It must be difficult to be Omar al-Bashir. He is suspected of having orchestrated the murder of about half a million people, famously in Darfur and also in what was until recently the South of his country. Since 2008 the ICC has had a warrant out for his arrest. His Arab Sudanese compatriots are under strict political oppression; there is virtually no area of the country outside Khartoum which does not feel neglected. Yet despite having taken his country and himself to new limits of international isolation, things for Bashir are usually ticking over all right. But not this time.
A revolt is underway in Sudan. For nearly two weeks, protests around the country have been steadily increasing in number and location. I am not going to foolishly declare that it is now impossible for Bashir to stay in power – after all, hordes of analysts say that in reference to Biya, Nguema, Mugabe, et. al., whenever there’s a bit of unrest or an election, and that certainly hasn’t happened yet. I predict that, unless the government gets the protests under control before the 30th of this month (which is the anniversary of Bashir’s accession to power) this movement will eventually lead to his downfall.
In a lot of ways the situation in Sudan appears to be the same old story: protests begin urging the government to change its position on a popular issue (in this case, the end of the fuel subsidy); a negative official reaction develops the movement into an anti-government protest; the government’s campaign of arrests and crackdowns – the only response it knows – does nothing but broaden support; the protests spread to other cities; the Internet gets cut off, journalists are expelled… you can fill in the rest. But why are so many people so certain that this is the end? After all, Bashir is accused of conducting a genocide and certainly won’t shirk from adding a few more to the tens of thousands of dead. Last year’s brief imitation of Egypt in Khartoum ended rapidly and messily at about this stage of proceedings. Why should this be different? What has happened?
Well, South Sudan happened. In the past, no matter how bad Sudan’s reputation with the West was, there were always nations willing to buy its copious oil and keep its economy running well enough to stymie unrest on the rare occasions when it broke out. But the oil is located in the South (map). The independence of South Sudan nearly a year ago was conditional on an agreement between the two countries which would give South Sudan the use of Sudanese oil pipelines for access to the Red Sea, in return for preferential rates for Sudan to get South Sudanese oil. However, the financial details were not hammered out before independence. The current state of near war exists because the negotiations are going very badly, and because the oil-rich state of Abyei has not yet held, or been allowed to hold, its referendum in order to decide which nation it wants to join. South Sudan is withholding oil exports to Sudan as a result, and the Sudanese economy is in an advanced state of collapse. Inflation is beginning to rise wildly, and the fact that no country on the planet would lend Bashir aid money for the last 15 years has become suddenly relevant. The IMF predicts that Sudan’s economy will contract by 7% in 2012, even worse than Syria’s estimated 6%. As explained in further detail in this excellent article, the economic pressure behind the protests is not something the government has the capacity to alleviate.
Once the wheels are in motion, many people predict that the government will not hold together long. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of social collapse under which Sudan labours. Darfur, of course, is in ruins, but nearly every other part of the country has its own grievances: famine, ethnic marginalisation, lack of basic services, and failure to protect the population from cross-border raids. All that was needed was something to infuriate the urban populations in Khartoum, Obaid, and other cities, and the withdrawal of the fuel subsidy seems to have provided it. The army, which previously enjoyed a political standing equal to Egypt’s, was purged and restructured when Bashir took power in 1989, and has not been the same since. Loyalty and morale are reputed to be low at the best of times, and with Bashir flinging the nation towards a conflict with South Sudan which it does not even have the resources to conduct, let alone win, these are not the best of times. The army is unlikely to come to his aid.
Neither will the surrounding nations. Although African leaders usually support each other (cf. the Mali situation), Bashir has probably run out of good faith. Despite Bashir’s support for the Libyan rebels, the NTC has far too much to deal with at the moment to get involved in a country with which they share a short, uninhabited border. No Egyptian government is going to get involved. The President of Chad, Idriss Deby, and the Eritrean head of state, Isaias Afewerki, have spent years longing for Bashir to fall; so has Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, albeit in a less sinister way. The Central African Republic doesn’t have enough structure to form an opinion, let alone to do anything about it. Lastly, South Sudan has an immediate financial interest in making Bashir’s exit as swift and as complete as possible. All of Sudan’s neighbours, therefore, are either actively gunning for his ouster or too disorganised to care. Further afield, too, the new President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, cancelled an entire African Union summit entirely in order to avoid having Bashir in the country (a turnaround from last October, when the previous government refused to arrest him despite Malawi being a signatory of the ICC).
Perhaps the most basic reason behind my prediction is also the most clichéd: Sudan is not Egypt (or Syria, or Libya, etc.). This blindingly obvious statement has appeared in many otherwise intellectual discussions of the impact of the Arab Spring in various countries, and it would not be necessary if we did not unconsciously assume that every Middle Eastern country would react in the same way. Nevertheless, it is uniquely appropriate with reference to Sudan.
Between the monarchy and the revolution, Egypt had three leaders; Tunisia, two; Libya, one. Whenever a transition of power took place, it was between two members of the same establishment, carried out without shaking the foundations at all. Syria and Yemen both had an unnecessary wealth of presidents and a matching amount of chaos before someone stepped in and imposed an autocratic (and untenable) peace. In neither of these two situations were there any models for democratic government, nor even for changes between different styles of autocracy. Sudan, however, has had six presidents, one interim president, and three committees. The longest before Bashir, Gaafar Nimeiri, lasted 16 years. While it would be unwise to say that Sudan has an unstable government given Bashir’s sticking power, there have been four coups since 1969, and many governments brought down in circumstances far less fraught than those which currently obtain. There is also previous form for (fairly) democratic government. Sudan has previously held honest elections and had accountable leadership. The first president was brought down after six years by popular protests. Unlike the other Arab nations which have Sprung, democracy in Sudan would not be introduced so much as brought back. In most cases, coups and other changes of government have been related to the South. The ‘Southern issue’ may yet claim another victim.
Given its social instability and regional independence movements, most of Sudan more resembles a failed state like Yemen than any properly functional nation, and Darfur makes San’a’ look prosperous. In such a historical context, Bashir’s position is clearly precarious. Clearly no-one can state categorically that he will go; the government has several militias at its disposal and will likely attempt to strike back in the weeks ahead if the protests swell. But the components of a sustained and successful military offensive against the entire country are no longer within reach. It’s not a good time to be Omar al-Bashir.