Omar al-Bashir desperately hangs on to power as Sudanese uprising spreads

Braving bullets, teargas and arrests, protesters stay put on the streets for the seventh day, vowing to overthrow the convicted war-criminal who has ruled Sudan for 30 years

December 26, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
The Sudanese security forces have been using live fire against the protesters, injuring dozens.

As the widespread protests in Sudan continued for the seventh day, thousands flocked on the streets of the capital city of Sudan on December 25, vowing to topple the incumbent government, led by President Omar al-Bashir. The protests have escalated following the ongoing crackdown by security forces which, according to Amnesty International, have killed at least 37 people. Bashir assumed power after toppling a democratically elected government through a military coup in 1989.

Fuel prices have been skyrocketing and the price of bread has tripled in Sudan since the beginning of the year. Even at these prices, residents have to wait for hours in long queues to get these commodities. Inflation has touched 70%., The government has sought to deal with the depleting currency reserves by imposing withdrawal limits on bank accounts of ordinary Sudanese citizens, who blame the government’s economic mismanagement and high-profile corruption for this financial crisis.

All this discontent together triggered massive protests on December 19 in the city of Atbara, 350 km northeast of the capital, Khartoum. Atbara is the seat of the national railways’ headquarters, and has a history of labor militancy dating back to the anti-colonial struggle. Hundreds took to streets here, marching to the local headquarters of the ruling party and setting it ablaze.

The very same day, the protests spread to other cities and towns, including Port Sudan, where president Bashir was scheduled to pay a visit. The following day, the demonstrations reached Khartoum, where they have been gathering strength ever since.

Yesterday, as thousands of demonstrators headed closer and closer to the presidential palace, security forces who had cordoned off the area, resorted to using fire power – this time allegedly taking head shots at protesters using snipers. At least eight protesters were injured, four of whom are reported to be in a critical condition. Over a hundred were reportedly detained.

However, a number of videos shot on cellphones by protesters also show that some groups of soldiers deployed to disperse the protesters had instead joined them, sloganeering against the government.

After reports on December 23 that a group of army officers had intervened to protect the demonstrators from police and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the army put out an official statement restating its loyalty to the current government. According to a post by the community called ‘Sudanese bloggers without borders’, a number of individuals from the police forces joined the protesters on December 24.

A number of leaders of the National Consensus Forces, one of the main opposition coalitions, were arrested on December 23, including its head, 85-year-old Farouk Abu Issa. Apart from the main opposition party, Umma, the coalition also includes the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). Security forces broke into SCP’s general centre and arrested the political secretary of Khartoum State. Some of the central committee members, including the national political secretary, are also under arrest. Schools and colleges have been shut down to prevent students from joining the protests.

The government has sought to cut off internet services, which are being used to coordinate the protests. However, with numerous service providers in operation, the government has not managed to make internet inaccessible to all, and posts from activists on the ground continue to flood Twitter. The popular Alabarby TV has been stopped from reporting on the protests by security forces, who have given them 24 hours to leave Khartoum.

In the meantime, declaring solidarity with the protesters, the Anonymous group has reportedly hacked and brought down more than 260 government websites. In a statement, announcing a massive and coordinated attack, the hacker group said:

“The Sudanese government is restricting free speech and seeking to limit and control internet access. This government  is even punishing the people for expressing their ideas and opinions. We will fight back! In response to Sudan situation, we are issuing a wide call to protest. We will protest against this government, its blasphemy laws, censorship laws, restrictions on internet access, restrictions to information access, and any and all thought crime legislation.”

Unions to go on strike

Unionized doctors continued to remain on strike since Monday, and are only attending emergency cases, a large number of which are of protesters injured by security forces. Urging the protesters to stay put on the streets, a coalition of trade unions has vowed to go on strike in the coming days in order to “paralyze the government”.

With the protests showing no sign of subsiding, Bashir repeated his accusation that the protesters were traitors who were a part of a conspiracy jointly orchestrated by Mossad and the communists. Soon after this accusation, security forces arrested a number of university students from Darfur and forced them under duress to confess that they were involved in such a conspiracy.

This wild allegation of a Mossad-Communist plot drew much scorn on Twitter, as protesters posted jokes about a new breed of political dissenters called “Communist Zionists”, whose sleeper cells wake up at night, sneak into cities which are preparing to welcome Bashir the next morning, and turn its residents against the president.

This joke was a reference to the fact that only a few dozen had gathered in the city of Wad Madani, less than 150 kilometres to the southeast of the capital, where the president had set out yesterday to address his supporters in a show of strength, while thousands were marching to his palace in the capital. After witnessing the low turnout of supporters, another speech he was scheduled to deliver in the town of El-Kamleen in Gezira State was reportedly cancelled.

Pitting the armed forces against unarmed protesters, mass arrests, blocking access to information, accusing dissenters of being traitors, attempting to rally his supporters – having tried his usual inventory of measures to quell the protests, president Bashir then went on the state news agency, SUNA, promising “real reforms to guarantee a decent life for citizens.” The channel had been carrying news about Bashir inaugurating a new road when shots were being fired in the capital to keep protesters from marching on his palace.

“Bashir “promising reforms” like we haven’t heard that for 30 years. The only reform we want to see is an end to your regime!!!” tweeted one dissenter. While promising reform, Bashir has outlined no specific economic measures. But doing so is no concession to those Sudanese on the streets willing to settle for no less than his resignation. While the sudden escalation in the economic hardships of the people may have triggered the current round of protests, the deep resentment against Bashir’s regime has been building up for decades among the masses, whose travails extend beyond the sphere of economy.

Under his authoritarian rule, dissenters have been systematically subjected to imprisonment without trials and torture in custody. Sharia law, which was instituted under his rule, is often selectively used to target political opponents. For overseeing a campaign of mass killings, rape and loot of civilians in Darfur, where a civil war is underway, Bashir was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and has an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009.

Despite being an internationally wanted criminal, and deeply unpopular within his country, Bashir has been able to hold on to his power, with backing from foreign powers. Among those have been two of the Western powers which have expressed ‘concern’ about the ongoing violence in the country.

At least since 2010, a year after the arrest warrant against him was issued by the ICC, the US, which had put Sudan in its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993, has been providing security assistance. The CIA has been providing training and military equipment to the domestically feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in order to enable the state to effectively help the US in its ‘war against terrorism.’

Earlier this month, at a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart, the commander of the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, James Craig, commended the Sudanese state for its effort in maintaining security and stability in the region. Discussions were held between him and the Sudanese army’s chief of general staff, Kamal Abdel-Marouf, about ways to improve joint military cooperation and build a “Strategic Military Partnership” between the two countries.

Negotiations on lifting Sudan’s name from the list of State Sponsors of terrorism are also underway. Last October, recognizing the contribution Sudan had made towards furthering American interests in the region, US lifted the economic sanctions imposed against the country 20 years ago.

The EU is another powerhouse that Sudan has won over by successfully cracking down on one of the busiest migration routes to Europe, using the might of its secret police and RSF. In exchange, the EU has funnelled in $200 million over the last two years.

Both these security agencies of the state are playing an active role domestically in suppressing protests. But how long can a regime, despised domestically, maintain its power using a security apparatus bolstered by foreign support? The protesters on the streets of Sudan – braving bullets, enduring beatings and tear-gas, and risking arrests and torture – will answer.