on to power by any means and the opposition is struggling to unify its ranks and organize its political message. Furthermore, the lack of any foreseeable economic reprieve from the economic crisis that is plaguing the country will inevitably lead to continued unrest throughout Sudan. The dissatisfaction of the youth and wider civil society groups is palpable, as most groups are resorting to street action to continue to mobilize and keep pressure on the government. Even with temporary lulls in the frequency and intensity of protests, the fueling factors remain. Further mobilizations, and violent responses, are bound to happen.
It is imperative that all international actors engaged in Sudan strongly condemn the brutal government response against the protestors. The silence of the African Union in this regard is deafening. Mediating parties and those with influence on Sudan must demand that the government allow its people to fully exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed right to peaceful assembly and expression of opinion. The government of Sudan should also be pressed to immediately prosecute those responsible for the killing of protesters, duly compensate the victims’ families and immediately try or release all political detainees.
In the long-term, the economic and political stability of Sudan will depend on elements of the regime and the full spectrum of the opposition engaging in a negotiated process of national governance reform which guarantees a voice to all of Sudanese citizens.