Sudan's Arab Spring? Public anger rises against Bashir, again

Bassem Aly , Thursday 26 Sep 2013

Could the current wave of protests against Omar Al-Bashir regime lead to an Arab Spring uprising in Sudan?

Protesters burn tires and close the highway to northern cities amid a wave of unrest over the lifting of fuel subsidies by the Sudanese government, in Kadro, 15 miles (24.14 kilometers) north of downtown Khartoum, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. (AP Photo)

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir entered a new societal confrontation this week after the government suspended subsidies on petroleum products, as if problems with neighbouring Juba and Darfur and the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against Al-Bashir were not enough to shake the regime’s stability.

Tyres were burned, and anti-government slogans were chanted as hundreds of demonstrators took the streets of Sudan to express rejection to a decision influencing their day-to-day lives.

Those scenes cannot be regarded as unique for the people of Sudan, for a wave of wide-range demonstrations against price hikes and austerity measures adopted by government hit Khartoum in 2012.

The government succeeded in containing, through security channels, and arresting hundreds of protesters. Student-led protests also emerged in 1994 against the same cause.

This time, analysts left room for anger to rise, or probably for the regime to collapse, against Al-Bashir who seized power in 1989 after staging a military coup.

Don’t play on economy strings

The consequences of the government move appeared unaffordable, more than the decision itself. Oil prices reached 20.8 Sudanese pounds ($4.71) a gallon from 12.5 ($2.83), while diesel became worth 13.9 pounds ($3.15) instead of 8.5 pounds ($1.93).

On Tuesday, a day after the decision, furious protesters stormed the ruling National Congress Party headquarters in the city of Omdurman. "I saw the building's three floors on fire as people fled," a witness told AFP, saying many were carrying looted furniture. However, there were no reports of human casualties.

Hundreds of protesters took the streets of cities of Omdurman, Khartoum, Nyala, and Wad Madani.

Protesters shouted "Freedom, Freedom!" and "The people want the fall of the regime!" Meanwhile, police forces fired teargas and buckshot and beat them with clubs to disperse the protests, according to eyewitnesses.

Moez Ali, a Sudanese political commentator and blogger, spoke to Ahram Online on the economic prospective of the ongoing crisis. "As it has done for so many years, the government has mismanaged state funds and that’s why it's facing a deficit."

Ali believed that the government is dealing with a huge budget deficit and hence feels that lifting fuel subsidies will "plug the hole in the budget." He stated that the last government budget was mostly allocated to defence and security purposes (80 percent), while education and health care received 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

The military budget is used to fund the government's attempts to squash the rebellions in the Blue Nile State, South Kordofan State and Darfur, and is also used to feed the governments notorious National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) that ensures its grip on power, Ali argued.

"Unsurprisingly, the government never planned for a Sudan without oil and made desperate last minute desperate attempts at a gold industry in the northern part of the country, which is now starting to cause tribal conflicts. It’s all about running out of options," the Sudanese blogger concluded.

Sudan lost billions of dollars in oil revenues following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, taking with it about 75 percent of production’s income.

‘World should not see it’

Internet access was cut off across Sudan on Wednesday, causing a total blackout.

Renesys Corp., the company managing internet services, did not confirm whether it was regime-planned and "some very catastrophic technological failure."

There are reports of what seemed like an official bid to harden media coverage, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said, calling for the restoration of Sudan’s connection.

Hani Raslan, an analyst for the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, pointed out that the regime has a long history of censorship over newspapers and media outlets as part of its "security approach" to all political affairs.

"The regime, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, lost its political legitimacy after failing in everything it did; Al-Bashir keeps talking all the time about foreign conspiracies and the final outcome is nothing but wars, poverty and famines all over the country," Raslan asserted.

Al-Bashir is facing hard times in front of the international community as he is wanted by the ICC on crimes against humanity committed in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where roughly 300,00 people have died since 2003 in clashes between regime-supported tribes and rebels.

The government decided on Wednesday to shut down schools in Khartoum until the end of September. Deputy Head of the Sudanese Parliament Samiya Ahmed Mohamed called the opposition to understand the measures "with objectivity," semi-official Sudan Media Center (SMC) reported.

He received an invitation to attend the New York-based- UN General Assembly, but the US State Department said that Al-Bashir should present himself to the ICC before going to the UN headquarters, a position rejected by Sudan.

Arab Spring inspires fury?

Until now, at least 29 people have been confirmed dead in three days of rioting, according to medical officials. Other estimates, yet to be confirmed, claim that more than 20 have lost their lives.

Protesters in Gezira state, south of the capital, called for the removal of Al-Bashir, who has stayed in office for more than twenty years. Moreover, protesters blocked roads in several places such as Kadro district, 25 kilometres away from Khartoum.

In a statement published in Arabic, the US embassy in Khartoum urged all sides to avoid further violence and "respect civil liberties and the right to peaceful assembly." "In these difficult moments, it is necessary for all sides to show restraint and prudence," the embassy asserted.

Raslan expected the difficulty of a regime change for at the meantime because of its "security militias" present inside the state security apparatus, along with division among members of the opposition that hardens larger mobilisation.

"This time it might be different. The scale of protests is much larger and the price increases are much more than last time. I think it will materialise into something significant. I also think the protests started to topple the regime, they were just triggered by the lifting of fuel subsidies," Ali answered differently.    

Short link: