At first glance, the protests in Sudan appear to be in response to the austerity measures that the government of Khartoum has announced last month. In fact, they were one of many other reasons for causing Sudanese to protest in different parts of Sudan. What the government simply did was the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Many Sudanese are protesting to topple the regime.
At the beginning, protests took place at the University of Khartoum. Students demanded that the measures be revisited, but also chanted for the removal of the regime. The protests continued and other universities in Khartoum began to join. All this was taking place while other active youth movements were organising rallies and protests at night in different neighbourhoods of Khartoum where violent confrontations between protesters and police occurred. Later, other cities joined and the demands were primarily that “people want to bring down the regime”.
Arguably, many factors have contributed to the resentment of Sudanese. One party has ruled Sudan for the last 23 years, the National Congress Party (NCP). In addition, there is an ongoing conflict in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and South Kordofan, which are unlikely to resolve under the auspices of the NCP – at least not in the near future.
But, most importantly, the split of Sudan into two countries, which political parties, civil society organisations, active youth movements and Sudanese at large perceive as an inevitable outcome of Khartoum’s policies and failures to manage Sudan’s multi-ethnicity and diversity. Undoubtedly, this failure would encourage more fragmentation of other parts of Sudan for the same very reasons that made the South opt for separation.
This is all occurring amid the so-called Arab Spring that massively swept the region and resulted in different scenarios of change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The common denominator in the Arab Spring is that it ousted dictatorships to bring justice and freedom on the one hand, and improve life conditions and provide equal opportunities for wealth and power sharing on the other.
To disperse these protests, Khartoum is using the same suppressive techniques that were used in other countries. Police utilisation of tear gas, rubber bullets and arbitrary detentions that eventually lead to police or the National Intelligence and Security Forces (NISS) giving fictitious charges to protesters. Simultaneously, Khartoum launched an organised campaign by the NISS against political leaders, activists, journalists, bloggers, including anyone who happened to be part of protests or commented on them in international media outlets. But instead of proving effective, tactics employed by security forces incited people to continue their struggle and helped turn some peaceful demonstrations to violent ones.
Khartoum has alleged that the austerity measures are needed to preserve its economy since the country lost about two-third of its oil revenues due to South Sudan’s secession. Khartoum, however, failed to justify neither the timing of these measures nor why they were not introduced soon after the secession of South Sudan when it became an independent state officially in July 2011. It has been 18 months since the separation of South, but for many observers the separation was foreseeable even before that time.
“It is… not surprising that the government relies on opposition’s lack of ability to mobilise citizens and its incompetence to present a viable alternative.”
These austerity measures indicate that either the government of Khartoum did not anticipate that the secession would occur and would have serious repercussions on Sudan’s economy – which seems like the least likely case – or that it did expect such an outcome and did nothing to prevent it by reducing government expenditures. Therefore, to ask Sudanese to be patient is to ask them to convince themselves that this is an act of god, as claimed by President Omar Al-Bashir, and not a manmade crisis that the human beings in power could have exerted some effort to resolve.
The question then becomes how far the protests will go and how long the regime can stand. For protests to continue, there must be a viable alternative in lieu of the current regime. This might seem like a serious issue for many Sudanese, and might make others reluctant to protest for fear of change and what it might bring. It is, therefore, not surprising that the government relies on the opposition’s inability to mobilise citizens and present a viable alternative. Additionally, there is the fear that the situation could disintegrate into chaos in the absence of a vision to manage an interim period if revolution in Sudan succeeded to oust Al-Bashir. Having said that, the political parties have signed in the last week a charter on “democratic alternative”, which addresses the issues above and might serve as safety valve for any change Sudanese would bring.
Protests in Sudan will continue, increase and succeed despite the regime’s suppression and cruelty. Tyrants always read from the same book; they do not learn from history until it is too late, and Al-Bashir is no exception. When people revolt against oppression, they bring their own alternative and establish their own government. Sudanese are now shaping their future and have to be admired for that. They are not a bunch of vandals as described by Al-Bashir, they are first class citizens who fearlessly chanted for freedom and justice.
Abdelkhalig Shaib is a human rights activist, lawyer and visiting researcher at Harvard Law School.