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The Sudanese doth protest too much: how austerity could, finally, undo Bashir

By Khadija Patel 22 June 2012

On Thursday, Sudanese police used batons to break up groups of protesters blocking a main road in central Khartoum – the latest in demonstrations against the government’s tough austerity programme. Protests have raged for almost a week now, and despite the government’s heavy-handed attempts at quashing them, Omar Al-Bashir may well find himself fighting for his political survival, should the protest bug bite the Sudanese. By KHADIJA PATEL

All week, reports of a nascent protest movement in Khartoum have swirled around, inviting observations that Sudan may, at last, have caught the spirit of the Arab Spring. And while these protests are in the same vein as the Arab Spring (or winter, if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person) in that they are another instance of popular discontent fermenting in an Arabic-speaking country, the Sudanese protests cannot be understood entirely through the same prism. 

One Sudanese analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, likens the protests in Khartoum this week to the protests that brought the Greek government to its knees. For one, these are protests that were sparked by the Sudanese government’s plans to implement an austerity programme to rescue the country from economic doldrums. The first ripple of of protest action was felt at the female dorm of the University of Khartoum, in response to price increases for meals and transportation. The male dorm followed and with it other universities in the capital. 

On Monday, as groups of students took to the streets to protest, Bashir briefed lawmakers on the grand plan to overcome the severe economic crisis hitting the country. The austerity programme will see the gradual removal of fuel subsidies and an increase in taxes and customs duty on luxury products, among other measures. It aims to help increase revenue and narrow a $2.4 billion budget deficit caused by the loss of oil revenue since the secession of South Sudan in July last year. Opposition groups have rejected the new austerity package, saying it will hit working people hard and increase inflation and poverty among the already vulnerable population. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged Sudan two weeks ago to launch emergency measures to overcome what it called “daunting” challenges.

On Thursday, Sudanese police allegedly used batons to break up protesters blocking a main road in central Khartoum. For now, the protests remain confined to isolated groups of a few hundred people, but there is already a growing call from the opposition for the broader public to join the students’ protests on June 30th – the  23rd anniversary of Omar Al-Bashir’s bloodless coup. 

Those fanning the flames of the protests from outside Sudan have taken heart from reports that the ruling party is feeling the strain of the anti-austerity movement. On Thursday Egyptian journalist Salma Elwardany was detained by government security services after reporting on the protests all week and then following up with a report on the dissolution of the Khartoum State Government – scaling down the government is another part of the austerity programme. 

In her report for Bloomberg Businessweek, Elwardany quotes Khartoum State Governor Abdel Rahman Khedr dissolving his Cabinet as part of Sudan’s austerity measures, saying he decided yesterday to do so to comply with Bashir’s austerity programme. Last year, a report from the International Crisis Group noted, “The governors  of each state run their own patronage network within their respective regions.” Sudan’s relative economic prosperity allowed a process of rewarding political barons who can deliver their constituencies by giving them lucrative government positions to maintain their loyalty. But Sudan no longer has the resources it once had. There is no longer enough money to curry favour, and in letting go of its former patrons the Sudanese government may well see itself coming up against its own allies.

It is telling, then, that while the austerity programme is yet to be implemented in full, already its effects are being felt politically – as well as commercially. Reports from Sudan suggest that shopkeepers have begun stockpiling basic commodities in anticipation of higher prices taking effect in the coming weeks. Reports of long queues for fuel have also emerged. And as the austerity programme takes effect, it makes sense for more Sudanese people to vent their dissatisfaction in the streets. 

Significantly, however, these protests have yet to attract large numbers of people. So far they remain confined to the realm of student life, but the attention this burst of definace of Bashir in his own capital is telling of an international community ready to cheer on a new front opening against Bashir.  There certainly is some joy to be had from the downtrodden rise against repression. Yet, as much as these protests may enjoy international attention and contribute to further international condemnation of Bashir, it may not translate into actual pressure on him. Remember, this is a man with an outstanding warrant at the International Criminal Court, persona non grata in polite society, and yet he has succeeded in holding onto power.

Bashir’s popularity, particularly in the rural areas, where some observers predict the austerity programme will be least felt, remains significant. The anti-austerity protests may well gather more supporters, but they will almost certainly clash with government supporters, hampering the movement from developing any further. The reality of Bashir’s support base lying outside of the major urban centres will also assist security forces in clamping down on protesters successfully. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has previously shown little reluctance in mobilising its security apparatus to suppress any revolts, and this one would be no different. 

The potential of this anti-austerity movement to survive lies in the ability of protesters to actually lure large numbers of Sudanese into the streets. To succeed, it would take hundreds of thousands of Sudanese shouting in one voice against the government. The probability of that happening remains marginal, but the longer the protesters hold out, the greater chance they will feel they have of winning the support of millions of other Sudanese who feed hard done by. And Bashir, under a barrage of security, political, social and economic challenges, may struggle to force a way forward for himself. DM

Read more:

  • Reviving the ‘New Sudan’ vision in Al-Jazeera 

Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir attends the opening ceremony of the Connect Arab Summit in Doha March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous

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