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By: Martin Plaut
Day after day Sudanese are taking to the streets to protest against the rule of Omar al-Bashir. The president, who himself seized power in 1989 when he led a coup, is facing the most serious challenge in his three decades in power. Fury at sharp rises in the cost of bread and fuel, and allegations of corruption, have fuelled the protests.
Thus far the president has managed to resist the anger of his people. But Sudanese have a long history of overthrowing unpopular regimes. Twice before – in 1964 and then again in 1985 – revolts led to changes of government. On each occasion the armed forces abandoned the regime and sided with the people. This has not occurred during the current protests for good reasons, as university lecturer and author of Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan Willow Berridge points out:
“Al-Bashir’s regime clearly learnt from the mistakes of its predecessors. It has created a much stronger National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) as well as a host of other parallel security organisations and armed militias that it uses to police Khartoum instead of the regular army. This set up, combined with various commanders’ mutual fears of being held to account for war crimes if the regime falls, means an army intervention will not occur easily as in 1964 or 1985. This is one reason the current uprising has already lasted longer than its precedents.”
But the regime’s survival cannot simply be seen as a domestic issue. He has strong international allies. The West once reviled Omar al-Bashir as an indicted war criminal. However, more recently they have begun to view him as a source of stability and intelligence in a troubled region. The president also has the backing – both political and financial – of key Arab allies.
Sudanese have traditionally been said to look North to Cairo for support. This crisis is no exception. In December Egypt’s foreign minister and intelligence chief visited Khartoum, pledging their support for Al-Bashir.
This was followed earlier this month during a reciprocal trip to Cairo by the Sudanese president at which President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi commented: “Egypt fully supports the security and stability of Sudan, which is integral to Egypt’s national security.”
But political support alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the Sudanese regime in power. There is also financial backing from across the Red Sea. In return for Sudan entering the Yemeni war Khartoum is reported to have received investments worth US$2.2 billion. More than 10,000 Sudanese troops are fighting on the Yemeni frontline. Some are said to be child soldiers who were recruited by the Saudis, with offers of US$10,000 for each recruit.
The rehabilitation of al-Bashir in the US goes back to President Barack Obama’s era. As one of the last acts of his office, he lifted a range of US sanctions against the Sudanese regime. The CIA’s large office in Khartoum was cited as one of the key reasons for his policy shift.
Nor is Washington alone in this view. As Europe battles to restrict the number of Africans crossing the Mediterranean it has seen the Sudanese government as an ally. The “Khartoum Process”, signed in the Sudanese capital, is critical to this relationship. In November 2015 European leaders met their African counterparts in the Maltese capital, Valletta, to try to put flesh on the bones of this agreement. The aim was made clear in the accompanying EU press release which concluded that: “The number of migrants arriving to the European Union is unprecedented, and this increased flow is likely to continue. The EU, together with the member states, is taking a wide range of measures to address the challenges, and to establish an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy.”
The summit led to the drafting of an Action Plan which has guided the EU’s policy objectives on migration and mobility ever since. The plan detailed how European institutions would cooperate with their African partners to fight “irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings.”
Europe promised to offer training to “law enforcement and judicial authorities” in new methods of investigation and assisting in setting up specialised anti-trafficking and smuggling police units.
These commitments were an explicit pledge to support and strengthen elements of the Sudanese state. A Regional Operational Centre (ROCK) has been established in Khartoum whose chief aim it to halt people smuggling and refugee flows by allowing European officials to work directly with their Sudanese opposite numbers. The counter-trafficking coordination centre in Khartoum — staffed jointly by police officers from Sudan and several European countries, including Britain, France and Italy — will partly rely on information sourced by the Sudanese national intelligence service.
Finally there is some evidence of Russian involvement in the Sudanese crisis. Russian troops, working for a private contractor, are reported to have been seen on the streets of Khartoum, suppressing the uprising.
Given the range of support for al-Bashir it isn’t surprising that he’s managed to resist popular pressure to step down. Much depends on how long demonstrations can be maintained, and how much force the regime is prepared to deploy to crush its opponents.