Wishful Spring Thinking or the Beginning of the End for al-Bashir?

Does a week of protests in and around Khartoum show that Sudan is facing its own Arab Spring?

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Hundreds of Sudanese demonstrators in Khartoum clashed with security forces while protesting against food and fuel inflation on June 23, 2012

In a bunker hidden by camouflage from Sudanese bombers roaming overhead at a secret rebel base in the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, Major General Izzat Kuku outlined the plan to overthrow Sudanese dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his Islamist government in Khartoum. The acting battle commander of the Nuba rebels said his fighters would link up with insurgent comrades from two other southern Sudanese states, Darfur and Blue Nile, that likewise accuse Khartoum of autocracy, religious hate and genocide. The united rebel force — called the Sudan Revolutionary Front — would then march on Khartoum. That advance would be the signal for opposition forces inside Khartoum to stage a popular uprising against the government. And al-Bashir would fall.

The rebels were acting, said Izzat, because after 23 years of al-Bashir’s rule they had learned that they could not count on the international community. Despite an International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes against al-Bashir for his murderous campaign in Darfur and the provocation that his National Congress Party sheltered Osama bin Laden for five years in the 1990s, the world had failed to remove, reform or sufficiently restrict the Sudanese regime. But even if the rebels were alone, added Izzat, “we are confident. We all want the same thing: to change the regime in Khartoum.”

That was in April. Some parts of the plan were already being enacted. The Nuba rebels had notched up a string of advances. They had also linked up with fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Darfur. And a few days after Izzat spoke, JEM teamed up with Khartoum’s old enemy, the government of South Sudan, to invade Sudan and briefly capture the oil field of Heglig.

But elsewhere, Izzat’s vision seemed far-fetched. The rebels in Blue Nile state, far from advancing, were being pushed into the hills by a scorched-earth campaign by Khartoum’s forces. Even more unlikely sounding were Izzat’s hopes for an uprising in Khartoum. Sporadic antiregime protests erupted in the Sudanese capital early last year as popular revolution swept North Africa. But most were small in comparison, attracting a few hundred demonstrators at most, and were almost immediately crushed by the security services. At the time, opposition members also reported that their movements were crippled by efficient infiltration and surveillance by the regime.

Now, three months later, Blue Nile state is still reeling under a Sudanese onslaught that has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. But in Khartoum there is renewed hope of something like Sudan’s own Arab Spring. The capital has experienced more than a week of protests that show no signs of diminishing despite being repeatedly broken up by police using tear gas and batons. The smoke from burning tire barricades fills the air in parts of the city. Copycat demonstrations have been reported around the country. Activists are planning their largest protests this Saturday, June 30, the anniversary of the coup that brought al-Bashir to power in 1989.

One reason why the movement seems more durable and widespread than before is that opposition members are attracting more generalized support from Sudanese civilians angry at a government austerity program that has seen the price of food and fuel rocket by close to 50%. Among the rebels, some take the cutbacks as evidence of Khartoum’s weakness. Historically, the governments of both Sudan and South Sudan have depended on oil revenue for income. While most of the oil lies in South Sudan, it pays its neighbor to allow exports via a pipeline that crosses the north. But after a dispute over how to split the oil money, South Sudan cut off the flow of oil earlier this year. The move was ruinous for both sides. And both now seem determined to play out a game of financial chicken.

Which begs the big question: Who will go bust first? Will the South implode amid spiraling inflation and devaluation? Or will the north erupt in unrest over government cutbacks in services and subsidies? The protests may indicate the latter is more likely. It also stands to reason. Because South Sudan’s government is far less functional than the north’s and because the South’s population is more used to war, the South, ironically, may weather hardship better.

On Sunday, al-Bashir dismissed the protests as insignificant. “The people who burn the tires are small in number,” he said, adding that when he had driven around Khartoum on Friday in an open-top car, “when the people saw me, they shouted ‘Allahu akbar.'” The activists’ view is the polar opposite. “It’s finally happening,” wrote Dallia Abdel-Moniem on the Sudan Protests blog. “It’s our turn to say kifaya [enough]. The people have found their voice, their will and the power to stand up to Bashir and his cronies. Sudan is not Egypt, it’s not Libya and it’s not Syria. But we all have the same end goal — to get rid of tyranny, of a corrupt and despotic regime.”