Has the Arab spring come to Khartoum? Since anti-regime protests began in Sudan on June 16, that question has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue, both Sudanese and outsider. The protesters have hopes that President Omar al Bashir will face the same fate as Tunisia’s ex-President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s ex-President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down last year after weeks of street demonstrations. (Bashir, naturally, dismisses the idea, portraying the protesters as marginal “agitators” with little popular support.) Some Western media, too, have called the protests a “nascent Arab spring,” fitting them into a framework that has by now become familiar to Western audiences. Other commentators reject this frame, placing the protests within Sudan’s own history of popular uprisings. Today’s protesters often invoke that history as well, suggesting that Bashir must step down—or be forced out—in the face of popular outrage, as happened with earlier military rulers in 1964 and 1985. Both local memories and regional examples, in other words, give protesters hope.
Is the current unrest is just another of Sudan’s homegrown revolutions, or the next chapter of the Arab spring? Either way, if the protests are to succeed in overthrowing Bashir, they will have to achieve what all those uprisings did: They will have to mobilize a broad segment of the population and scare the clique around Bashir badly enough that they force the President out. Given that the government in Khartoum seldom hesitates to use violence against protesters, another possible outcome is that the uprising will go the way of protests in Sudan last January and February, which faded out, well outside of the global media’s hearing. Even if the protesters do force Bashir out, the course of other Arab spring episodes, as well as past Sudanese uprisings, indicate that they will face a tough road in ensuring a substantive and durable political transformation.
Sudanese Uprisings, Past and Present
Even before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell from power last February, Sudan had already experienced anti-regime protests partly inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In the protests of 2011, as in this year’s demonstrations, university students were key organizers and participants. Activists such as those in the organization Girifna (“We’re Fed Up”) established a significant presence on websites like Facebook and Twitter, building online infrastructure that has expanded this year. Protests in 2011 were “small but spirited.” They seem to have motivated Bashir’s announcement on February 21, 2011, that he would step down in 2015, when his current term ends, a promise some Sudanese believe Bashir has no intention of fulfilling. The security forces’ repression of the protests soon blunted their momentum.
Then as now, economic frustrations helped drive the protests. Already by 2011, the relative prosperity Sudan enjoyed after it began exporting oil in 1999 had begun to falter. A devaluation of the Sudanese pound in 2010, combined with government cuts to subsidies on fuel and sugar, was stretching many Sudanese wallets thin. This year, the economic situation is even worse. Inflation stands at over 30 percent. Food costs continue to rise. The independence of South Sudan in July 2011 removed three quarters of Sudan’s oil from Khartoum’s control, and South Sudan has so far refused to agree to the “transit fees” Khartoum hoped to impose for moving South Sudanese oil through its pipeline and ports. Khartoum, facing a $2.4 billion budget deficit, recently announced austerity measures that include further cuts to fuel subsidies and further tax increases on basic goods. The austerity measures were one trigger for the current protests.
Repression against protesters has been no less fierce in 2012 than in 2011. Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained, gassed, beaten and, reportedly, tortured. But this year’s protests have proven more consistent and more durable. In both years, protests have occurred primarily in the same areas—Khartoum, and to a lesser extent its twin city Omdurman and the town of Al Obeid in North Kordofan State. But this year’s protests may already have a broader geographical reach. Last week, they spread to Kassala in eastern Sudan, an impoverished area with a history of rebellion. Protests have also occurred in the towns of Madani, Sennar, Gedarif, Port Sudan, and Hasahisa. Last Friday was one of the largest protests yet.
The international media has devoted more attention to the protests this year, a trend that may be scaring the regime: last Tuesday, Sudanese authorities deported a journalist from Bloomberg, and other journalists have been arrested. Human Rights Watch and other international organizations are closely tracking the protests. Amid such scrutiny, the combination of tactics the regime used last time—cracking down in the present while making promises about the future—may not be enough to stop the protests this time.
The protests, however, do not seem to have achieved critical mass. In 1964, student protests grew into a broad movement that included trade unions, workers, and professionals. Protests spread from Khartoum to other cities, and a general strike gripped the country. Thirty-four protesters died, and more than a hundred were injured, but repression failed to stop the movement. The country’s military ruler, General Ibrahim Abboud, resigned, and Sudan transitioned back to civilian democracy. In 1985, protests were largely led by unions and professionals, with strong support from the middle classes. Protesters in 1985 also had a stroke of luck when President Ja’far Nimeiri left the country, allowing his generals to oust him in absentia. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010–11 also succeeded partly because they were able to attract various segments of those societies; trade unions and lawyers, for example, were key participants in Tunisia’s protests. A movement comprised primarily of students and online activists, it seems, would have difficulty overthrowing Bashir.
If the protest movement does grow, protesters will have to define what long-term success means. The trajectories of Sudan’s past uprisings as well as those in Tunisia and Egypt present sobering cases. Sudan, after each uprising, returned to military dictatorship within five years. Military coups were partly motivated by soldiers’ lack of confidence in civilians’ ability to manage the conflict with the South, a problem that has changed form, though not disappeared, with South Sudan’s independence. Additionally, Sudanese civilian leaders have historically been prone to infighting, a trend that has increased their vulnerability to military takeovers.
With regard to the Arab spring, it is the examples of Tunisia and Egypt (popular protests leading to resignations), rather than Libya and Syria (civil wars), that have motivated protesters in Sudan. Yet while Tunisia and Egypt may offer Sudanese activists some hope, the case of Egypt in particular calls as much for caution as it does for optimism: After activists forced Mubarak out, it took another 16 months of protests and uncertainty for the ruling military elite to agree to transfer power to an elected civilian President, Dr. Muhammad Morsi. Morsi’s defeat of Mubarak’s lieutenant, Dr. Ahmad Shafik, may represent a triumph for the revolution, but Morsi’s power remains tenuous and partly subject to the whims of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Moreover, the political ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Morsi is a member) was not the outcome that a significant segment of Egypt’s revolutionaries wanted. The point is not that a Sudanese revolution would empower Islamists—indeed, Bashir’s regime is already ostensibly Islamist—but that the Egyptian revolution has traced, and indeed continues to trace, a winding and complex path.
In one ugly scenario for Sudan’s protesters, Bashir’s departure might leave one of his inner circle of hardliners at the helm, a cosmetic but perhaps ultimately meaningless change. Genuine political transformation seems possible for Sudan, and after 23 years of Bashir’s rule, many Sudanese seem ready for it. But a transformation would require dogged activism and careful vigilance.
Among the various possible outcomes in Sudan are many that should concern its neighbors, especially South Sudan. Successful repression of the protests would not solve Sudan’s problems: The economic meltdown seems set to continue, austerity will likely prove deeply unpopular, and discontent with Khartoum is simmering in Darfur, the southern border states, and the east. Sudan and South Sudan, despite their enmity, remain economically interlinked; recurring armed conflicts along the border, economic recession in both countries, and deadlock at the negotiating table raise fears of renewed war, or at least prolonged uncertainty and stalemate. South Sudan has little to gain, in other words, if Sudan remains politically tense and economically wounded. Scenarios where Bashir falls from power also carry risks for South Sudan, particularly if one of Bashir’s hardliners takes power and decides that the solution to the North’s woes is to take an even tougher stance toward the South. Other neighbors, including Egypt, have reason to worry if Sudan—which already counts for many observers as a “failed state”—is further destabilized.
Western powers have so far called on Sudanese authorities to stop detaining and using violence against protesters, but their influence over the situation appears limited. Beijing, with whom Khartoum has close ties, has issued no significant statement on the protests. Sudanese activist Amir Ahmad Nasr has urged the United States to encourage the United Nations to pay more attention to the situation, and says that China’s “long-term interests lie with the Sudanese people and not Bashir's government, which has helped squander China's billions of dollars of investments in Sudanese oil.” Nasr, however, also acknowledges, “At the end of the day, the Sudanese people cannot rely on [foreign] governments.”
Sudanese history and the Arab spring have inspired today’s activists, and no doubt many in Washington, New York, London, and Brussels are cheering them on. But the movement has much work ahead of it before it can be called a proper sequel to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, or to the Sudanese revolutions of the past.