Dwaa Osman, CIRS Research Analyst, on Sudan and the Arab Spring

Dwaa Osman

The shooting of the student Ahmed al-Qureshi by police galvanized tens of thousands of citizens in Sudan to demonstrate, chant and demand freedom from the oppressive ruling powers. This all too familiar scenario in the wake of the current Arab uprisings was Sudan’s “Spring” during the October Revolution of 1964.

Fast forward to early 2011 amid the uprisings that shook the Arab world, protestors in Sudan took to the streets chanting “Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan together as one”. Fueled by similar socio-economic and political grievances, the protests in Sudan did not mirror those in neighboring countries in terms of numbers and continued presence on the streets. The momentum picked up in June 2012, where soon after the government’s announcement of severe austerity measures, students from the University of Khartoum mobilized to the streets and hundreds joined them to vocalize their disdain for the current regime. As the demonstrations spread to other cities across Sudan, some suggested that the protestors were inspired by the 1964 October Revolution that successfully ousted General Ibrahim Abboud’s military junta from power.

The present revolts of protestors on the streets of Sudan, however, resemble waning waves more so than the intensely crushing uprisings of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, or Sudan’s own revolutions of 1964 and 1985. The intensity of the grievances, coupled with the geographic and historical inspirations to go out on the streets, have not translated into the swift removal of Omar Al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). Although the revolutions of 1964 and 1985 successfully overthrew their regimes, they failed to have a long-standing positive effect on Sudan’s political process, socio-economic standing of its citizens and security status. When looking deeper at the current disfigured political makeup of Sudan, coupled with the legacy of Sudan’s previous revolutions, most politically discontented Sudanese citizens have been disengaged and reluctant to ride the surge of uprisings that shook the region. The inability of the Sudanese uprisings to gain momentum is due to the activists’ limited means in galvanizing masses and the prospective bleak alternative should the standing regime be overthrown.

As the Arab Spring continues to unfold around the region , with some struggling to overthrow their regimes, and others successfully toppling theirs, citizens, analysts, policy makers and the international community alike are still assessing the success of these mass demonstrations in achieving revolutionary socio-political change. Due to the looming uncertainty in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the failure of Sudan’s past revolutions in achieving radical change, politically discontented Sudanese are reluctant to go out on the streets and demand the fall of the regime. The fragile political and security makeup of Sudan coupled with the absence of an alternative that will address socio-political woes on a national level could potentially lead to further fragmentation of the country.

Most of the protestors who managed to get out on the streets and revolt against the current administration were youth activists from organizations such as Change Now and Girifna (“we are fed up”). Unlike in Egypt and other popular uprisings in the region, the Sudanese youth have not been able to rally other segments of society due to limited means of mass mobilization.

For one, the middle classes which comprised most of the protesters in Egypt and Libya are diminishing in Sudan, as most emigrate to other regions of the world due to the grim employment prospects at home. The shrinking middle class has reduced the ability of the activists to tap in to the segment of society that is most likely to engage in popular protest and demand radical change. During the 1964 October Revolution the large middle class comprised of teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and representatives of trade unions, called for a general civil strike and consequently numbered Abboud’s days in power.

Activists have also not been able to effectively capitalize on the information technology and social media tools utilized by most of the protestors around the region. Frequent power outages and low internet usage around the country have limited the ability of the activists to rally people in large numbers. Internet censorship of opposition sites and the designation of specialized task forces – the “Electronic Army” – by the government have disrupted communication between activists and disabled protesters from organizing meetings and rallies. Many have resorted to traditional tools such as graffiti to send political messages to remote neighborhoods within the capital and around Sudan. Although more visible, the impact of these traditional tools in sparking a protest movement is limited.

The crackdown by the government on the demonstrators has also discouraged many citizens from continued engagement in public dissent. Covert undercover operations, arrests and torture of journalists, doctors, lawyers, and youth groups have trampled the organizational capabilities of the activists who are spear-heading the protests. It is important to note that the curtailing of citizens’ rights of assembly has been fortified since 1964 with each successive regime tightening its grip on state institutions as well as the trade unions and student associations which led to the downfall of their predecessors. The amount of force and intimidating tactics utilized by the current regime are enough to dissuade the organizational foundation of the demonstrators. Through its repressive tactics, the NCP has communicated its intolerance for the opposition and instilled a culture of fear amongst its citizens. At the same time, the government has been careful not to create any “martyrs” during the recent uprisings.

The lack of a unified and viable counterweight to the current regime further clouds the murky alternative should popular uprisings overthrow the ruling party. The presence of traditional opposition parties is viewed by some as a viable base for challenging the current regime. The traditional opposition is well established, with the presence of two mainstream parties: the National Umma Party (NUP), and the Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP). These parties, along with the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), have joined forces under the Democratic Alternative Charter (DAC), in which they plan on forming a transition government after ousting the current regime. This transitional government would operate for three years until a new constitution is drafted and elections are held.

Activists themselves are disinclined to combine forces with the traditional opposition parties as they are not seen to be pushing hard for change. The mere fact that the DAC was formed between the three main opposition parties without the due involvement of the public is an indication to discontented Sudanese that their political voice will continue to be disregarded should the traditional opposition come to power. Lessons from the Arab Spring and Sudan’s own experience of 1964 and 1985 indicate that the best organized political forces or political parties harvest the fruits of the people’s revolution once the regime is toppled. The political parties that rose to power following the revolutions of 1964 and 1985 embraced narrow partisan agendas that served their own purposes. In a system where corruption is ingrained and patronage politics dictate regime survival, activists view the opposition as wanting a mere “face-lift” of the political landscape – with change of the regime rather than change of the system.

The opposition parties themselves have been reluctant to tap into the base of activists and demonstrators which have rallied against the regime. Senior politicians within opposition parties, such as Sadiq Al-Mahdi of the NUP have stated they have not mobilized protesters because they realize that the peaceful option is a negotiated transition between the NCP and the opposition groups of the DAC. Vaguely alluding to the generational rift between the traditional opposition and the youth activist movements, Al-Mahdi claimed that his party’s preferred route to change is based on experience and knowledge of the “rules of the game”. Due to the regime’s tight control over the judiciary and vast security apparatus, Al-Mahdi predicts that an Arab-Spring type revolution would result in bloodshed.

In countries where the military had a vested interest in the survival of the regime, such as in Libya and Syria, the uprisings unfolded in a violent and protracted manner. In the revolutions of 1964 and 1985, which demanded the fall of military dictators, the Sudanese army was supportive of the protesters to the extent that it played a decisive role in toppling the regime. Opposition groups, however, are skeptical that the same would occur now. The regime has embedded itself within all institutions and has created deep-rooted patronage bonds that may deem it unlikely that the army sides with the demonstrators. By filling the National Intelligence Security Service and upper ranks of the military with regime loyalists, the NCP intricately interwove the state’s security apparatus with its own agenda and survival.

Activists and skeptics claim that although the government continues to deeply invest in military and security agencies, its patronage networks are un-sustainable in the foreseeable future. The dwindling revenues of the government coupled with the heightened conflicts in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states have spread the army thin with little benefits to show for it. The political ramifications of Sudan’s weakened economic situation mean that the government may experience some defections and lose key loyalists as the material benefits of allying with the regime shrinks.

Adding further uncertainty to Sudan’s fragile security situation is the country’s disfigured political makeup. The current ruling government has led Sudan to the point of fragility and civil war by marginalizing those in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. It has also created a sense of dependence from those within Khartoum and other urban centers around Sudan as the people’s guardian. The divide and conquer tactics of the regime have diminished trust between the different tribes and ethnicities within Sudan to the extent that many civilians view the government as the only provider of security. Should the regime be overthrown via spontaneous uprisings, the concern remains that the fragile political landscape may lead to a violent fragmentation of Sudan that will be near impossible to reverse. Following the revolutions of 1964 and 1985, South Sudanese experienced increased marginalization by the government. The recent secession of South Sudan in 2011 offers a clear warning of the possibility of state disintegration should dominant oppositional actors be excluded from participating in the country’s political discourse. In order to build a national alternative and to dilute the threat of state disintegration should the regime fall, engagement between mainstream opposition and oppositional militia is necessary.

As politically discontented Sudanese watch the Arab uprisings unfold in the neighboring countries, they remain apprehensive as to whether these popular uprisings are the preferred route to achieving change. With a deteriorating economic situation and a weakened state in most of the countries that have successfully ousted authoritarian rulers, and increasing violence in the countries where the people are still fighting to topple regimes, Sudan’s socio-political landscape is at real threat of deterioration. The limited means of mass mobilization, and looming uncertainty surrounding Sudan’s security and political future should popular protests topple the regime, has disrupted the proliferation of mass protests amongst the grieving citizens.

Consequent to the secession of the south, Sudan’s dwindling oil revenues may loosen the ruling party’s grip on state institutions and render it a matter of time before the scale tips in favor of the protestors. The past revolutions of Sudan have proven that the Sudanese people have both the will and capacity to topple the most oppressive regimes. This is present within the collective memory of the Sudanese citizens as a source of inspiration and amongst the ruling elite as a potential threat. However, it is also the failure of those revolutions in realizing radical socio-political change that make the Sudanese people cognizant of the fact that a clearer national alternative needs to be built. 

Article by Dwaa Osman, Research Analyst at CIRS. November 2012