Explainer: Protesters want an end to Bashir’s rule

221

Weeks of protests pose one of the most serious challenges to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule as his party prepares to change the constitution to allow him to seek another term.

The protests began on December 19 over soaring bread prices, one result of a deep economic crisis that started when the southern part of the country seceded after a referendum in 2011, taking oil wealth with it.

The authorities’ heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrations fuelled anger. At least 24 people were killed, officials say and hundreds more were injured. Activists say the death toll is at least 40.

The protests are small they show no sign of ending and many seek a change of regime.

Bashir is defiant. The 75-year-old blamed the protests on foreign “agents” and challenged opponents to seek power through the ballot box.

WHY DID THE PROTESTS START?

The protests began in Atbara, in north-eastern Sudan a stronghold of anti-government activity. Several thousand people took to the streets after government tried to end a bread shortage.

As a result of the measures, the price of some bread tripled and although there were bread queues for months, people were angry about the price increase.

Authorities changed the policy and scrambled to crush protest, declaring a state of emergency in Atbara and imposing a dawn to dusk curfew.

Protests had spread to Port Sudan and al-Qadarif in the south east, before reaching Khartoum.

“It is not protests anymore. It’s almost a full-fledged revolution,” said Mohammad Osman, a Sudanese political analyst.

He said the scale of the protests was unprecedented. “Multiple constituencies are joining forces against Bashir’s regime to achieve radical change,” he said.

Protesters are also angered by cash shortages due to restrictions on withdrawals aimed at keeping money in the banks, also struggling to source cash.

What started as a protest about living conditions has turned into one about the regime.

Echoing the 2011 uprisings that swept other Arab countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, the common cry is: “The people want the regime to fall.”

Once seen as the breadbasket of the Arab world, protesters say many years of mismanagement turned Sudan into a failed state.

They blame Bashir for South Sudan’s secession and for Sudan being placed on a US list of countries that sponsor terrorism.

HOW SERIOUS ARE THEY?

Numbers in Atbara have dwindled from the initial thousands but hundreds still take part in near daily protests in other cities around Sudan, despite the crackdown. They are the most sustained under Bashir’s rule.

In September 2013, dozens of people were killed in a few days of protests sparked by a cut in fuel subsidies. Authorities put the death toll at 84 while rights groups said up to 200 people died.

In January last year, Sudan saw protests sparked by bread subsidy cuts, but they were short-lived.

“With protests continuing for a fourth week the situation is open to all possibilities,” said Abd al-Latif al-Bony, a political science professor at Khartoum’s National University.

“Each side is trying to cast out the other, which is dangerous for the stability of the country.”

HOW VULNERABLE IS BASHIR?

Bashir has long been the uncontested leader of Sudan.

The opposition comprises political parties whose leaders are in Sudan and armed groups led mainly from abroad or from conflict zones in southern or western Sudan.

Members of opposition parties joined protests mainly led by a little-known group of trade unionists called the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). With a weekly programme of demonstrations circulated on social media, the SPA eclipsed traditional opposition parties.

Bashir is the head of the Islamic Movement party, with a similar ideology to the global Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood.

He has direct control over security forces, including the feared Rapid Support Force comprising former militias loyal to the ruling party, often used to crush dissent.

His position has been eroded by the economic crisis that sent inflation soaring to around 70%.

Bashir supporters fear the protests may embolden small but influential factions in the ruling party who oppose changing the constitution to allow the president to seek a new term in office in 2020.

WHO COULD TAKE OVER IF BASHIR FALLS?

Since independence in 1956, autocrats blamed for some of Sudan’s worst woes have come to power through military coups. The military also stepped in at least twice, in 1964 and 1985, to back popular uprisings for change.

Over the past 30 years, Bashir sought to fill key army posts and those in various security apparatus with members of his Islamic Movement.

Sudanese opposition parties look to the army as an acceptable body to lead any transitional period until new elections were organised.

While military officers who brought positive change to Sudan in the past were not public figures, Bashir’s deputy, Bakri Hassan Saleh, a former army general could step in to fill any vacuum left.

Local experts say intelligence chief, Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh, also known as Salah Gosh, an Islamist with huge influence in Sudan, was another likely candidate but he does not have a military background and that could limit his chances.

Experts say the worst scenario would be a mutiny or a split in the armed forces if the army is asked to crush protests.

They say Bashir, facing the prospect of trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a war criminal for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur, will resist any attempt to force him to step down, which would put Sudan at risk of a new civil war.

WHY DOES SUDAN MATTER INTERNATIONALLY?

Sudan was long isolated by US economic and trade sanctions first imposed in 1997, shortly after the country harboured Osama bin Laden. Sanctions were lifted in October 2017.

Bashir sought better relations with the United States by offering security co-operation but also courted Russia.

He sent troops to shore up a Saudi-led Arab alliance trying to curb Iranian influence in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been slow to deliver aid to Sudan, suspicious of his ties to their Gulf rival Qatar and to Turkey, with a foothold on Sudan’s Red Sea island of Suakin.

Sudan is a key player in the Horn of Africa, an area where international powers are competing for influence.