A series of student-led protests in Sudan that started in the provinces has quietly grown into a bona fide movement. The demonstrations against the three-decades-old government of President Omar al-Bashir now are taking place nationwide, and the movement is qualitatively different from protests that have occurred before. The United States and its allies should sit up and pay attention. Reluctance to support a nonviolent, gradual, civilian-led transition in Sudan now risks not only missing a rare opportunity for peaceful change, but also passively facilitating a dangerously insecure Sudan and the potential for calamitous state failure in a critical region.
Sudan sits at the epicenter of multiple strategic interests for the U.S. and its allies. Marking the point where the Blue and White Nile rivers meet, Sudan’s people and economy are closely tied to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Chad. It is a historic crossroad where Muslim, Arab, Christian, and African meet, making it a key route for trafficking in people, weapons, and violent ideology. And it is unique in the region for having been the first to adopt a strict form of political Islamism and the first to be thoroughly fed up with it.
The protests began in several cities outside the capital in mid-December over food prices, but have spread across the country and now include a slogan saying the Bashir government “must fall.” (Bashir, on the other hand, has plans to change the constitution so he can run again for re-election in 2020.) Three features of the current protests distinguish them from past efforts – longevity, scale, and a repudiation of the government’s divisive tactics.
First, the longevity of these protests in the face of a violent government crackdown has been impressive, and they show no sign of ending. Past youth-led demonstrations were quickly crushed by the regime’s excessive violence. In September 2013, for instance, the regime’s response resulted in the deaths of 200 protesters, crushing the demonstrations within days.
Today, Sudanese around the country show an unusual sense of national solidarity. The protesters in Darfur chant in support of those in the central city of Atbara, and others similarly support demonstrations elsewhere. This unity and the size of the crowds have reinforced each other, providing confidence in a certain degree of security for demonstrators — as the grassroots mobilizers of the protests have said, “When the numbers are so large, they cannot kill us all.”
The resulting loss of fear on the part of the population has shocked the regime and the security forces, and may account for the relatively low casualties given the brutal methods this government usually employs. In fact, with each report of a protester killed, ever greater numbers are moved to pay condolences to the families and to attend the funerals. This has resulted in funerals becoming public events, attended by thousands and resulting in television coverage that has the regime in an unusual defensive posture.
Scale and Breadth
A second distinguishing feature of the protests is the scale and breadth, which is unlike anything Sudan has witnessed. The last time Sudanese changed their government, in 1985, the protests were far more limited geographically, mostly centralized in Khartoum and elite-driven. The current protests are unique in having started outside the capital in marginalized regions that have traditionally been disengaged from the politics of Khartoum. They started with hundreds of people in several cities in mid-December, initially over a large jump in the prices of staple foodstuffs such as bread because of subsidy cuts to comply with World Bank and IMF austerity measures.
What really drew the attention of many Sudanese, though, was the rise of protests in the city of Atbara in central Sudan, historically a stronghold and the hometown of Khartoum’s political elites. The protests have spread geographically to large-scale marches and events in every major city in every major region.
The emerging organizers of the current uprising, a network of unregistered regional civil society organizations and professional unions independent of the government called the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), are committed to nonviolent principles and are growing in confidence and capacity. They also are demonstrating impressive organizational skills. Last week, Salah Ghosh, the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), challenged the protesters when he dismissively said they were incapable of organizing two protests at the same time. SPA responded immediately by calling for 17 simultaneous protests on their carefully managed schedule. People heard about the challenge and quickly organized more than 50 marches on the same day, Jan. 24.
Meanwhile, social media channels ripple with Sudanese inside and outside of the country obsessively following events, marches, casualties, and the creative responses of the demonstrators, such as music, dance, and “fire-writing” with tear gas canisters to spell out messages such as “The regime must fall.”
Further, these protests are not just for professionals and unemployed students. In a striking sign of the breadth of the appeal of this movement, the tea sellers of Khartoum – traditionally vulnerable women at the bottom of the social and economic scale – formed a cooperative to pool their daily cash intake and mitigate losses for each of them in turn as they took a day off to attend the protests. Such innovations are arising all over the country, as citizens crowdfund each other’s transportation costs and other needs by constant online posts. Before the confidence that has come with these uprisings, no one would have posted such information online for fear of being targeted for retaliation by the government or its supporters.
Repudiating Bashir’s Tactic of Division
The third feature that distinguishes the current demonstrations from those of the past is the strong repudiation of a cornerstone of Bashir’s governing strategy: the National Islamic Front that brought Bashir to power in 1989 instituted an insidious policy of discrimination and marginalization of Sudan’s non-elites and peripheral identities. Most familiar in the West is the long and brutal tale of Bashir’s crackdown on the people of Darfur that resulted in Bashir’s indictment on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Bashir built and enforced a narrative of Africans in Darfur as hyper-aggressive, anti-Islamic, and dangerous. Darfurian militia groups that formed to push back against Khartoum’s oppression only fueled his narrative.
As the current protests intensified in late December, Bashir attempted to revive these divisions by parading a group of 10 Darfurian youth who had been arrested as a terror cell, allegedly bombing or vandalizing properties and instigating violence. The government nonsensically claimed to have found weapons and bombmaking materials that these “instigators of the protests” were about to use against the protesters. They allegedly were trained by Israel’s Mossad, another predictable and unlikely claim.
The government’s standard tactic of inciting Sudanese ethnic groups against each other backfired spectacularly for the first time. The young Darfurians were all identified by their colleagues as innocent university students, and the uprising adopted a new slogan: “You Racist Egomaniac, We are all Darfur!”
This is a critical moment for Sudan’s nonviolent movement. The United States may be tempted to adopt a “watch and wait” approach until the dust settles. But the status quo ante is not an option.
The Other Side of Bashir’s `Cooperation’ with the West
Although U.S. relations with Sudan have not been normalized since the administration of President Bill Clinton retaliated in 1997 for Bashir’s harboring of al-Qaeda and aiding terror attacks, President Donald Trump’s administration followed through on a policy carried over from his predecessor, Barack Obama, to lift trade sanctions and a freeze on government assets in October 2017, and pave a path to diplomatic normalcy and economic health for a pariah state. The designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, however, remains in place.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, Bashir’s government has been cooperating with U.S. intelligence services on counter-terrorism, and on regional peace efforts to end South Sudan’s civil strife. The regime also has cooperated with Europe to manage and limit the transiting of thousands of migrants headed north to the Mediterranean and on to European shores.
All of these efforts, though, have been double-sided. While Bashir shares counter-terrorism intelligence, he allows extremist-affiliated universities to function in plain view. And the legitimacy of his efforts as a peacemaker for South Sudan are painfully inappropriate, given the racism of his war against the south that resulted in its independence in 2011. His deal on migration has been a dark stain on Europe’s human rights record, as his government passively allows human trafficking and curtails freedom of movement, among other rights.
In short, the Bashir government is not a source of stability for Sudan or for the region. It is deeply in debt and can no longer afford to pay off its extensive patronage system. It is long past time for the world to support and recognize that these peaceful protests have the germ of political and governance capacity.
U.S. policymakers and diplomats should take advantage of this opportunity to develop a thoughtful and effective response toward a country of clear geostrategic importance, and one where there is an opportunity to settle and deepen a turbulent, problematic relationship. It is time for the U.S. and the rest of the international community to elevate the protests in Sudan to global attention.
We must press for the enabling conditions – avoiding the use of force, freedom of assembly, and free political association – for these protests to result in a democratic, peaceful transformation. Supporting a nonviolent, patient and civilian-led transition will require thoughtful international assistance and a long-term strategic commitment to the transparency and accountability necessary for good governance and sustainable development.
Sudan’s people proudly own this uprising, but positive political and economic support from the international community will be necessary to secure a transition for Sudan and finally stabilize this beleaguered state.