Springtime in Sudan

Omar al-Bashir's many opponents are organizing to end his 22-year rule. But can the Arab Spring reach Khartoum?


The first civilian uprising against a military dictator in the Arab world occurred 47 years ago in Sudan. Beginning on Oct. 21, 1964, tens of thousands of doctors, lawyers, students, and workers marched for days in the streets of Khartoum, braving police batons and bullets, until Gen. Ibrahim Abboud agreed to turn over power to civilian rule.

The anniversary of the 1964 "October Revolution," normally a cause for national celebration in Sudan, received no official attention last month. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a military leader in power for 22 years who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, banned all attempts to celebrate the occasion — and for good reason.

Uprisings in the Arab world have so far toppled three long-ruling dictators in North Africa, two of them also army leaders, and have emboldened Bashir’s many opponents. As I witnessed during a trip to Sudan last month, they are now gearing up to push for an end  to his regime — whether  through negotiations, as happened in the case of General Abboud, or by arms, as proved necessary to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi in neighboring Libya.

Sudan seems a prime candidate to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen following Bashir’s risky gamble last July to allow the southern quarter of his country to secede peacefully, taking with it 75 percent of the country’s  oil wealth. Northern Sudanese are still in a state of shock, blaming Bashir for misjudging the South’s intentions and making no preparations for the ensuing economic crisis. Somewhat miraculously, Bashir still appears very much in control after crushing a spate of student protests early this year. However, with a score of opposition parties, half a dozen youth movements, and three armed rebel groups mobilizing for his overthrow, that could change quickly.

If and when the storm breaks here, there is good reason to fear that Sudan will witness an extremely violent power struggle that could degenerate into civil war and possibly the disintegration of north Sudan. Sudanese and foreign analysts drew comparisons to the bloody, prolonged uprisings in Libya and Syria and the territorial fragmentation of Somalia. There will be no Tahrir Square moment.

These fears have led the Obama administration to emphasize the dreamy goal of "the emergence of two viable states at peace with one another," in the words of its special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman.  At the same time, past American supporters of the Christian-led rebels in the south, such as the Washington-based ENOUGH Project, are pressing for regime change — peacefully or otherwise.

The main U.S. concern is that renewed warfare between the north and south could produce two failed states, sending ripples of instability through their African and Arab neighbors. The United States is particularly concerned about Ethiopia, a close U.S. ally that is presently making facilities available that allow U.S. drones to do battle with Islamic extremists in Somalia.

Both the Obama administration and regime-change advocates agree that the Sudanese army continues to engage in serious human rights abuses in new war zones, such as the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states of north Sudan, where guerrillas loyal to South Sudan’s victorious People’s Liberation Army have refused to lay down their arms. They are united in demanding that the Bashir regime lift its ban on the delivery of humanitarian aid to war refugees.

Added to these border feuds is the unresolved eight-year-old uprising to the west in Darfur, where the brutal behavior of the Sudanese army led the ICC to indict Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide in the wake of  at least 300,000 deaths from disease and violence. Bashir has managed to make peace with only one of four Dafur rebel factions. Another, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is gearing up for more war, reportedly fortified by more sophisticated weapons pillaged from arms depots in Libya. On Nov. 12, JEM joined the guerrillas fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front, which has the declared mission of marching on Khartoum to overthrow Bashir.

Since South Sudan’s secession in July, Bashir has tried to protect himself from internal and external enemies by enticing various opposition parties to form what he calls a "broad-based government" prior to writing a new constitution, which is likely to further emphasize the Islamic and Arab character of his regime. This has provoked fears among the approximately 500,000 to one million African and Christian remnants in the north that the regime will discriminate against them even more than it does today.  So far, however, there have been no takers to Bashir’s offer, leaving him dependent on the army and Islamists who brought him to power in 1989.

Sudan’s opposition has, in fact, been coalescing — but not around Bashir. A score of opposition parties have formed the National Consensus Forces led by Farooq Abu Issa, a former foreign minister and longtime head of the Cairo-based Arab Bar Association. "We’re calling for an intifada [uprising]," he told me, noting Sudan already had had two successful revolts and that he himself had played a prominent role in the 1964 October Revolution.

Another historic opposition figure, Sadiq el-Mahdi, head of the Umma Party and leader of the negotiations arranging for General Abboud’s departure, has been conducting his own on-again, off-again talks with Bashir. Mahdi said he is offering Bashir a "soft landing" — meaning a negotiated transfer to civilian rule. His plan includes a "kind of amnesty" for Bashir, under which a new civilian government would press the ICC to allow him to stand trial on the same genocide charges, he told me — but before a Sudanese court. "He can only hope for a political deal to save himself," he said.

So far, Bashir has shown no interest, gambling that he can continue to keep his longtime enemies divided and the army united behind him. But if simmering wars and the traditional opposition don’t bring him down, economic struggles and an energized youth movement just may.

In Khartoum, I found Bashir’s regime struggling to staunch a rising tide of economic and political discontent.  Soaring food prices, sporadic cuts in water and electricity, and cutbacks in government services have already sparked numerous neighborhood protests. Clashes between pro- and anti-government students have taken place on several university campuses in Khartoum and the eastern town of Kassala.

Nagi Musa Hasabalrsoul, 24, a founder of the two-year-old youth movement Girifna, or "Fed Up," was in high spirits, rattling off a list of recent incidents that gave him hope for a spontaneous combustion that could sweep Bashir into history’s dustbin. His Internet-based group, which is linked to 30 other local organizations around the country, is printing leaflets in orange, in memory of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. He said he had studied the peaceful protest tactics used there as well as in Serbia, where the pro- democracy youth movement Otpor toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

So far, Bashir’s ubiquitous security forces have kept neighborhood protests from spreading and contained the activities of the half dozen pro-democracy youth groups like Girifna. Still, the same underlying conditions prevail as those festering before the last civilian uprising in 1985 overthrew another military dictator — unresolved wars, spiraling inflation and a financial crisis.

Economically, north Sudan is in dire straits. Due to the south’s secession, government oil export revenues have dropped from $6.2 billion in 2010 to $1.5 billion in 2011, creating at least a $2 billion hole in this year’s budget and a projected $4 billion deficit next year. South Sudan now gets the lion share of oil production — 350,000 barrels a day compared to 150,000 barrels for the north — and the two sides have been unable to agree on how much South Sudan should pay for exporting its oil through the pipeline running through the north to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

An international pariah, Bashir has no hope of obtaining loans from Western banks and institutions. Any illusions he harbored of receiving financial relief from the rich Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf were dashed after he warmly welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their bitter enemy, on a state visit here in September.

The common assumption is that all these economic and political woes, combined with Bashir’s international isolation, will eventually combine to blow the lid off his besieged military regime. Bashir has so far remained one step ahead of his impressive array of enemies and their myriad plots to overthrow him. But as his fellow Arab autocrats have discovered this year, that can change in the blink of an eye.

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