Sudan: The Yellow Vests of Khartoum
By: Annette Weber
Tens of thousands of Sudanese have been protesting for weeks against political and economic grievances in the war-wracked nation. The stability of an important partner of the West is also at stake. How will the situation develop? Annette Weber believes that three scenarios are possible.
For a month now, teachers, doctors, the unemployed, angry mothers and frustrated students have been taking to the streets of war-torn Sudan almost daily to protest against the policies of their government. These rallies have attracted tens of thousands since they started on 19 December – with 42 demonstrators losing their lives so far.
What began as a protest against economic policies and the rising price of bread and fuel has snowballed into calls for the resignation of President Umar al-Bashir. Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup, appointing himself president in 1993. For a long time, he was viewed as the lowest common denominator between the political elite and the military. The International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest, as well as U.S. sanctions against the country resulted in a closing of ranks behind the President.
Robust Foreign Policy – Precarious Situation at Home
Nevertheless, a number of notable foreign policy achievements are attributed to the president and his government: the process of normalisation from pariah state to partner of the West has advanced in recent years. For example, the nation now co-operates successfully with the CIA in anti-terrorism programmes and the EU also views Sudan as a key partner due to its role as migration hub for the entire Horn of Africa.
The domestic situation is, on the other hand, precarious. Catastrophic economic conditions are the main argument against preserving the status quo. In the wake of the short-lived oil rush of the early 2000s and after the secession of southern Sudan and the loss of the countryʹs oilfields economic diversification failed, levels of corruption rose and urgently-needed infrastructure investment failed to materialise. There was negative economic growth in 2018 (-2.3 percent), with similar forecasts for 2019 and foreign currencies in short supply.
Expectations raised by the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions have also so far not been fulfilled. Added to this, adherence to a climate change policy framework that has a negative impact on the populationʹs food security.
What is likely to happen?
Just as is currently the case in France, in Sudan there is nothing less at stake than the future of a nationʹs society and political culture. In Sudan too, a cross-section of all population groups – including the middle classes – is taking to the streets. But unlike France, the responses are more brutal and the consequences more serious.
The development of the situation in the coming weeks and months greatly depends on to what extent the government succeeds in improving the living conditions of the populace and credibly realising political demands. The question of how much backing the president can still rely on will also be decisive. There are three possible scenarios:
Bashir Takes a Tough Line: The government takes a tough line and in doing so, can depend on the loyalty of most of the army – just as it has done up to now. The urban middle class is divided between those who are pro-government and those who support the political opposition; the younger urban populace, with no affiliation to any patronage network, either lapses into lethargy or joins the – armed or unarmed – opposition. As a result, the two existing civil war fronts Darfur and South Kordofan are joined by an urban front. As long as only symbolic improvements are made, popular anger will be directed at the president. Only quick, visible economic successes could result in a stabilisation under Bashir.
A further escalation of the situation arises when elements of the security apparatus secede from the regime and form alliances with the current armed opposition. This fragmentation results in a further escalation in a civil war that cannot be won militarily, but that ties up resources. Under these circumstances the government will turn to illiberal states that finance the civil war. This would be the worst scenario for western interests such as Red Sea trading routes, migration co-operation and the fight against terrorism.
Egypt Mubarak Scenario: The protests persist and escalate. The disintegration of the military and the consolidation of political parties, the demonstrators and elements of the security apparatus puts pressure on the upper echelons of government. This results in a military coup or a leadership change brought about by opposition pressure. Subsequently, new alliances must first be forged and diverging interests overcome. Controlling rebellious elements of the old regime demands huge levels of energy and focus. This means that for a time, the country must step back from its function as regional actor and in co-operation with Europe.
Ethiopia Abiy Scenario: The government clearly indicates its readiness for change. Bashir announces his imminent resignation. New elections are announced and a transitional government of “national unity” is formed of political parties and civil society movements from all parts of the country. Work begins on a road-map focussed primarily on economic reforms. Frustrated elements of the old guard attempt to torpedo the new constellation, but are significantly weaker than they were in the previous scenario, as the national unity government is more inclusive and therefore stronger. Sudan remains a calculable regional and international actor.
A sustainable stabilisation requires both an improvement in the economic situation, but also a political process. Financial aid and investment from abroad is needed to go about implementing the necessary economic reforms.
This point requires more concerted engagement from Europe; but can only be useful in response to indications of openness and a willingness to change from Khartoum. Viewed as a trustworthy partner by both government and opposition, Europe could serve as mediator in any process of political change.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)