The peaceful protests taking place in Sudan for the past month are the most significant challenge to the government of Omar al-Bashir since he came to power 30 years ago.
A terrible economy, where well over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment lies above 20%, combined with decades of corruption has galvanized large amounts of Sudanese to take to the streets in a non-violent movement demanding al-Bashir’s removal.
The government, not to anyone’s surprise, is using violence to repress the demonstrations. However, this response is not uniform, and the military has shown less appetite to confront protesters than it has in the past. In a desperate attempt to abate the persistent protests and legitimize an even more violent response the regime may resort to more devious tactics, such as planting thugs amongst protestors to stir up violence.
The recently created, non-political Sudan Professional Association seems to be coordinating the protests. The opposition appears to be setting aside their differences and are coordinating with one another. Even supporters of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) have been spotted among the demonstrators — some have deserted the party and the security apparatus. History is on the peoples’ side; governments in Sudan were peacefully overthrown twice, once in 1964 and again in 1985. These experiences are informing the current uprising.
To achieve their aim – remove al-Bashir from power, dismantle the corrupt state institutions and rebuild Sudan into an inclusive, just, peaceful and democratic country – the protests need to expand and the organizers need to improve their coordination. Preserving the current non-violent nature of the movement, particularly in the face of violent repression, is crucial and could be one of the decisive factors for a peaceful future. The movement has the potential to become a well-planned civil disobedience campaign. Such a campaign could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Regime has no answers
In the meantime, al-Bashir is not likely to step down anytime soon. But his government can do little to improve the economy, one of the issues at the heart of the demonstrations. Repression is his main option. The effectiveness of the government repression and outcome of the current protests in part depends on the extent of unity among opposition parties. After thirty years of divide and rule, the hollowing out of state institutions, a culture of impunity and the widespread availability of arms, this remains a challenge. However, many are working tirelessly to unite the opposition, determined to peacefully regain their country.
The best case scenario would see al-Bashir resigning or promising not to contest the 2020 elections, with allies and foreign governments pressuring him to do so. Such a negotiated transition, in which a new government would partly be comprised of moderate NCP members and the military, would be the best way out of the current situation. However, given al-Bashir’s reputation, this scenario is unlikely. Al-Bashir has compelling reasons to cling to power; if he steps down, he could fear for his safety, and his International Criminal Court indictment for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur significantly narrows his options.
The international community should prioritize avoiding more violence during the protests. Last week’s EU resolution and the Troika statement (issued in January by the UK, the US and Norway) were strong, but are not enough. The statements must be backed up by pressure on the regime to exercise restraint, release detainees and address the protestors´ concerns. Moreover, other countries can help improve the chance for a peaceful transition of power by stepping up their engagement with civil society and the opposition in Sudan. Sustainable change in Sudan can only come from within, and current efforts to accomplish this should be acknowledged and strengthened. Regional powers should be persuaded a peaceful transitional can only be achieved through cooperation with the opposition and moderate elements of the regime. In the end, this would serve their desire for regional stability far better than continuing to back the current regime.
See also PAX blog Sudan Calling