Sudan: Will a weakening economy be a game changer for the military regime’s harsh tactics?

By Sherif Tarek
Posted on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 20:10, updated on Friday, 18 February 2022 10:29

Protesters march during a rally against military rule
A protester marches during a rally against military rule following coup in Khartoum, Sudan, February 10, 2022. Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Sudan has been caught in a vicious cycle since the 25 October 2021 coup. Protests and deadly clashes continue to break out. But the military remains largely unfazed, and continues to arrest key dissidents. Could further economic deterioration break the stalemate?

Amira Osman was freed unscathed a fortnight after her arrest, yet the detention of the renowned Sudanese women’s rights activist, among other leading opposition figures, might have heralded the beginning of an escalation that further diminishes Sudan’s chances of achieving a democratic transition.

“She was not subjected to any assaults or violations except for arresting her in a terrifying fashion without any complaints filed against her,” says Tahani Abbas, a prominent human rights defender and member of the No to Women’s Oppression initiative that Osman heads.

Osman, who was arrested by security forces at her house in Khartoum on 22 January, was held incommunicado for days before her family knew her whereabouts, Abbas tells The Africa Report. The staunch critic of the military was released last week without being interrogated.

No sooner had Osman been released than Khalid Omer Yousif and Wagdi Salih – who were part of the government that fell following the October coup – were arrested. The duo have been critical of the military takeover, which has fomented recurring demonstrations and unrest over the past few months.

“An arrest campaign is expected to target all active [members] of the resistance committees and political activists […] and could also include all leaders of the Forces of Freedom and Change,” Abbas says. It is Sudan’s leading civilian opposition coalition, and Yousif and Salih are members.

“The arrest campaign is insane and not based on legal fundamentals; it is only driven by the fears of the coupists […]. It is based on the emergency […] [status] that coupist General [Abdel Fattah] al-Burhan has enforced,” she adds.

‘Minimal impact’

The 9 February arrest of Yousif and Salih, who were among the more than 100 detainees who began a hunger strike in the Soba prison on Tuesday 15 February, has triggered domestic and international condemnation.

Critics, including the United States (US), Britain and the European Union, said the arrest is part of the intimidation tactics used by the military, which has been defiant in the face of criticism.

The military appears to be trying to intimidate the civilian opposition and protesters to dissuade them from participating in any dialogue.

Sudan’s foreign ministry said the detention of Yousif and Salih was over irregularities in their work with a governmental committee responsible for confiscating properties of officials who had served under ex-president Omar al-Bashir.

The ministry has also deplored the “blatant interference in internal Sudanese affairs” by foreign governments.

Generally speaking, the “international efforts to pressure the military has had minimal impact” on the status-quo in Sudan, says Rachel Jacob, regional director of intelligence at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm.

“I think it’s certainly possible that more civilian leaders will be arrested,” she tells The Africa Report. “The military appears to be trying to intimidate the civilian opposition and protesters to dissuade them from participating in any dialogue.”

She adds: “Yousif was supposed to be part of a delegation involved in United Nations (UN) talks, and his arrest will likely send a signal that the government is seeking to stall any civilian leadership or momentum. The [brief] detention of the BBC journalists the other day was likely for a similar reason,” says Jacob.

The apparent rise in arbitrary detentions over the past weeks, with international cries falling on deaf ears, have stoked fears that the military is bringing back the oppression of the internationally isolated Bashir, who was ousted in 2019 following mass protests his rule.

Economy may prove to be game changer

After the fall of Bashir, a bundle of tough economic reforms, including phasing down fuel subsidies, led the Sudanese pound to collapse and inflation rates to skyrocket as high as 400% last year.

Sudan is certainly feeling the pinch from the cut-off in assistance after the coup, but the pain is being spread across the country very unevenly.

Added to that are the sanctions the US imposed after the coup, including the $700m aid that DC has frozen until a civilian government is formed, in addition to stalling the much-needed billions of dollars worth of debt relief. Further economic deterioration seems inevitable, and that could be a game changer.

“Sudan is certainly feeling the pinch from the cut-off in assistance after the coup, but the pain is being spread across the country very unevenly,” Cameron Hudson, a former US state department official and Sudan expert at the Africa Center of Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council, tells The Africa Report.

“Most US and international assistance was going to the family support plan, so with that suspended. It is really the poorest of the poor who are suffering. The stalled talks on debt relief, and the disincentive this political crisis has created on new investment, has certainly hurt the broader macroeconomy, which the military is responsible for.”

With the economy sliding at a fast pace, Hudson foresees the military soon being unable to pay the salaries of civil servants or afford importing staples including food, medicine and fuel. Sudan could also default on its external debt.

“There is no question that the more the economy fails, the more political pressure on the military will grow,” Hudson says. “The military will not succeed in getting the people to leave the street and return home if, in addition to not making political concessions, the price of basic commodities continues to rise, along with inflation, and living standards continue to fall. It will only motivate people further that the military is incapable of administering the country.”

Sudan’s allies, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates could also pile pressure on the Sudanese military to reach a political settlement at some point, Hudson says, “because they do not want to be in a position where they are being asked again to bail out Sudan’s failing economy because of the military’s mismanagement.”

He adds: “As painful as this will be on the people of Sudan, it might be [the] last factor needed to break the will of the military.”

More political games

The military is very unlikely to relinquish power without putting up a fight; it might even still have quite a few strategies to try.

“It’s possible that the military will try to break the deadlock by creating divisions within the civilian groups, such as approaching individual parties to make individual agreements,” says Jacob.

“This has been fairly unsuccessful over the past year since the groups that the military deals with become unpopular in comparison to the leading protest organisations such as the Sudanese Professionals Association or the resistance committees,” she adds.

Another move, the Atlantic Council’s Hudson says, could be selecting a new civilian premier who would serve as the puppet of the military. He does not believe there is any way the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) would agree to work under a civilian leader.

“Ultimately, the senior leadership of the SAF and RSF have lost the legitimacy to continue to serve. They must go, and new leadership must come in with a mandate to work with and for civilian leaders to manage the remainder of the transition,” he says.

Future paved with potholes?

Even though Osman, the women’s rights advocate, was released after a relatively short period of detention without being abused, her colleague Abbas argues the road to democracy in Sudan will be full of potholes.

The protesters have also increasingly perceived the international community to be on the side of the military.

Following the 25 October military coup, which saw the former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and other government officials detained, pro-democracy protesters have continued to hold protests that the security forces forcibly disperse.

Jacob explains: “The protesters have also increasingly perceived the international community to be on the side of the military. This includes organisations like the UN, which is viewed as not doing enough to support civilians and protesters. This will make the civilian groups difficult to negotiate with given that their core demand is for the military to hand over power to a civilian authority.”

“The solution might be difficult and extremely costly, but we’ve been unswerving and will continue our revolution […] for which we paid precious blood,” Abbas concludes.

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