Is Sudan the next Arab Spring hot spot?

Is Sudan the next Arab Spring hot spot?

With its neighbors roiled in the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring, some have expressed hope that Sudan will be the next chip to fall to popular revolution. The most recent protests, which began only in late September, are the third in a wave since 2011 against the the 24-year regime of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

This time around the protests are in response to the lifting of fuel subsidies and have quickly morphed into calls for Bashir’s ousting. Whether they are a nascent sign of Sudan’s own Arab Spring is too early to tell. New factors, while present, also compete with the remnants of previous failed attempts and it remains to be seen whether they are enough to overcome the inertia on the streets of Khartoum.

Within hours of the announcement on 23rd September that the subsidies would be lifted, hundreds – increasing to thousands over the course of the week – took to the streets to protest the move. Protests that began on the poor margins of Khartoum wound up in the urban centres of the capital. The Sudanese security apparatus volleyed back with a vengeance, killing some 50 protesters (210 according to other sources), making this the deadliest protest during Bashir’s rule.

When Bashir declared null and void the subsidies that kept fuel prices low, he did so in front of the backdrop of a teetering economy on the verge of collapse. Depleted oil revenues and scarce foreign currency reserves effectively forced his hand. Upon its independence in 2011, South Sudan took 75 percent of Sudan’s oil revenue with it, choking off Sudan’s access to international funds. Moreover, South Sudan is landlocked and therefore  relies on its northern neighbour to transport oil to the international market. Subsequent talks between the two countries about transport routes for South Sudan’s oil have been plagued by old disputes that have taken a toll on both countries.

Among those monitoring the situation in Sudan, there is belief that the discontent surrounding the subsidies has set the latest protests apart from previous failed attempts. Everything from gasoline to staples such as cooking oil and tomatoes has become prohibitively expensive. Fuel costs alone are said to have increased by upwards of 100 percent and are compounded by inflation rates hovering around 50 percent. The broad-based impact of these costs, it is argued, could be the coalescing factor that previous protests lacked.

Historically speaking, Sudan has a record of government overthrow through popular support: in 1964 and 1985 the people rose up against military governments. Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) came to power in 1989 in a bloodless coup d’état. Bashir is also internationally known as the first head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the Darfur conflict that has claimed nearly a quarter million lives and displaced another two million since 2003.

The massive security apparatus that Bashir built out over the past 24 years has proven deadly,  acting as a real deterrent to a fledgling opposition plagued by division and in-fighting among its leading figures and organizations. Coordination via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook has not materialized to the extent seen in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Additionally, a bloated public sector has done much to co-opt a segment of Sudanese society that could pose a threat to the regime.

Ultimately, the case for inaction may prove compelling in the face of what has been happening in neighboring countries where anti-regime protests took off. Libya is in a perpetual state of insecurity. Egypt’s revolution has, arguably, been handed back to the regime. And in Syria the bloody sectarian conflict spawned by protests shows no signs of abating. Bashir just may be able to sell the idea that he is all that stands between Sudan and the chaos seen in those countries.

It is also telling that protests in Sudan have garnered little international attention. The kind of outside interest that Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and now Syria generated has neither empowered the opposition nor signaled to Bashir that the status quo is untenable. The major global and regional players such as the United States, European Union, and the Arab League have been mum on the subject. International press has also done little to illuminate the political and economic problems faced by ordinary Sudanese, dedicating instead its scant Sudan coverage to Omar al-Bashir’s travel plans.

Although Bashir has said that he will step down in 2015, there is little hope that the end of his tenure will usher in an era of democracy for Sudan. A more just and democratic future, therefore, lies in the ability of the Sudanese people to seize the right opportunity. Whether the current protests are a dress rehearsal or the real deal will become clearer in the days and weeks to come. But to overcome obstacles that have plagued previous calls for change, the opposition will need to mend internal divisions, build on the momentum of the protests by offering a real alternative, and propagate that message through effective coordination.

About Author

Sanja Davidovic

Sanja is an international development professional whose research and writing focuses on issues of political economy of conflict, state building and security sector reform. She holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Fairfield University.