How Peaceful Protests in Sudan, Violently Suppressed, Could Yield Political Change

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir addresses parliament in Khartoum on April 1, 2019 in his first such speech since he imposed a state of emergency across the country in February 22. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Protests in Sudan calling for the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir are now in their fifth month. After three decades of rule, there is no indication that Bashir is willing to give up power anytime soon, nor that protesters will back down on their demands. There are a few scenarios that could now transpire that fundamentally depend on the strength and continuity of the protests, the probability of intervention by the Sudan Armed Forces, and the role of the international community—especially countries whose governments are providing support, no matter how limited, to the Sudanese government.

The protests have become a social movement in which all segments of Sudanese society are taking part, sometimes expressing their call for a change of government even when they are not in the streets demonstrating. For instance, in wedding ceremonies and parties, people supportive of the protests often chant their most common and famous slogan: “you just fall.” The slogan is indicative of the fact that protesters will not accept anything short of Bashir’s resignation and the collapse of his government.

It also reflects the fact that protesters will not engage in dialogue with this government. After thirty years, the protesters are convinced that there is nothing the current government can do to address the continuous economic and political deterioration, and rightly so. The national dialogue which was initiated in January 2014 and concluded in October 2016 resulted in no substantial changes or improvements in the country.

Given that the protests have been going on for the last five months, the question is not whether they will continue, but how large and organized they will become. Larger and better-organized protests will probably lead to the best scenario, where security forces would be unable to control them and the government would find itself with no option but to step aside. A transitional civilian government would then be formed by and from the political and professional organizations of the opposition. Barring this, there are two other scenarios where Bashir and his government might be forced to step aside.

One is that the protests paralyze the government and public life by being buttressed with well-organized, widespread, and continued strikes that stop institutions from operating. In the absence of such strikes, paralyzing the government alone might not be enough.

If only the government is paralyzed, states in the region that support the Sudanese government, and others in the international community, could put pressure on Bashir and the strongmen around him to step down. Should Bashir not be pressured, it is unlikely that the uprising would become successful under this scenario.

There are also a number of factors impacting whether other states will step in. Neighboring African states, the United States, and European countries are concerned about the stability of the region and the security vacuum and chaos that might occur if the Sudanese government collapses, especially since Sudanese opposition organizations are not well-organized and lack coherence. European states are concerned, probably more than anything else, about the flow of migrants through Sudan to Libya and then Europe. The Sudanese government has been collaborating, along other countries, with the EU to help reduce or end the flow of migrants.

Gulf countries that provide support to Bashir, namely, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, might only pressure him to resign or withdraw their support from him if it is unmistakable that he can no longer govern. Qatar has consistently been supportive of the regime in Sudan since its rise to power in 1989. As for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bashir has been sending troops, mainly from its Rapid Response Forces, to fight alongside Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen. The protesters represented by the Sudanese Professional Association and the opposition need to engage in discussions with these countries to address their concerns and fears. It will take a lot of effort to persuade these countries to change their positions.

The second scenario is the intervention of the Sudan Armed Forces to remove Bashir and appoint a transitional government of army officers or civilians that can move the country towards democracy. Until the declaration of the state of emergency by President Bashir in February, protesters were hoping that this scenario would come about.

In pinning their hopes on the army, they were probably inspired by Sudan’s history. In April 1985, an uprising against President Ja’far al-Nimeiri’s rule was supported by the army under the leadership of then-defense minister, Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, who took over the government, organized elections, and handed over power to a democratically elected government. In an era where many countries in Africa were led by military leaders, the action of the Sudanese military was an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power from a military leader to a civilian government—something in which all Sudanese should truly take pride.

But the Sudanese army then was in some respects a professional institution, and is today quite different and corrupted. Over the last three decades of Islamist rule in Sudan, the army was extremely politicized through the so-called “empowerment” policy, which Islamists employed to eliminate individuals who were potential threats to Bashir’s new government. Such individuals were replaced with others from the National Islamic Front that orchestrated and supported Bashir’s military coup in 1989, or with people who did not pose any threat to Bashir’s rule. As a result, today, the leadership of the army is pro-Bashir and unless there is an unlikely rift within the government, the chances of the military taking an action in support of the protesters are very slim. This was most recently demonstrated by a declaration made in January by the army chief of staff announcing full support for Bashir’s government.

For his part, Bashir has taken steps to shield himself from any attempts by the military to oust him. He dissolved the national and state governments in February and appointed loyal military officers as governors. In fact, this move achieved two objectives: on the one hand, it sent a message to the protesters that the army is with the government and, on the other, it contained the army.

Although the army moving against Bashir is unlikely, there was speculation that the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) would, since many protesters and their chants are against Bashir personally. The party could have, inter alia, been motivated by the fact that Bashir is indicted and wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in Darfur, which makes him a heavy burden on the party. The indictment has made it harder, if not impossible, for the government to fully normalize relations with many countries as their senior officials avoid any direct contact with Bashir even when they visit Sudan.

There were expectations among some in the party that Bashir was going to resign as chairperson of the NCP during his announcement of the state of emergency, especially since the director of the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Salah Gosh, made statements before the declaration that Bashir was going to leave the chairmanship of the party. He did not. Instead, he delegated his powers to Ahmed Harun, one of his loyalists, who is also wanted by the ICC. By doing so, he has ensured that the party is under his control since Harun has every interest in Bashir’s continuation in power. All this means that the likelihood of the NCP siding with protesters is very low, and well-nigh impossible. Even if it were to become a reality, the protesters would not be satisfied, because they are not only against Bashir, but also against the NCP as an organization.

This leaves protesters no option but to continue their uprising while appreciating that the change they are desiring and struggling for will probably not be as easy and fast as some of them predict or hope. The route to change will, unfortunately, be long and might take years until the regime falls. The international community would at some point have no option but to support the will of the people as happened in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak had the backing of the international community until the people revolted.

In the event that Bashir’s resignation becomes a possibility as a result of widespread and uncontrollable protests with or without international pressure, a central issue will be his ICC indictment. States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar might offer him refuge, as Bashir will not leave unless he receives assurances from someone that he will not be arrested.

Sudan’s protests, if nothing, have created a number of possibilities for change that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. They are all dependent upon the intensity, organization, and continuity of the protests, which may, if supported by robust, widespread, and well-coordinated strikes, lead to the resignation of Bashir and his government. The best and ideal scenario, ultimately, is one in which the army plays no role in bringing about political change. But irrespective of predictions and possibilities, the surprises that the sustained protests have demonstrated thus far might bring about surprise outcomes.

Nasredeen Abdulbari is a doctoral researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was a lecturer in the International and Comparative Law Department, University of Khartoum, as well as a Stoffel Scholar and a Satter Fellow at Harvard Law School.