Any swift transition to democratic rule in Sudan could further deepen tensions that already exist in the country. While the protestors’ demands and momentum represent a milestone for Sudan, the country faces several crucial challenges before it can transition to democracy.
Why Sudan’s Arab Spring is a fantasy
The Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi as an act of protest against poverty, police corruption and ill treatment on December 17, 2010. The protests spread around the North African and Middle Eastern countries with a speed and energy that few people could have imagined at its early stage. The long existence of Authoritarian States, Government Corruption, Human Rights Violation, Economic Difficulties and unemployment gave impetus to the Arab Spring. Prior to the protests, previous waves of democratization had failed in the Middle East and North Africa regions, which were still controlled by unwanted, and in some cases puppet regimes. The aim of the millions of protestors who furiously rioted against their governments was true democracies with respect for Human Rights. The immediate goal was regime change, Now!
Sudan has all the curses that triggered the Arab Spring. For the past 22 years, it has been ruled by a dictatorship whose brutality can only be compared with very few governments. The suffering that regime has caused its own people is unparalleled, globally. For almost 50 years, it bombed its own civilians in South Sudan, a region that finally seceded as an independent nation in July 2011. The regime is still committing war crimes in different regions of the country including Darfur, South Kordofan and areas bordering Southern Sudan and is faced with several armed groups in the East, West and South of the country. Its leader, President Al-Bashir, is the only head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide.
The Sudanese economy is worsening. Inflation has made life very expensive and people are getting angrier. Sudan lost most of its revenues when South Sudan became independent, taking with it most major oil producing areas. South Sudan’s independence deprived Sudan of most of its oil exports, about 90% of its total exports. Long economic mismanagement has created serious tensions between rising aspirations of young people and their inability to find a job. The International Monetary Fund has claimed that the economy will contract by 2% in 2012. Several bankers and business people have repeatedly complained that current laws make it difficult to invest and do business in Sudan. At an Arab investment conference, Saudi businessman and head of the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sheikh Saleh Kamal, criticized Sudan’s taxation and investment laws. “I said it already in the ’90s but I repeat it again since nothing has changed. The investment climate in Sudan does not help to attract any investments.” Additionally, the fact that resources are mostly spent for the army and military equipment results in basic needs being continuously ignored by the authorities.
I think there will be a revolution, but nothing will change. We will have the same people
The total absence of democracy in Sudan is another factor that has caused frustrations among Sudanese citizens. Detention of journalists, prisoning of opposition figures and forced displacement of people, among others, drove hundreds of people on the streets of Khartoum and other major cities in 2011. The response was violent. On the 17th of January 2011, security forces in Sudan arrested the head of the Popular Congress Party , Hassan al-Turabi , as well as five other members of the party, after he called for continuing protests to overthrow the regime. Students have clashed with security forces on various occasions in the last two years. On December 22, 2011, security forces tried to break up a rally at the university of Khartoum against the forceful displacement of the Manasir community caused by the construction of the Merowe Dam. Authorities infiltrated social media sites to crackdown protest. The regime arrested and tortured hundreds of protesters. In March 2011 the authorities detained journalists who had reported allegations made by Sofia Ishaag, a 26 year old art student who claimed that she was raped, tortured and beaten by security forces. Meanwhile, the ‘Enough – Project’ has claimed that rape is a weapon used by the regime against activists. Sudan has all the ingredients that sparked revolutions in the region the last 2 years.
But what makes Sudan different?
Sudan is much more problematic than its neighbours. It has been at war with itself for almost 50 years, and currently there is fighting ongoing between Sudan and South Sudan in the border regions, armed conflict in areas of Darfur and Kordofan and a separation movement -the ‘Eastern Front’- is fighting in the eastern regions of Sudan – near the red sea. Analysts say that should the Arab Spring reach Sudan, the most likely scenario would be an armed opposition as in Libya rather than street protests like in Egypt. It is logical to expect citizens who have suffered from long instability not supporting further instability.
A university student claimed that even if a revolution occurs nothing will change. In her own words quoted by Reuters: “I’m just tired of Sudanese politics. I think there will be a revolution, but nothing will change. We will have the same people,” she said. “I just want to leave Sudan. I don’t see any job prospects here. I think 90% of the students want to leave Sudan”. The current volatility both in Egypt and Libya as well as the fact that Yemen is still ruled by people strongly associated with the previous regime create a pessimistic view among young Sudanese.
I just want to leave Sudan. I don’t see any job prospects here. I think 90% of the students want to leave Sudan
To fully grasp the reasons why Sudan has not witnessed its Arab Spring one needs to focus on the views of Elfadil Ibrahim. As a Sudanese educated abroad, he has the power to understand his own society than the ‘outsiders’ much better. His main point as an answer to why the Sudanese have not rebelled against their government is that the leading party, National Congress Party (NCP) has intergraded itself in the Sudanese society as no other government did in the past. It has created a massive Civil service that links its survival with the survival of the regime. The same approach has been taken by the military and the security agencies, fearing that a democratic Sudan will threaten its power and salaries. The current government invests approximately 70% of its budget in defence.
Meanwhile, a big percentage of the middle class is out of the country chasing higher living standards in European and Gulf States. Most Sudanese students are tired with Sudanese politics and just want to leave when they finish their studies. As a result, a politicized Middle Class Youth who took to the streets all around the Middle East is lacking in Sudan. Another major force of the Arab Spring that is absent, is the widespread availability of technologies that helped the mobilization of million people across the region. Communication technology, such as internet, let alone social networks are not accessible for many Sudanese. The state has the power to intercept information on the internet. Non stable electricity, unreliable cell phone networks and low internet usage makes mass mobilization more difficult in this extremely vast country.
The current regime has robbed the civil society from its energy, claims Elfadil Ibrahim. Once a prominent actor of opposition, the trade union movement in Sudan is now uninterested on anything that will prolong instability. The rhetoric on reform seemingly works in Sudan when it has failed in almost all the MENA countries (excluding Saudi Arabia and Jordan). In the other countries, protests grew bigger as governments gave promises of fake reform. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced that he would not seek re-election in 2015. Whilst the rhetoric of a broad based government sounds nice, in reality it seeks to keep the current criminal regime in place.
Another difference is that Sudanese don’t perceive their regime as a puppet regime serving western interests as the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen did. Even the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi improved his relations with the west, was willing to play along with the rhetoric of terrorism and remained a crucial ally of the West in its effort to stop African migration into Europe as well as providing oil concessions for Western companies. The Sudanese government is the anathema of many Western governments, and at least in theory seems firm in its stance on Arabism and Islamism.
More and more people after the secession of South Sudan are prone to Nationalism and sectarian politics that current regime embodies. The “black African” enemy in the south recently attacked the oil field at Heglig which is internationally accepted to be in Sudan. At least for the last decade Sudan is facing armed movements along ethnic lines in the West and lately in the East of the country. Hoping for an Arab Spring in Sudan is like expecting an Arab spring in Egypt while the country is at war with Israel or the Israelis occupying the Sinai Desert.
Each country, like every political situation, is different. It is true that Sudan is being ruled by one of the worst and most brutal regimes in the world. Its international isolation, its support of worrying factions in central Africa (such as the Lord Resistance Army ) and its human rights violations inside the country are all reasons that could have caused a revolution inspired by the same ideas that ignited the Arab Spring. Its citizens should demand a structural democratic change, and there are sporadic signs that public anger is rising. On the other hand, the fact that the country has been at war for decades, the absence of an organized opposition movement and the absence of a middle class with all the technological tools that modern revolutions demand make an Arab Spring in Sudan a fantasy.