Is Sudan on the brink of another civil war?

Despite a lack of meaningful organisation by the opposition, the Sudanese are still protesting against the government.

Recent protests in Sudan left at least 60 people dead [AP]

The Arab Spring has had serious implications on the Middle East and North Africa region. From the fragile transitional period in Tunisia, to the unrest in Libya, the deadly civil war in Syria, and finally the unforeseen deposing of President Morsi in Egypt. Sudan, amid the chaos which has gripped the country, is likely to face one of these scenarios. Nonetheless, the conditions underlying the current unrest in Sudan predate the so-called Arab Spring.

Last month, President Omar al-Bashir held a press conference to address the economic and political challenges in Sudan, in an attempt to defend his government’s policies regarding the new austerity measures package. Bashir seemed disorganised and desperate, in the way he presented and addressed his government’s plans and the consequences that they may produce. It looked like Bashir had improvised the whole speech, as was his habit in public speaking occasions.

Noticeably, three points may define Bashir’s press conference:

First, it successfully fired up the already angry Sudanese to protest against the government in a number of Sudanese cities, where the death toll was tragically high.

Second, it contained a great deal of misleading information regarding the government’s expenditures, saying its subsidies for essential commodities were the reason for the deficit.

Third, it blamed Sudan’s economic problems on external factors and not on the mismanagement of Sudan’s oil revenues before the secession of South Sudan, and the high cost of wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Nuba mountains.

Challenges remain for Bashir after Sudan unrest

Brutal crackdown

The protests in Sudan lasted for five days and would have lasted longer if the National Consensus Forces (NCF), Sudan’s opposition umbrella, had managed to better mobilise the people.

Taking advantage of the opposition’s incompetence, the government unleashed the police and other security forces and launched a ruthless security crackdown that resulted in the death of at least 60 people, though estimates reach the hundreds, and the arrest of more than 800 protesters and activists.

Further, the government shut-off the internet for a day and closed the offices of Sky News Arabia and Al-Arabiya – claiming that they were disseminating false information that threatened Sudan’s national security and were attempting to recreate the Arab Spring in Sudan. A number of local newspapers were forced to close by the National Intelligence and Security Services and some op-ed writers and columnists were banned.

Sudanese youth were enthusiastic this time and were hoping for change, a change not only in their living conditions which were affected directly by the end of fuel subsidies, but also a political one.

Those who protested and died for change dreamed of a country that respects its people, their dignity and above all acknowledges not only their right to freedom of speech but also their indispensable right not to be unjustly killed. Regrettably, the opposition has fallen behind – though they had complained many times that the Sudanese were not willing to protest and that when they were ready the opposition would be there to organise them. This, however, did not happen and the protesters who showed up were wandering and all alone, chanting for regime change.

Sudan will slide toward yet another civil war if the government continues its suppression of protesters.

Slippery slope

Sudan will slide towards yet another civil war if the government continues its suppression of protesters and continues to show its indifference to the political situation in the country. Bashir seems to obstinately follow in his predecessors’ footsteps, those who did not reform and stayed against the people’s will. Whether the protests will start again is irrelevant – since the underlying causes that triggered them in the first place remain and will continue to remain.

The failing economy, the government’s mismanagement of Sudan’s wealth along with the improper allocation of government expenditures on security and military are all reasons for the people’s resentment and impatience. Yet other reasons have accumulated over the years and regime change becomes an objective whether through peaceful or non-peaceful means.

Regime change in the offing?

There are clashes in almost all parts of Sudan, and the harassment of activists and politicians is ongoing. But most importantly, the death of many youths throughout the protests was shocking and legally and morally unacceptable. The loss of life was unprecedented even when the Sudanese protested against two brutal military regimes, in 1964 and 1985. For many, this regime is guilty of such gross violations that it goes beyond the scope of any judicial process – and they are unlikely to forgive the authorities after the demise of their loved ones.

The political situation remains complicated in Khartoum. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has failed not only to persuade the public regarding the austerity measures, but also to convince NCP’s own leaders and supporters. This was apparent when a number of reformists in the NCP – led by Dr Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a member of the party’s Leadership Bureau, and a former adviser to President Bashir – presented an open letter to the president. The letter outlined a map for a political solution and steps to be taken by the government. However, it is doubtful that the NCP will respond.

It is hard to predict what the Sudanese political scene will look like in the coming days, but there is a unanimous understanding that change is inevitable. Change comes through continuous struggle and many Sudanese look at every challenge as an opportunity to continue the fight for their freedom.

Abdelkhalig Shaib is a human rights activist, lawyer and visiting researcher at Harvard Law School.