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Is Bashir’s three decade rule nearing its end?

Jan 22,2019 - Last updated at Jan 22,2019

This week marked a month since spontaneous popular anti-government protests broke out throughout Sudan, and on Sunday, professional unions representing teachers and pharmacists joined what has become an almost daily denunciation of Omar Al Bashir’s three-decade authoritarian rule. His iron-clad grip over the country’s fortunes seems to be waning. Protestors, mostly young men and women, have dared tear gas and live bullets and their demands have changed from denouncing recent hikes in prices of essential goods to calling for Bashir’s overthrow.

Eight years since the eruption of a wave of popular protests in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, the Sudanese people have finally risen against a ruler who had been in power since 1989. Bashir toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq Al Mahdi in a military coup. Since then, he has allegedly rigged three presidential elections to remain in power.

Under his rule, the central government continued to wage war against secessionists in the south, and eventually lost that struggle in 2011, when South Sudan became independent. That loss cost what remained of Sudan billions of dollars in oil revenues, thus exacerbating an already difficult economic situation. Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape and pillaging against civilians in Darfur. Making the situation worse was a series of US economic sanctions imposed on Sudan in the 1990s for association to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. These sanctions were lifted last year by US President Donald Trump’s administration, which cited that the regime had made improvements in humanitarian issues and was cooperating in counterterrorism cases.

Bashir had blamed the sanctions for the country’s ailing economy and high poverty rates rejecting accusations of mass corruption and discrimination in favour of ethnic Arabs. But when his government ended fuel and wheat subsidies two months ago, to improve its credit status with international lenders, protests broke out.

Bashir has flip-flopped in his reaction to the popular protests, which broke out across the country, praising demonstrators at one stage and promising reforms but later accusing outside powers of seeking to derail his regime and describing protesters as “traitors, mercenaries, agents and heretics”. Even as his government denied claims that it was using excessive power, at least 40 people were killed according to independent sources, evidence was mounting that Bashir had unleashed a wave of mass arrests and intimidation against his people.

As protests gained momentum, a number of political parties that were in coalition with the ruling National Congress Party announced that they were pulling out. Al Islah movement decided to withdraw its deputies in parliament in protest; dealing a blow to Bashir’s ruling coalition. Making things worse is the fact that professional unions have joined the mass protests and there are calls to declare a state of civil disobedience across the country.

Bashir has rejected calls for his removal from office, saying that only the ballot box will decide who will rule Sudan. Presidential elections are slated to be held next year, but critics fear that caving in now will give the regime the chance to clamp down on the opposition and rig future elections.

Bashir’s power comes from the army, which has played a fundamental role in Sudan’s political history since its independence in 1956. So far, it does not appear that the army is ready to step in. But that remains a possibility and may even present a compromise. One of Bashir’s main concerns, if he accepts a deal to leave office, is that a future government may be willing to extradite him to face trial at the ICC.

One of Bashir’s tactics to deal with mass protests is to use the country’s clergy in a bid to dissuade opposition. Known for their deep religious background, the Sudanese people generally hold Muslim clergy in reverence. Last week, Bashir held a meeting with members of Sudan’s Clerical Association, which handed the president a list of demands. These included taking immediate measures to improve people’s livelihood and human rights among others. But it is not clear that even if Bashir adopts these conditions the protests will end.

Bashir finds himself in difficult position today, as protests spread to loyalist towns and provinces. He can do little to improve the country’s economy, as the government is dependent on foreign assistance. As the protests enter their second month, with no signs that the crackdown is working, the opposition is gaining strength on daily basis, as more professional unions and political parties join the movement.

Aside from willingly leaving office through a political compromise, all eyes will be on the army, which so far has been silent. The possibility of an internal coup that removes Bashir and brings another strongman is likely, but the question is will the protestors accept such outcome? One thing is certain and that is Bashir’s 30-year era is nearing its end.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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