Is Sudan’s al-Bashir on the verge of being toppled?

Over the past few days, Sudan has seen the largest demonstrations since December 19. The strategy of the protesters to march to the army headquarters seems to be working as soldiers have come out to defend them against State forces.

April 10, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Sudan Protests
This photo of a woman chanting during a protest in Sudan's capital on April 8 has gone viral on social media. (Photo: Lana H. Haroun/ Twitter)

The Sudanese regime has come under heavy pressure as the largest demonstrations in recent times continue in the capital of Khartoum. Heavy gunfire was reported at the site of the demonstration outside the army headquarters on Tuesday as the regime’s forces and militia made another failed attempt to break the demonstration.

At least 26 people are believed to have been killed since April 6, with another 160-170 injured by bullet wounds or by choking on tear gas. At least of 15 them are in a critical condition, and have been admitted in the Intensive Care Unit after slipping into coma due to head injuries. Over 2,500 people are believed to have been arrested.

The demonstrations saw tens of thousands of people staging a sit-in before the army headquarters in Khartoum. Efforts by the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) to break this demonstration were foiled.when soldiers, taking position between the security forces and the protesters, fired back at them. In the course of the exchange of fire, one soldier is reported to have been killed.

No official response has been made by the army to these acts of solidarity by the soldiers although the defence minister declared that the army understood the reasons behind the protests but would not allow the country to descend into chaos. Meanwhile, the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD), which has been leading the ongoing strike by doctors who refused to provide treatment in hospitals of the armed forces, called on its members to end the strike.

The sit-in began on April 6, when hundreds of thousands of people took to streets in cities and towns across the country. This was the largest demonstration since December 19, when the Sudanese uprising began with the aim of overthrowing the regime of Omar al-Bashir who seized power through a coup 30 years ago.    

Apart from the capital city of Khartoum, the streets of major cities of Blue Nile state, White Nile state and the Northern state were taken over by anti-government demonstrators, chanting slogans such as “Just fall! That’s all!” The pre-emptive arrests made by NISS over the previous two days seemed to have done little to reduce the scale of the demonstration. As many as 28 students from the Dongola University in the Northern State were arrested and sentenced to six months of imprisonment for refusing to sit for exams and going on strike in solidarity with the demonstrations.

Even regions under the control of rebel forces saw participation in the demonstrations. In areas of Nuba mountains in the state of South Kordofan under the control of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), hundreds gathered near Kauda market to demonstrate in solidarity with the struggle.

The following day, tens of thousands of victims, displaced by the ongoing civil war in the Darfur region and crammed into the Kalma camp, also joined the demonstrations

Ahead of these mobilizations, the Sudanese Professionals Association – comprised of teachers, doctors and other professionals – had given a call for a march to the army command posts in all the 18 States, saying that the lower rank officers and soldiers of the army are also “affected by the suffering, distress and humiliations. They and their family members and neighbors know well that the army is kidnapped by a few chiefs of staff and the ministry of defense.. The army, by its legacy and history, knows very well that it has played a pivotal role in overthrowing the Abboud and Nimeiri regimes [in 1964 and 1985] and taking sides in favor of the people and democracy.”

Heeding this call, tens of thousands of protesters began marching towards the army headquarters in Khartoum on Saturday, calling on the soldiers to take the side of the demonstrators.

Once the protesters reached the headquarters and began the sit-in demonstration, soldiers came out to mingle with the crowd, and distributed water and refreshments to protesters who had marched under the scorching sun. One army Colonel – who defied the government’s order to confront the protesters and joined the demonstration, sloganeering with them, “Just Fall! That’s all!” – was raised on the shoulders by a cheering crowd.  

That evening, the General Secretary of the opposition National Umma Party, Sarah Nugdallah, called on the protesters to “maintain the sit-in until the regime of al-Bashir steps-down”.

On Sunday morning, when about 3,000 protesters remained, NISS forces arrived and began firing tear gas into the crowds, according to Radio Dabanga. In response, army soldiers came out of their military compounds and fired shots in the air as a warning to the NISS forces.

However, one source based in Khartoum told People’s Dispatch that these forces were actually militia of the ruling National Congress party (NCP), who have been incorporated as a sort of a “special force” within the NISS. The “professional” wing of the “NISS is still reluctant to fight as that might push things to a point of no return if the army [intervened] in support of junior officers” who took the step of defending the protesters, he said.     

The forces loyal to Bashir then retreated as the crowd waved national flags and chanted: “The army is protecting us” and “One people, one army”.       

The protests continued later into Sunday night despite an unexplained power outage with thousands holding up moblle phones to illuminate the night. On Monday morning, forces loyal to al-Bashir made another attempt at break the demonstration but failed again. It was during this confrontation that one soldier was killed. A similar bid by the loyalist forces on Tuesday also failed.

Abandoned by allies?

Bashir also seems to be losing the support of foreign powers. The assistant secretary for U.S. Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, tweeted on Monday, “I commend the Sudanese people for their peaceful & resilient expression of their legitimate demands for change.. We support their desire for a #Sudan that is more peaceful & prosperous.” He called on the government to halt the use of force on protesters.

This was followed up on Tuesday with an official statement by the Troika (the US, UK and Norway), which said that the “time has come for the Sudanese authorities to respond in a serious and credible way” to the Sudanese people who “are demanding a transition to a political system which is inclusive and has a greater legitimacy.”

Despite his unpopularity, Bashir has held on to power for decades due to the strength of his security apparatus which has been receiving assistance from western powers. The latest developments indicate that this support too may be waning. The presidency is al-Bashir’s only safeguard from being arrested as he has been found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court.   

Several Arab states, including Egypt, have offered a safe haven for Bashir, according to one Nairobi-based security analyst.

But Bashir may not yet have performed his last waltz. Eric Reeves, a senior fellow at Harvard University researching on Sudan, tweeted hours ago that Bashir and his senior officials were at the army HQ, conducting a crackdown. “[M]any mid-level officers [are] arrested, 7 shot and 2 killed. Army has now begun to move protesters from front of Army HQ,” he claimed.

However, “[t]housands, if not millions, are still in the square” before the Army HQ, at least as on 12:30 am, Sudanese local time on April 10, a source told People’s Dispatch.

The stand of the army, along with the persistence of the protesters, might be the key determining factors in unseating al-Bashir in the next couple of days.