Sudan has entered the third month of widespread and sustained protests across the country, and there is now some indication that President Omar al-Bashir’s grip on power is weakening. Bashir has rejected calls to leave office and has remained defiant, but some trepidation is showing among his supporters. On Feb. 22, Bashir made his strongest move yet by declaring a year-long state of emergency and dissolving federal and state governments. Nonetheless, demonstrations continue with protesters repeating the now familiar rallying cries of “Freedom, peace, and justice” and “Just fall, that is all!”
To be sure, Bashir has clung to power longer than anyone would have predicted when he assumed the presidency in a 1989 military coup, and underestimating his political resilience is a mistake. But the protests that have rocked the country since Dec. 19 present perhaps the greatest challenge to his rule. As the demonstrations continue, regional heads of state and international leaders face difficult questions—and decisions—about how to respond.
The Protests and the Crackdown
Widespread protests have persisted in Sudan since Dec. 19, featuring a large and diverse opposition that remains committed to ousting Bashir. The protests began in Atbara, a small agricultural city north of the capital Khartoum, where citizens demonstrated against a tripling in the price of bread after the government removed a key subsidy.
The economic situation in Sudan is dire and resentment over the government’s inability to address fundamental economic issues has helped fuel the protests. The country never recovered from the 2011 secession of South Sudan, which claimed nearly 75 percent of its oil reserves. Endemic corruption and a misguided budget that allocates up to 70 percent of public spending for a bloated military and security sector exacerbate an already untenable situation. The country’s inflation rate trails only Venezuela, climbing to nearly 73 percent in December. Inflation stems from the government’s increase in currency production to cover its deficits after a 2.8 percent economic contraction in 2018.
Following Atbara, demonstrations spread to cities throughout Sudan and across the socioeconomic spectrum. The regime has met these largely peaceful protests with violence and repression. Human Rights Watch reported that at least 51 people have died, and hundreds more have been injured, as the government responded with live ammunition, excessive force, attacks on mosques, and the arrests of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Of those arrested, many have faced torture. At least two protesters died in the custody of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), showing clear signs of torture. Perhaps the most egregious example of the regime’s use of violence took place on Jan. 17, when security agents stormed a hospital in Omdurman, searching for injured protesters while firing live bullets and teargas into the hospital. Physicians for Human Rights reports that security forces have targeted seven hospitals and detained dozens of doctors.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) emerged as a driving force of the protests, after issuing a Declaration of Freedom and Change on Jan. 1 that demanded the “immediate and unconditional withdraw of Bashir and his regime.” The opposition Sudan Call and National Consensus Forces also joined the declaration. The SPA, composed of lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists, and other professionals, has tried to maintain anonymity for security reasons, while also leading organizing efforts. Sudanese youth and students also have played a key role in challenging the regime by vocally rejecting the privilege, corruption, and violence that it has relied on to remain in power the last 30 years.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern over the situation and urged the government to respect the rights of protesters, while U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the government’s use of live ammunition and excessive force. Still, the Africa Center for Justice and Peace Studies reports that NISS agents have arrested and detained at least 116 political activists. NISS is holding these individuals incommunicado and without charge at various prisons throughout Sudan.
The Sudanese government has sought to limit coverage of the protests by revoking the work permits of foreign media, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Security forces continue to target local journalists, though activists and journalists have found ways to circumvent the regime’s censorship and its blackout of social media.
Recently, Bashir appealed to Sudanese youth, blaming the protests and violence on foreign agents and armed opposition groups, a common tactic of the regime. Although Bashir has remained defiant towards protesters and his opposition, he has also tried to win back supporters by holding several rallies and promising to improve health care, education, and infrastructure.
Some government officials, including the prime minister and minister of defense, have taken a more conciliatory position by reaching out to Sudanese youth and recognizing the legitimacy of their grievances. Most notably, on Jan. 29, Salah Gosh, head of NISS, called for the release of all detainees, and a reported 186 detainees were released. However, as Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch notes, this “catch and release” tactic is a favorite ploy of the regime, and the government continues to arrest and detain prominent opposition figures.
Bashir’s Political Support – Inside Sudan and Beyond
Bashir has attempted to maintain the support of regional leaders, as well as the U.S. and the U.K., by arguing that his removal would lead to chaos and bloodshed and analogizing the situation to the failed attempt to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Thus far, he has mostly succeeded.
On Feb. 6, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reiterated his support for Bashir, after Sudanese Vice President Osman Mohammed Yousif visited Nairobi. Kenyatta’s statement follows a similar announcement of support from a Saudi Arabian delegation in Khartoum on Jan. 24. South Sudan President Salva Kiir had pledged his government’s support for Bashir on Jan. 4—albeit largely for his own political needs, while Turkey and Egypt also have announced their support. Sudanese opposition leaders question the sincerity of these pledges, arguing this support will prove fleeting if the regime encounters a serious challenge to its rule.
The U.S. has struck a more muted tone. On Feb. 18, Cyril Sartor, senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, met with key Sudanese officials in Khartoum. Sartor called on the government to respect the rights of the protesters to express themselves peacefully, but also urged the demonstrators to “abide by the same peaceful commitment.” He also encouraged the Sudanese government to “continue working constructively with the United States.” Similarly, the U.K. has urged restraint, and Irfan Siddiq, the U.K. Ambassador to Sudan, called on the Sudanese government to refrain from violence and release all political detainees.
Within Sudan, Sadiq al-Mahdi, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Umma Party, called for Bashir’s immediate resignation on Jan. 25. And on Feb. 14, a coalition of opposition groups issued a joint statement calling for Bashir to resign. Likewise, the Sudanese-U.K. billionaire and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim supports Bashir’s resignation, stating that Bashir should “accept a peaceful transition of power and go in peace.”
Even parties typically loyal to Bashir have begun to question his rule. The Federal Umma Party was the first to act, leaving the ruling government coalition on Jan. 27, and asking Bashir to resign. More significantly, the influential Popular Congress Party (PCP) has threatened to leave the ruling coalition as well. Ali al-Haj, the party’s leader, condemned the excessive use of force and sympathized with the protesters, faulting the government for the country’s economic crisis. The PCP is the second-largest Islamist party in Sudan, and, as reported in the Sudan Tribune, “a significant portion of the party” wants to abandon the government and join the protesters.
But a stalemate appears to be developing, as Bashir attempts to consolidate his power and reassert his control over the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) before the 2020 elections.
The 2020 Elections: Term Limit Extension Now Uncertain
With presidential elections coming next year, the looming question is whether Bashir will try to wrest a third term in office. Sudan’s constitution only allows a president to serve two terms, but prior to the protests, a constitutional amendment allowing a third term seemed inevitable. The Sudanese parliament had introduced a bill endorsed by nearly 300 lawmakers that would abolish presidential term limits entirely.
However, neither the amendment allowing a third term, nor the unqualified support of the NCP is now guaranteed. Earlier this week, the parliamentary committee tasked with the amendment decided to postpone its meetings indefinitely. Further, one leading figure of the NCP, Amin Hassan Omer, publicly described the proposed amendment as “illegitimate.”
Bashir has not definitively stated that he would stand for a third term, but he has more than hinted that he would. And this is not the first time that he has feigned indecision before running. He did so three years before the 2015 election but ran anyway in a vote that most opposition parties boycotted as illegitimate. Likewise, in 2016, Bashir said he would not seek re-election in 2020, before changing tack when the NCP’s Shura (Consultative) Council recommended he run.
Now, however, NCP leaders are being more circumspect about endorsing Bashir for a third term, given the potential backlash. Likewise, an alliance of diverse political parties, including some generally sympathetic to the NCP, is urging Bashir not to run in 2020.
There is also some speculation, however unlikely, that Bashir is considering leaving office and going into exile. Although once unthinkable, Bashir is now 75 and many analysts believe he would have left office previously, but for his concern for his freedom and security due to his outstanding International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants.
Were Bashir to attempt to go into exile, Qatar is the most likely destination. Qatar inserted itself in the negotiations to end the Darfur conflict, culminating in the flawed Doha Document for Peace in Darfur in 2011. Qatar also has invested heavily in Sudan, particularly in the Red Sea Port of Suakin and in the agriculture sector. Bashir visited Qatar on Jan. 23, meeting with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to garner financial aid.
One scenario would be for Bashir to flee Sudan the way President Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011. Following a month of public protests, Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, fled to Saudi Arabia with their three children, allowing the Tunisian people to form a democratic government that remains the only successful, if still fragile, democratic transition to emerge from the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s interim government at one point attempted to secure Ben Ali’s return, but extradition was unsuccessful. Tunisian Courts later convicted Ben Ali of numerous crimes in absentia, and he remains in exile.
One of several important differences between these two situations is the military. In Tunisia, the military stood down and allowed the protests to continue. In Sudan, Bashir has protected himself by granting NISS and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces significant privileges and autonomy, while also showering key leaders of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) with state largesse, thereby ensuring a degree of loyalty. However, middle- and lower-ranking SAF officers do not benefit from this patronage and likely are less committed to the regime’s survival.
Whether Bashir would ever feel confident (or desperate) enough to trust a foreign government with his freedom is unclear and certainly risky. In any case, for the moment, he seems intent on trying to outlast the protests.
Important Questions for U.S. Policy
These developments raise important questions for U.S. policy towards Sudan. The United States has had a strained relationship with Sudan for decades, only removing comprehensive sanctions in late 2017 after two decades of economic isolation. While the Trump administration removed the sanctions, the process for doing so began during the Obama administration, which had concluded that the coercive approach no longer affected the regime’s decision-making.
The U.S. now is considering removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list. Those in favor of removing Sudan argue that this designation is outdated because the composition and aims of the Sudanese government have changed since its designation in 1993, and that the value of Sudan’s cooperation on counterterrorism outweighs considerations such as human rights, where the terrorism designation has provided the U.S. some leverage.
Members of Congress have taken a strong interest in Sudan, with Sudanese activists and human rights organizations cultivating support from key lawmakers. On Jan. 4, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-NY) wrote U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking why the U.S. has not been more critical of Sudan for its violent acts towards protesters. Likewise, on Jan. 8, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) issued a statement saying the heavy-handed response of the regime would make normalizing relations “increasingly difficult.”
The same day, the so-called Troika of the U.S., the U.K., and Norway expressed its deep concern with the Sudanese government’s response to the protests and emphasized the right of the demonstrators to express themselves peacefully. The Troika also called for an independent investigation of the deaths of protesters, noting that the government’s “actions and decisions over the coming weeks will have an impact on the engagement of our governments and others in the coming months and years.”
On Jan. 23, the State Department again noted U.S. concerns with the number of arrests, detentions, injuries, and deaths through the first four weeks of protest. It also stated that a “new, more positive relationship between the United States and Sudan requires meaningful political reform and clear, sustained progress on respect for human rights.” More recently, on Feb. 14, Pompeo noted the difficult situation that the Sudanese people face, but stopped short of calling for regime change.
“We’re hopeful that their voices will be heard and that the transition, if there is one, will be led by them [the Sudanese people] and not by outside influences,” Pompeo said.
Human rights organizations have called for the U.N. Human Rights Council to appoint a committee to investigate the government’s actions against the protesters. Similarly, Yasir Arman, spokesperson for the Sudan Call, met with the British and French Envoys to Sudan to ask for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the killing of protesters. Even if the U.S. does not support these proposals, it should continue to exert pressure on the regime to allow for peaceful protests and to release all political detainees.
Since Bashir gained control of the government 30 years ago, Sudan has been one of the most vexing foreign policy problems for the U.S. and the international community. The complexity of the current situation is no different, and there is no clear way forward that does not contain very hard trade-offs. While there are historical precedents of peaceful, democratic transition in Sudan, these periods have proved fleeting compared with the long years of authoritarian rule and armed conflict. Further, Egypt and Syria show that there is no guarantee that a better leader than Bashir would emerge or that his removal would not come without a terrible human cost.
Despite all this, the courageous and peaceful protesters in Sudan have brought a ruthless authoritarian regime to a near standstill. The very least the U.S. can do is support these efforts. That support should include suspending discussions to remove Sudan from the SST list and for normalizing relations until the protesters and the government reach a resolution that could justify such concessions.