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Could army-backed protests topple Sudan's al-Bashir?

Tom Allinson
April 10, 2019

Over the past days, thousands have defied violence to camp outside Sudan's Defense Ministry. Growing support within the army and police could tilt the campaign for al-Bashir's ouster in the cheering protesters' favor.

Sudan Protests against President Omar Al-Bashir
Image: Reuters

Police ordered their forces not to intervene and soldiers were deployed to protect the thousands of Sudanese protesting outside army headquarters in Khartoum on Wednesday, where they camped out for the fifth day in a row to demand that President Omar al-Bashir step down.

The night into Wednesday passed without violence for the first time since the start of the sit-in. Previously, personnel from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) loyal to al-Bashir and riot police had repeatedly tried to break it up. 

Protests demanding an end to al-Bashir's 30-year rule have grown since December amid spiraling inflation and what protesters and observers see as rampant corruption. Sudan researcher and analyst Eric Reeves told DW that Sudan was experiencing its "most politically important moment since independence" in 1956.

Jubilant protesters

Officials say 49 people have died since December and analysts warn of potential massacres. But growing support for the protesters from the police and some army ranks has raised the spirits of those on the streets. 

Videos from the sit-in's main organizer, the Sudanese Professional's Association (SPA), showed demonstrators dancing, singing and chanting slogans.

"With the army's presence, we feel safe," 23-year-old Ayman Abdullah told Reuters, referring to the soldiers who came out of the headquarters to protect the protesters camping out. "The army is protecting us and we will continue the sit-in until the regime falls."

On Tuesday the police ordered its officers to avoid intervening against the demonstrators. They also called for "an agreement which would support the peaceful transition of power," AFP reported, citing a police spokesperson's statement.

Read moreAnger over dictatorship, not bread, fueling Sudan uprising

Sudan protests
Protesters have been chanting and singing while staging their sit-inImage: Reuters

Army divisions decisive               

Analysts say the movement has widespread support from all corners of civil society, but Reeves believes division within and support from some ranks of the army has been a "hugely significant development."

"Now there are divisions within the army and they're not just junior or senior rank divisions. From my point of view, that's probably going to be very determinative and probably very, very soon," Reeves said.

"In the end this uprising is only going to succeed if the army switches its allegiance from al-Bashir," he added.

Khalid Medani, Sudan expert at McGill University in Canada, stressed the movement had been in the making since 2010. He told DW that the country was really witnessing a cultural revolution that "cuts across ethnicity, cuts across region, cuts across class and social standing."  

In the past two days, the role of women in the protest movement was thrown into the spotlight after a photo of a woman wearing traditional white dress and standing atop a car went viral.

According to Medani, the high-ranking military officers and Islamist militia leaders under the intelligence directorate who support al-Bashir were increasingly "very much in the minority."

International recognition

International support for the protests has been relatively slow to materialize although the so-called "troika" countries — the UK, US and Norway — issued a statement on Tuesday backing demonstrations for the first time.

"The time has come for the Sudanese authorities to respond to these popular demands in a serious way," the trio of Western diplomatic players said.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
Sudanese President Omar al-BashirImage: Reuters/M. Nureldin Abdallah

In February, the troika had already condemned the imposition of a yearlong state of emergency in Sudan. Sudan's Foreign Ministry responded by saying they trio's statement represented "a gross interference in Sudan's private affairs."

Reeve said the statement didn't go far enough.

"The regime needs to be apprised clearly of the consequences if they continue to massacre civilians and they can range from economic (consequences) to the shutting of embassies or withdrawing diplomatic personnel to muscling up even more at the UN," he said.

Medani said the slow international response was understandable due to the geostrategic interests of regional and international players. Those included US anti-terrorism operations, European attempts to stem the flow of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean through Libya, and Egyptian wariness at a transition from authoritarianism to democracy on its border.

Economic transition

The protests erupted in December last year after the Sudanese government tripled the price of bread as other costs for basic items such as cooking oil surged.

Sudan lost significant amounts of foreign currency after the oil-rich South Sudan seceded in 2011. Since then inflation has spiraled.

Medani said economic development was the "biggest, if not most important challenges," but was optimistic that further international support for a transitional government would arrive as the SPA seeks back-channel support in the UK and Europe.

Both Medani and Reeve agree that Sudan and the protest leaders have the institutional history needed for economic rehabilitation and there is potential for stability, if the SPA plans for a technocratic civilian government are realized in the future.

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