Tasqut Bas (Fall, That is All)
For over two months, wide-scale protests in Sudan have continued unabated calling for President Omar al-Bashir to step down and pave the way for a transition period ushering in multi-party democracy. Not surprisingly, as with similar protests in the past, the Bashir regime has sought a military solution to quell the protests, deploying the police and paramilitary security forces against peaceful protestors in Khartoum and throughout the country. At the time of writing, over sixty people have been killed, many as a result of torture in the government’s "ghost houses." More than two thousand anti-government activists are still held in detention despite the regime’s repeated insistence that they are intent on releasing political detainees.
The government has frequently pronouncemed that the protests are relatively small and are having little impact on the regime, or that the demonstrations are essentially sponsored by saboteurs, thugs, or “foreign elements.” Despite such claims, the popular intifada has not only produced significant policy changes on the part of the regime, it has clearly undermined the rule of Omar Bashir in ways that have threatened to topple his thirty-year authoritarian rule. Over the last week, in the wake of continued and sustained demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins across Sudanese civil society, Bashir has been forced to postpone a constitutional amendment that would have allow him to run for a third term in office. He also declared a state of emergency in Khartoum, disbanding the federal government, and replacing local governors with senior army officers in a desperate attempt to maintain his power. However, these policies of both appeasement and repression appear to have emboldened anti-government protestors further. The state of emergency is clearly designed to give carte blanche to the security forces to use greater violence against the protestors, to further restrict political and civil liberties, and to crack-down even more on activists and opposition political parties. Immediately following Bashir’s announcement of a state of emergency, protestors went back on the streets in over fifty neighborhoods throughout the country, and particularly in Khartoum and Omdurman. They called once again for Bashir’s removal. They chanted, among other slogans, one of the most uncompromising and popular refrains of the current uprising: Tasqut Bas (fall, that is all).
The “Periphery” as Catalyst of the Intifada
The recent protests erupted on 19 December 2018 in the working-class city of Atbara in River Nile state, approximately two-hundred miles north of Khartoum. They were sparked by a three-fold increase in the price of bread. They began with protests led by secondary school students. They were very quickly joined by thousands of residents in the city of Atbara. Within days, anti-government demonstrations expanded across a wide range of cities and towns throughout the northern region and in the capital city of Khartoum. Chanting slogans such as "the people want the fall of the regime" (inspired by the Arab uprisings of late 2010 and 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively), the demonstrators quickly expanded their demands in ways that reflect deep-seated and wide-ranging political as well as economic grievances with the thirty-year authoritarian rule of Omer al-Bashir and his ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP).
However, despite the fact that political grievances and demands are now at the forefront of the uprising, there is little question that these particularly protests were first sparked by economic grievances that date back to the consequences of the secession of South Sudan in 2011. As is by now widely noted, this led to the loss of seventy-five percent of oil revenue for Khartoum since two-thirds of the oil resources are in the south, and consequently approximately sixty percent of its foreign currency earnings. As a result, the Bashir regime implemented austerity measures beginning in 2012 which resulted in similar anti-austerity protests at the time, although these were mostly centered in Khartoum and hence more centralized than the current protests. Similarly, one of the main factors for the current demonstrations is the implementation of IMF-backed austerity measures which led to lifting of bread and fuel subsidies and quickly sparked the first of the demonstrations on 19 December 2018. What is important to emphasize, however, is that these protests are not only rooted in opposition to economic austerity measures. They are crucially a result of a widely understood opposition to decades of rampant corruption, including “privatization” policies that transferred assets and wealth to the regime’s supporters, and the theft of gold as well as billions of dollars of profits from the period of the oil boom in the country.
A New Pattern of Mobilization and Protest
Following the lead of cities in the periphery, in Khartoum, the protests also began in opposition to a deep economic crisis associated with the rise in bread fuel prices as well as a severe liquidity crisis. But these demands quickly evolved into calls for the ouster of Bashir from power. Importantly, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), which has taken the lead in organizing and scheduling the protests, initially marched to the parliament in Khartoum in late December demanding wages increases for public sector workers and the legalization of professional and trade unions. However, after security forces used violence against the peaceful protests, these demands quickly escalated into the call for the removal of the ruling National Congress Party, the structural transformation of governance in Sudan, and a transition to democracy.
These demands are similar to those associated with previous popular protests against the regime, including those of 2011, 2012, and 2013. However, what is most important to note with respect to these protests is that they are unprecedented in terms of their duration and sustainability (now ongoing in their third month), their geographical spread throughout the entire country, and the remarkable coalition of youth groups, civil society organizations, and opposition political parties that have joined. Equally important, is that the coordination of these demonstrations has followed a remarkably new, innovative, and sustained process. This is important to highlight because it clearly shows that, just as the dictatorial regime of Omer Bashir has prided itself in weakening the opposition in order to prevent any threat to their regime by dismantling labor and trade unions, establishing a wide range of paramilitary militias linked to the state, and putting down armed opposition as well as anti-government activists in civil society, these demonstrators have also learned from the unsuccessful anti-regime protests of the past. Led by the newly established Sudanese Professional Association, the ongoing demonstrations have been coordinated, scheduled, and strategically designed to emphasize: sustainability over time rather than sheer numbers; spread throughout middle, working class, and poor neighborhoods; and coordination with protestors in regions far afield from Khartoum, including the Eastern State on the Red Sea, and Darfur to the far west of the country. In addition, the slogans promoted and utilized by the protestors also have been purposefully framed to incorporate the grievances of the wider spectrum of Sudanese and not just those of the middle class and ethnic and political elites centered in Khartoum and the northern regions of the country. These slogans are essentially framed in ways designed to mobilize support across ethnic and racial categories, emphasizing that the only way forward is to oust Omar Bashir and the ruling regime from power. In doing so, they highlight the endemic and unprecedented level of corruption of the regime and its allies, the decades of human rights violations against civilians in the country by a wide range of security forces, and the brutal wars waged by the regime in Darfur, the Blue Nile state on the border of South Sudan, and the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan.
Indeed, perhaps one of the most notable aspect of these protests, which distinguish them greatly from previous uprisings, is not only the sheer regional scale of the demonstrations but the hitherto unprecedented high level of solidarity across class lines in the country. Youth activists and members of the professional associations have not only challenged the political discourse of the state; they have played a significant role in engineering cross-class alliances in the context of these demonstrations. Over the last week strikes, work stoppages, and sit-ins have been held not only on university campuses and secondary schools, but also among private sector and public sector employees and workers. Among the most important examples are the ongoing strikes by workers of Port Sudan on the Red Sea demanding the nullification of the sale of the southern Port to a foreign company, and several work stoppages and protests led by employees of some of the most important telecom providers and other private firms in the country.
Scenarios: The Prospects for a Peaceful Transition to Multi-Party Democracy
Equally important with respect to evaluating the prospects of the uprising leading to a transition to democracy has to do with the evolving and increasingly sophisticated nature of the demands of the demonstrators as the protests have continued unabated. The initial aims of the protestors were to simply oust Omar Bashir and his regime from power. The level of grievance and anger among the population made this the most important priority at the very beginning of the protest. However, as the coordination of these protests became exceedingly more sophisticated, particular under the leadership of the Sudanese Professional Associations, the objectives of the majority of the protestor is now not only to end Omar Bashir’s dictatorial regime, which remains a priority, but to also prepare and pave the way for a transitional period consisting of four years that would usher in a multi-party democracy in the country. At the moment Sudanese activists, the political party opposition, and a broad swath of civil society organizations are engaged in discussing a variety of possible scenarios including the prospects of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) taking the side of the protests and overseeing democratic transition as in the past, an internal coup within the armed forces that would essentially consolidate authoritarian rule under a new leadership, or the falling apart of the center and state disintegration as in, for example Libya and Somalia. Ultimately, the outcome of these protests will, not surprisingly, depend on the continued unity and sustainability of the protestors and demonstrators, the power and force of the National Intelligence and Security Services and the para-military militias, and the extent to which external regional powers, especially in the region, support the regime in Khartoum out of fear that their regional interests may be undermined following the removal of Bashir from power.
This balance between domestic anti-government activists and civil society organizations, the state’s security apparatus, and external patronage is, of course, critical in devising any scenarios in the future and is well known. What is interesting is the actions of Bashir more recently that have signalled that these demonstrations have altered internal regime dynamics and calculations. As a result of the rise of protests in the regions, Bashir traveled to regions he never visited before, as a consequence of protests against the continued torture and violence against demonstrators, he has made some tepid overtures such as releasing some political prisoners, and as the demonstrations continue unabated, loyalists within his own parliament have very recently proposed that he formally declare he will not alter the constitution and run for president for a third term. There is little question that this reflects the view of some in his inner circle of devising a way out for Bashir in ways that would quite the protests, work stoppages, labor strikes, and sit-ins that have now transformed the initial protests from so-called “streets protests” to essentially a social movement that has altered Sudan’s political and cultural landscape for decades to come. Central to this shift has been the pointed critique and even abhorrence of the activists to the Islamist project of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), and his Islamist supporters that has made the regime of Bashir in the eyes of most Sudanese nothing short of a ruling military junta composed of tujjar al-din (traders of religion). Reportedly, the wide scale opposition to the regime has expanded to such a degree that Bashir’s own ministry has acknowledged that the opposition is now in “every home,” not to mention in many mosques in Khartoum and throughout the country. At the time of writing, deep divisions appear to be further emerging within the regime itself. Early on the morning of 22 February, the powerful head of the Sudan National Security and Intelligence Services (NISS), Salah Gosh, announced that Bashir will step down as head of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and that the constitution will not be amended to allow for his 2020 re-election. But in a televized address later the same evening, Bashir contradicted his intelligence chief's statements and affirmed that, while he will postpone the parliamentary vote to amend the constitution, he would remain as head of state and declared a state of emergency for one year.
There is now little question that these demonstrations have already registered remarkable success in ways that few would have predicated before 19 December. Specifically, there is a remarkable reinvigoration of civil society in Sudan despite decades of authoritarian rule and a policy of division across ethnic, racial and class lines. However in this regard, we must be specific. It is not the emergence of a strong civil society in a vague sense but rather the reinvigoration of independent trade, labor, and professional unions at time when most would have predicted and affirmed their demise. We also see the remarkable empowerment of youth activism and their utilization of social media to assist in the coordination of demonstrations across class, regional and racial lines rather than to simply express a particularly middle class and elite and narrow political sensibility which is a critique that has been leveled at youth activism throughout the region. The bravery and courage of youth activists in Sudan and in the region is of course never in doubt. What we see in Sudan, however, is that in addition to this display of remarkable courage is the close coordination among activists across middle- and working-class neighborhoods, repeated campaigns to support the reef, or rural areas, and remarkable cooperation across the gender divide which has underpinned the political and cultural shift that these demonstrations have accomplished. When Bashir, in recognition of the prominent role of women in the demonstrations, recently called for changes in the Public Order Law that has brutalized and demeaned Sudanese women for decades, female activists quickly responded that their struggle is not just about the Public Order Law; it is pointedly centered on the removal of an authoritarian regime and working towards the expansion of political and civil liberties for all Sudanese.
The wide scope and sustainability of Sudan’s uprising is unprecedented in the country’s history. More specifically, the coordination and linkages between formal professional associations, trade and labor unions, civil society organizations, and youth activists with the popular and working-class segments of the population (who are essentially workers in the informal economy) is one of the most important reasons for the durability of the protests. Ultimately, it is the success in organizing across the formal-informal social spectrum that has sustained the protests. The idea that professional and trade unions should engage more closely with street activists and workers in the informal economy was not one that had been vigorously envisioned or promoted by many political actors involved in previous popular protests. This development has played a key role in sustaining the protests and in undermining the Bashir regime in ways that could not easily have been predicted when the uprising first erupted in Atbara, the city of al-hadid wa-al-nar (steel and fire) in the River Nile State.
Update as of 4 March 2019
The uprising in Sudan continues to highlight deep divisions within both the ruling party and the armed forces. This has compelled Bashir to implement policies designed to safeguard against a scenario in which segments of the military establishment would take the side of the protestors and essentially wage an internal coup against his rule. After declaring a state of emergency and dissolving the federal and provincial civilian governments, he appointed military and security officers as governors of the country’s eighteen provinces. More recently, Bashir resigned from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), and appointed his close ally Ahmad Harun as deputy head of the NCP. All this while the emergency courts have imposed, in just over a week, more than eight hundred sentences of imprisonment and fines against anti-regime activists.
Harun, who like Bashir himself is indicted for war crimes in Darfur, announced a national dialogue (hiwar watani) with the opposition. This is a transparent and much-used tactic to maintain NCP rule. The ultimate objective in this regard is to co-opt segments of the opposition while presiding over managed elections where Harun or Bashir would run. The attempt at national dialogue is not just about co-opting the opposition. It is meant to also safeguard against the potential of a far more threatening scenario in which middle-ranking segments of the military ultimately take the side of protestors, oust Bashir and the NCP, and oversee a transition to a new system of rule.
Bashir and regime supporters continue to emphasize that the real grievances behind the protests are economic and not political. This is despite the opposition’s near unanimous and repeated declarations that the country’s deep economic crisis is inextricably linked to decades of authoritarian rule, endemic corruption, and the gross mismanagement of the national economy by the ruling party. Significantly, however, the regime’s strategy of deflecting opposition to its policies by acknowledging the so-called “legitimate” economic grievances, while simultaneously declaring that the country’s unprecedented economic crisis is a result of hostile external actors, reflects the regime’s own narrow vision with respect to their only means to remain in power. More specifically, Bashir and his allies in the NCP are banking on stemming the tide of sustained and wide-scale protests by attempting to curb soaring inflation through criminalizing black-market foreign exchange transactions via emergency decree, and attracting investment—particularly foreign assistance—over the coming year even as the state of emergency remains in effect throughout the country. As theFinancial Timesrecently reported, Bashir is counting on his continued efforts to rebuild relations with South Sudan and thereby restart the latter’s oil production. The idea is that revenues from transit and pipeline fees under extant arrangements between Khartoum and Juba would halt the steep deterioration of the Sudanese pound and finance the regime’s patronage networks.
These measures are unlikely to halt the protests, now ongoing in their fourth month. This is not only because the protestors have clearly articulated political demands against what many have pointedly described as state capture (ikhtitaf al-dawla) by a minority of military and security officers that must be ousted from power. There is also an increasing ingenuity of the uprising’s leaders in sustaining the anti-government demonstrations. In response to Bashir’s recent decrees and pronouncements, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) has once again upgraded and enhanced its mobilization and coordination dynamics and capacity across the professional, socioeconomic, and regional divide. More specifically, as of writing, the SPA has called on protestors, trade and labor unions, and other anti-regime activists throughout the country to combine street protests and acts of civil disobedience with a one-day national general strike (led by doctors, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists, academics, journalists, and civil servants) in coordination with neighborhood protests (muzaharat al-ahya’) throughout Khartoum and outlying regions of the country. The purported aim is to sustain an iterative, albeit gradual, process of protests culminating in regime change. Moreover, even as the regime continues to cite the weakness of the formal political opposition as a recipe for chaos and regional instability (in a discourse that is pitched to make external actors wary of supporting the uprising), the opposition political parties, including several armed insurgent organizations, have met and agreed upon the blueprint for a transitional period. On 3 March, all the opposition groups, including the SPA, the National Consensus Forces (NCF), Sudan Call, and the Unionist Gathering reiterated their commitment to the Declaration of Freedom and Change, launched on 1 January, and to peaceful methods to achieve regime change. Most notably, this would include a constitutional conference to hammer out political and constitutional reforms, as well as establishing security arrangements with armed groups to resolve ongoing civil conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile States.