Omar al-Bashir’s long rule in Sudan has been defined by a criminal and abject failure to govern. But he has also shown unmistakable staying power as the leader of a vast, hard-to-manage country. That is now being tested to its limits as weeks of anti-government demonstrations show no sign of dissipating, even in the face of killings and mass arrests carried out by his security forces.ince seizing power in 1989, Sudan’s president has somehow navigated his way through a permanent state of national crisis, albeit a crisis largely created and sustained by his own actions. Bashir survived a crippling civil war that resulted in the loss of one-third of Sudan’s territory and three-quarters of its oil revenue when South Sudan achieved independence in 2011. He has remained immovable in the face of an indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his conduct of the conflict in Darfur. He snuffed out coup plotters in 2012 and violently put down street protests in 2013. And he turned more than two decades of international isolation and U.S. economic sanctions to his political advantage, deflecting blame for his own failures onto his foreign enemies.
For nearly three decades, Bashir has used every trick in the despot’s handbook to maintain his grip on power. He has mastered the strategy of divide and rule, aided by political adversaries who spend as much time bickering with each other as opposing the government. He has deployed a vast patronage network to buy off current and potential opponents, funded by natural resource revenues and corrupt contracts through government-controlled companies. And he has been quick to use lethal, indiscriminate force to pursue armed groups in Sudan’s neglected periphery and peaceful demonstrators on the streets of Khartoum.Bashir’s tenacity suggests it would be foolish to write him off, but his tools of control are blunter than ever before. While it would be an overstatement to claim that Sudan’s long-suffering political opposition is united, political parties are coalescing. On New Year’s Day, the 63rd anniversary of Sudan’s independence, 22 parties made a joint call for Bashir to stand down in favor of a transitional government that would prepare for national elections.
More worrisome for Bashir is that opposition to his rule extends far beyond the traditional, and largely discredited, political parties. The Sudanese Professionals Association, a newly formed group representing several unions, has been at the vanguard of the street protests, with doctors, journalists and lawyers prominent among the demonstrators. They have been joined by members of the youth movement Girifna, which was formed a decade ago to oppose the regime. People have taken to the streets in rural and urban areas in most parts of the country. Sudan’s middle classes as well as its poor are feeling the impact of years of economic mismanagement and corruption that has led to spikes in the prices of bread and fuel, shortages of medicines, and strict limits on bank withdrawals. What began as economic protests quickly morphed into calls for political change and marches on Sudan’s parliament and presidential palace.This leaves the question: Will the professional bodies in Zimbabwe calling for change morph into a political movement ?
At this critical time, Bashir is struggling to find the funds to maintain the patronage system that underpins his rule. The ruling National Congress Party, or NCP—always a narrow edifice—has buckled in the face of Sudan’s economic collapse. The latest round of protests began, notably, in Atbara and other northern cities that are traditional NCP strongholds. The Islamist ideology that drew supporters to Bashir’s government in the early years has become little more than a fig leaf, and some Islamist groups such as the Sudan Reform Now movement have already left the party umbrella.
The regime remains willing to deploy brute force, using live rounds against protesters and even firing tear gas into hospitals treating the wounded in recent weeks. But the international community that has been engaged in a slow rapprochement with Sudan—even providing support to the security sector, in the case of the European Union—is watching, and warning of the consequences of an escalating crackdown. More ominously for Bashir, there are flickers of dissent within parts of the security services, with one police officer’s association urging members to refuse orders to fire on demonstrators. There are even question marks over the Rapid Support Forces, an ultra-loyal paramilitary outfit that is the successor organization to the notorious Janjaweed militias that carried out the worst atrocities in Darfur. The RSF leader, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamad Daqlou, recently put the president on notice in a speech calling on the government to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens.
These security dynamics are difficult to interpret for anyone standing outside the president’s inner circle, but they will likely determine the future course of the uprising. By itself, the street is unlikely to topple this merciless, battle-hardened regime. But if the protests continue, military figures close to Bashir might conclude he has become a liability and act to remove him before it becomes too late to save themselves—and the country. Bashir may be edging toward the exit door, despite his defiant words, but the path toward a democratic transition in Sudan will be long, uncertain and fraught with danger.