Will Sudan Bounce Bashir?
October 18, 2013
On September 23, the Sudanese government announced the immediate removal of the country’s long-standing fuel subsidies. As fuel prices skyrocketed, thousands of Sudanese mobilized throughout the country for the subsequent two weeks, protesting the decision and calling for the resignation of President Omar al Bashir. The protesters were met with brutal force from state security forces, while the government shut down the Internet and newspapers in an effort to stifle information about the demonstrations and prevent coordination among the organizers. Though the protests have effectively ended, and President Bashir remains in office, the decision to cut these subsidies illustrates the Sudanese government’s growing financial distress as it continues to struggle with the loss of oil revenues following the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
Q1: What sparked the protests?
A1: On September 23, in an effort to narrow the country’s $2.4 billion budget deficit, Sudan’s government announced the immediate removal of fuel subsidies. Fuel and cooking oil prices were almost doubled overnight, causing associated sharp rises in the cost of food and consumer goods. These price hikes have serious implications for the economic security of the already poverty stricken population in Sudan. Protesters took to the streets in towns and cities across the country; some of the largest demonstrations were reported in Wad Medani in central Gezira state and in the poorer neighborhoods of Khartoum. While the protests were largely peaceful, some buildings were looted, gas stations set afire, and a building belonging to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) was burned down in Omdurman. The regime responded swiftly. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition were fired on demonstrators, and security forces made widespread arrests as the government shut down the Internet and closed newspapers. Casualty figures are impossible to verify, but Amnesty International estimates that 210 people were killed and approximately 800 arrested. Those detained included journalists, students, and political activists.
Q2: What precipitated the decision to cut fuel subsidies?
A2: Sudan lost 80 percent of its foreign currency earnings and more than 35 percent of government budget revenue following the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in July 2011. The loss of this vital revenue source, combined with decades of economic mismanagement by the ruling NCP, has tipped the economy into a full-blown crisis. The government’s foreign debt is projected to reach $45.6 billion this year—some 77 percent of the country’s 2012 GDP—mostly due to the accumulation of arrears. With an inflation rate of 40 percent, rising basic commodity prices, falling currency values, and expenditures on the military consuming a quarter of GDP, Sudan finds itself in an increasingly dire economic situation, with few foreign friends willing to provide financial assistance.
Eliminating fuel subsidies is a fairly standard prescription for governments seeking to reduce fiscal deficits, remove market distortions, and improve efficiency. But the Sudanese government’s move was done with little effort to prepare the public or mitigate the short-term hardships that abrupt removal would cause. President Bashir’s public explanation of the policy revealed a remarkable disconnect from the economic concerns of ordinary Sudanese. He claimed that the subsidies were only benefitting the wealthy and that, in any case, the people have never enjoyed such prosperity and were introduced to such luxury items as good housing, pizza, and hot dogs only after he came to power.
Q3: What implications do these protests have for President Bashir and his government?
A3: Implementing what it knew would be a highly unpopular decision highlights the scale of the economic crisis facing Sudan’s government. Some commentators were quick to pronounce the demonstrations that followed as a sign that the NCP, in power since 1989, would be the next Arab regime to fall. This may be wishful thinking. Protests are a long-standing feature of the Sudanese political landscape, and the government has a well-practiced playbook to turn to when they arise. Though demonstrations were widespread and protracted, the regime’s heavy-handed response successfully squelched their momentum, at least for the time being. By October 7, the number of demonstrators in Khartoum had dwindled to less than a hundred. The government also made important concessions. President Bashir has said he would reinstate the subsidy on cooking oil and give cash handouts to half a million families.
While these protests are unlikely to result in President Bashir being ousted from power, they nonetheless illustrate the mounting problems facing the Sudanese government and the resultant rise in grievances among the population. One element of the protests that differentiates them from previous episodes was the prominent role played by the working class and poor. Previous protests in 2012, prompted by the introduction of milder austerity measures, were primarily driven by middle-class students, public servants, and urban professionals.
Though the participation of a larger cross-section of Sudan’s population signifies growing discontent with the government, the absence of a viable and united political opposition is a significant impediment to change. Traditional opposition parties in Sudan, including the National Umma Party (NUP) and the Popular Congress Party (PCP), lack organization and a credible strategic vision that resonates with the population. They have struggled to direct the crowds on the street, and the protestors have largely ignored them. The Sudan Revolutionary Front, meanwhile, is a collection of armed groups whose political message has lagged behind its military operations to topple the government by force. The absence of an alternative political vision that can credibly expose the current regime’s weaknesses and effectively mobilize the population enables the NCP to maintain its hold on power. Many Sudanese hesitate to take action, not out of love for President Bashir, but due to anxiety that the collapse of the regime would spell bloodshed and instability. The NCP is quick to seize upon these fears, arguing that it is the only institution capable of preventing Sudan from lurching into state failure.
Another reason why these protests do not portend the near-term overthrow of President Bashir is the Sudanese army’s continued loyalty to the government. The hopes of the Sudanese protestors that the army would refuse to follow orders and side with the people went unfulfilled. As long as the government retains the control and loyalty of key elements of Sudan’s state security apparatus, opposition protest movements will struggle to gather the momentum necessary to bring widespread change.
Instead, the driving force for political change may yet come from within the NCP, which encapsulates an array of business, religious, and military constituencies. The president faces pressures from a broad spectrum of factions within the NCP, including some of the most hardline factions. Strong disagreements over the subsidy removal issue widened cracks that have long been forming. While these groups can be described as reformists, in many cases they are pushing for a return to a more hardline, rigid form of Islamist government of the sort that characterized the current regime in its earlier days. Some of the loudest demands for these reforms are coming from the Saihoon movement, a group of dissidents composed of Islamists and former members of the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces (PDF) who emerged in the aftermath of a suspected coup plot in November 2012. They have received support from a leading NCP insider, Ghazi Salah el-Din al-Attabani. Attabani has become an increasingly vocal critic of President Bashir and senior government figures since he was thwarted in his attempt to become leader of the NCP-aligned Islamic Movement last year. His criticism led to his removal as chair of the NCP parliamentary bloc in April. Another leading critic is President Bashir’s uncle, Al Tayeb Mustafa, who has used his newspaper Al-Intibaha to make shrill attacks on the government’s performance and rampant corruption.
President Bashir has proven adept at playing off these rival camps against each other, but the balancing act is becoming increasingly precarious. Proponents of political change and guardians of the status quo are busily making tactical calculations about whether their opposing agendas are best advanced by sticking with Bashir or cutting him adrift.
Q4: Will these protests bring any changes in U.S. policy?
A4: The U.S. and Sudan have complicated and contentious relations, and levels of trust are low on both sides. U.S. engagement is limited, due to a raft of sanctions on the NCP regime, the ongoing designation of Sudan as a
state sponsor of terror, and the International Criminal Court indictment of President Bashir, which precludes direct U.S. contact with Sudan’s leader. Despite this, some high-level dialogue continues. On September 30, one week into the protests, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Foreign Minister Ali Karti of Sudan to discuss the importance of peace between Sudan and South Sudan and the need to end the conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan. Surprisingly, the country’s ongoing protests were not discussed, according to a State Department spokeswoman. This was either an unfortunate omission or a tacit admission that the United States has marginal influence to bear upon the NCP regime. As Sudan continues to face a mounting economic crisis and potential challenges to the political status quo, it is important for the United States to consider potential scenarios and how to most effectively shape their outcome. The prospect of a full economic collapse in Sudan or an NCP implosion, and the uncertainties those would entail, should encourage the United States to reconsider its engagement on a broad scale—including potentially providing economic incentives for political reforms. For the time being, U.S. diplomats will continue to monitor events and discreetly push for positive change, but this is difficult to accomplish without an ambassador in Khartoum. Diplomatic engagement at this delicate time could be improved by shifting attention toward domestic issues in Sudan as well as the ongoing disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. While a political transition may not be imminent, the United States needs to be prepared for political change and do its best to anticipate and shape it in positive direction.
Mikenna Maroney is an intern with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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