Is this the Sudanese summer?
by Omar Zaki
Thu 12th Jul 2012
There have now been more than two weeks of protests across Sudan in the capital Khartoum, the biggest city Omdurman, Port Sudan, Madani, El Obeid, Kosti, Kassala, and other major towns. The protests began following the government’s austerity measures implemented to close its budget deficit of $2.4 billion (USD). Following the independence of South Sudan on 9th of July, 2011, the Republic of the Sudan’s economy began to heavily decline. In May according to the IMF, growth slowed to 2.7%, inflation of food prices increased by 30%. Sudan lost 75% of its oil revenue meaning a 36% budget deficit. On the 27th of January 2012, South Sudan stopped its oil production meaning that the Republic of the Sudan was not gaining funds from oil transit fees. In addition South Sudan’s unexpected and heavily condemned 10 day occupation of Heglig in April, meant a temporal end to 50% of the Republic of the Sudan’s 110,000 barrel a day output of oil and billions of dollars of damage to its oil refinery there.
The Ministry of Finance should have been preparing a plan of action to save the economy and assist growth before South Sudan separated. But as a result of the government's heavy dependence on oil following the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War the economy began to decline fast leading to an increase in resentment among the people.
The protests which occurred on the 22nd of January 2011, at the height of the Arab spring, were organised by University students in Khartoum, and a few organised groups such as ‘Girfna’ (We are fed up) and Sudan Change Now. However these current protests, show a more widespread dissatisfaction showing that more people are becoming tired of the government.
The government feels that implementing austerity measures is a logical and necessary strategy to deal with its deficit, though the cuts will heavily impact the poor majority of the population. The government has even made harsh cuts to the dominant National Congress Party representation. As part of the measures, the ruling NCP party relinquished 30% of its share in the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government. The NCP bloc dominating the parliament voted through a bill cutting fuel & food subsides which the state can no longer afford due to its loss of oil. In turn, parliament requested the government make reforms to mitigate the effects. This included reducing the number of cabinet ministers from 31 to 25, curbing the privileges of ministers, government officials, public spending and construction of government buildings and privatisation of public companies. The government said it would give more benefits to poor households and offered specific grants to poor workers and retired employees.
The removal of the fuel & food subsidies is the key trigger factor to these protests and Professor of Economics from the University of Khartoum, Issam Bob, sums it up by pointing out that ‘implementing those measures without the consent of the people and in such a forceful manner can only be described as political suicide‘. The government faced a dilemma. It could either avoid austerity measures and become bankrupt and more in debt, or implement the austerity measures but become unpopular and risk being toppled. One could ask why the government directs 70% of its budget to the military yet only 5% to education. In any dictatorship, the ruling party naturally gives a large protortion of the budget to the military and intelligence services. In Sudan there are three ongoing rebellions, so the government feels that its military expenditure is justified in order to crush these rebellions and maintain peace and control.
At the development of the protests there was confusion among people and the media as to the nature of these protests. Were they protesting against the austerity measures or did they want to overthrow the government? The truth is a bit of both though the main aim that has emerged is to peacefully overthrow the government. However, this opportunity is being seized upon by opposition parties and groups that tried to ignite protests during peak of the Arab Spring. Overall media coverage of the protests has been very limited. The main news agencies that have been covering the events are Al-Jazeera, Al Arabiya & BBC Arabic. But even Al-Jazeera, which became the beacon of reporting during the Arab Spring, has shown little coverage.
The reason for the lack of coverage is that, Sudan, like many other developing countries is not political, economically, diplomatically & culturally significant enough in the eyes of news agencies. Sudan is not seen as politically important in the region as compared to Egypt or Syria. This leads to another debate about the role of Sudan in the Middle East? Should it be considered an Arab nation or an African nation? This however would require another discussion due to Sudan’s complex history and large spectrum of ethnic diversity. Another reason perhaps is that Sudan has been assigned tags mostly that are negative and generalising; Darfur, genocide, ethnic cleansing, civil war, South Sudanese independence, Omar Al-Bashir's ICC arrest warrant, Sharia law, ‘the Muslim North killing Christians in the South’. It is now difficult for the media to backtrack and fit Sudan into the Arab Spring scope, after demonising the Sudanese people as if they were supportive of the acts of their brutal government.
On the 23rd of June SPLM-N (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement – North section) rebel leader Malik Agar said they would end all fighting once the government collapsed, stating
This is quite significant as in 1985 when Jaafar Numeri’s regime collapsed in Sudan’s second uprising, while the second Sudanese Civil war was still going on, the SPLM rebel group did not cease its military activity and the war continued during the tenure of democratically elected Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi. Agar's statement gives greater assurance because it indicates that the current fighting might end, thus avoiding the risk of the states of South Kordufan & Blue Nile separating.
‘willingness to proclaim a strategic ceasefire on all the military fronts after the fall of the regime to create a conducive environment for peaceful transition of power.’
On June 28th, the latest rebel group to give a similar statement was the Sudanese Liberation Movement. Its spokesperson Nimir Abdel Rahman stated they support the protestors against the regime and they would not attack the capital during the protests to create chaos. This gives further reassurance that Sudanese rebels group would not manipulate the protests to launch further attacks as was done by separatist groups in Yemen during their revolts. One of the primary aims of these rebels groups was to overthrow the regime by force, but if the government collapsed due to the peaceful protests it could finally close the circle of violence in Sudan.
Government & Global Response To Protests
The main figures of the Sudanese government controlled by the National Congress Party have tried to ignore the protests and create the view they are neither widespread nor increasing. On the 24th of June, Omar Al-Bashir was giving a speech to a women’s association in which he briefly mentioned the economic situation saying the ‘entire world is facing economic crisis, we are a part of that world’. He stated in another speech the next day, that these protestors were a strange and small minority. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yr3FIEFWiZk&feature=relmfu>Mujaheddin.
Further downplaying the protests, first Vice President Ali Osman Taha described the protestors as
and Presidential advisor Mustafa Osman Ismail described them as
. On the 30th of June, as if nothing were amiss in the country, Omar Al-Bashir opened a new mall in central Khartoum. After his visit to Algeria, Presidential Advisor Dr. Ali Nafie said on the 1st of July that the protests were instigated by
’Zionist institutions inside the United States and elsewhere... are exploiting the latest economic decisions to destabilise the security and political situation’
The government has now applied all its oppressive weaponry of control. The first 10 days of protests saw large deployments of riot police across Khartoum and around the University of Khartoum arresting protestors. Chief of Police, General Hashem Othman Al-Hussein, ordered his forces to end protests ‘firmly and immediately’. There was fear the government would shut down the internet but surprisingly they haven’t so far. The Sudanese National Telecommunications Company blocked the website of the Hurriyat Sudan. Police began detaining journalists and deported Egyptian journalist Salma El-Wardany back to Egypt. On the 30th of June, the AFP office in Khartoum was raided by police and photos were confiscated. The National Intelligence Security Service (NISS) have detained dozens of activists and bloggers in their homes and at protests. Some have been imprisoned, detained in the government's infamous ‘Ghost houses’. Even repressive measures, such as lashings, have been reported http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z3roHeIIuc&feature=player_embedded>being lashed in Al Aelfon for protesting.
Just like with protests in countries impacted by the Arab Spring e.g. Egypt, Yemen & Syria, Friday prayers have become the main catalysts for protest. Friday 22nd of June was called ‘Sandstorm Friday’. Friday 29th of June was named ‘Elbow-Licking’ Friday by anti-government groups, using a jibe of President Omar Al-Bashir against him. Thousands protested from mosques and police responded with tear gas and live ammunition outside of Wad Nabawi mosque. The following day saw demonstrations outside Sudanese embassies in 14 cities including London, Cairo, Washington DC, Dublin, Dallas, Toronto, and New Delhi. So far, one man, Amir Bayoumi of Omdurman, has died from the effects of teargas and up to 2000 people have been detained. Friday the 6th of July was called the ‘Friday of Aliens and Bubbles’.
John Baird, Canadian foreign minister, stated: "We condemn the arrests of bloggers, journalists and political activists that have taken place over the last week and call for their immediate release," Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the government to avoid "heavy-handed suppression" of protests and to release those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The US State Department and UK Foreign Office also condemned the aggressive response of police and their use of tear gas against protestors.
Future of the protests
Sudan is a unique country and differs from other Arab states impacted by the Arab Spring. For one, Sudan is much more diverse in ethnicities, and the majority of the population is African. But the main unique aspects are its history. Sudan was born as a democratic state in 1956, unlike other Arab states. It has experienced three sets of democratic rule and three series of military dictatorships, two of them were overthrown, Ibrahim Abboud in 1964 and Jaafar Numeri in 1985. Therefore this is nothing new for Sudan, while for Tunisia and Egypt it was.
Thirdly, Sudan experienced a long civil war and continuous military conflicts which have massively affected the thoughts of the people. People were hopeful war would end with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which the Bashir government helped to construct. The people were tired of the 21 year civil war and followed by the 10 year Darfur conflict. Now the conflict in South Kordufan & Blue Nile State has emerged. There are those who believe peace is the main priority over regime change but most are realising the main obstacle to peace, prosperity, success improvement of rights has been Omar Bashir and the National Congress Party. Lastly, because of Sudan's past democratic periods, there is an established opposition groups, such as the Sudanese Communist Party, the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which have been active even during the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir. These could easily form an opposition which could lead negotiations for power transfer. They have already taken the first step signing a ‘transitional document’ at the Umma Party headquarters last Wednesday with goals of more protests, union strikes and walkouts to achieve a peaceful end to the regime. However, these opposition parties are old and unfamiliar with the Sudanese youth of today.
The main ways for the Sudanese revolts to succeed is a consistent and continued series of protests across the state to pressure the government, with international pressure from some of Sudan main allies and neighbours, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and the Gulf states of Qatar and the UAE. Sanctions won’t work as Sudan is already under them. With these two aims firmly in place, the present government can pass into history, as can 23 years of oppression, war, extremism, embarrassment, rape, murder, racism and pain.