'Iron fist' Sudan regime survives protests but tests remain

AFP , Saturday 5 Oct 2013

With dozens of protesters dead and hundreds of dissidents in custody, Sudan's government has survived the worst urban unrest in its 24-year history

Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir (Photo: Reuters)

Analysts say last week's spontaneous demonstrations sparked by fuel price increases in Sudan point to an urgent need for reform by a regime grappling with wars, dissension within its own ranks, economic crisis and international isolation.

"With this iron fist, they will continue (in power) but for how long?" asked one senior member of the political opposition.

"We have a lot of problems."

Thousands of people poured into the streets after the government cut fuel subsidies on September 23, raising petrol, diesel and cooking gas prices by more than 60 percent.

President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes allegedly committed in Sudan's Darfur region, said the decision was necessary to avert economic "collapse".

For the protesters, many of them poor, things were already at bottom.

Sudanese have endured two years of rising prices, a sinking currency and an unemployment rate estimated to exceed 30 percent.

The country ranks near the bottom of international indexes of corruption, human development and press freedom.

Analysts say a majority of Sudanese government spending goes on security and defence.

Security forces are believed to have killed more than 200 protesters last week, many with gunshot wounds to the head and chest, Amnesty International said.

The government reported 34 people dead and said it had to intervene when crowds turned violent, attacking petrol garages and police stations.

"For now, I think they've bought themselves space, because they put this thing down very firmly. It's over," an African diplomat said.

Cutting subsidies was among steps designed to stabilise an economy which lost billions of dollars when South Sudan broke away in 2011, taking with it most of Sudan's oil production and export earnings.

But the regime's "harsh measures" will not be enough, said Khalid Tigani, chief editor of the weekly economic newspaper Elaff.

"The government faces, literally, bankruptcy due to the very difficult financial and economic crisis," he said. "The economic situation will keep deteriorating."

Since 1997, Sudan has been under US economic sanctions imposed for its alleged support for terrorist groups which limit access to external financing for its indebted economy.

As the popularity of the regime "approaches zero," it might not fall immediately "but the process of its dismantling has started," Tigani said.

Bashir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

Thirty-one prominent reformers in his National Congress Party (NCP) told him, in a letter they made public, that the deadly protest crackdown was a betrayal of the regime's Islamic foundations.

That memorandum will probably be a factor in pushing the government towards reform, said Safwat Fanous, a professor of political science at the University of Khartoum.

Such internal criticism, coming on top of the protests, undermined the government's legitimacy and means it will need to be more sensitive to public opinion, he said.

The government is not weaker after the protests but they "rang a bell," and the NCP must realise that the country's problems are too big for it to handle alone, said the opposition politician, who is seeking a government of national unity.

Tribal divisions have accentuated under the government of Bashir, who in April called for dialogue with "all political powers", including armed rebels.

For a decade, the military has been fighting an insurgency among ethnic minority groups in Darfur. Now it has also lost its grip on its former Arab militia allies in the western region, and violence has intensified this year.

The Darfur rebels belong to an alliance with insurgents in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states on the border with South Sudan who have been fighting for two years.

The rebel alliance this year widened its offensive to topple the government.

Bashir will probably now push the political dialogue, the African diplomat said, because top leaders are smart enough to realise they must do some "fiddling at the edges", minimal reforms to maintain their credibility and provide a "semblance of legitimacy" for elections set for 2015.

He and other observers agree that protests have diminished markedly since the initial rage last week because they lack organised leadership.

The political opposition watched last week's events from the sidelines.

Its ageing leaders fail to generate much public enthusiasm, leading many Sudanese to see little alternative to the current government.

"They are calling for people to continue protesting but... who is listening to them?" Fanous said of the opposition.

"A revolution requires sacrifices. Are they willing to sacrifice? Are they willing to lead the protests and demonstrations on the street and face the security police?"

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