By Yousra Elbagir and Max Bearak
Sunday January 6, 2019
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Sudan on Sunday to demand the resignation of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whose nearly 30 years in power have been punctuated by civil war, ethnic conflict and a crumbling economy.
The protests were the latest — and among the largest — in more than two weeks of demonstrations in the North African country. Security forces have responded with tear gas and live rounds, witnesses said. Backed by some of the president’s former allies and even members of his ruling party, the protests present a serious threat to Bashir’s leadership.
The protests began when Bashir’s government announced a raft of price hikes to cope with spiraling inflation in mid-December, and thousands formed spontaneous, leaderless crowds — and not just in the capital, Khartoum, where past anti-government movements have briefly surged before being quashed.
The protesters, who chanted slogans borrowed from the “Arab Spring” movements in neighboring Egypt and nearby Libya, have been numerous enough to fill stadiums and the square in front of Bashir’s palace.
At least for the moment, there is no indication that Bashir will concede power. He has used sheer force to weather waves of protests across decades, and security forces have been out in large numbers over the past weeks, too.
In the first five days, almost 40 protesters were killed by Sudanese security forces, according to Amnesty International, and observers say dozens more have been killed since. The government puts the death toll at 19, but crowds on the streets and other meeting places like mosques have been regularly met with tear gas and live rounds, demonstrators say.
The protests remain relatively spontaneous. The decentralized nature of the protests in Arabic-speaking Sudan harks back to the Arab Spring, which also began with economic gripes but morphed into popular discontent against authoritarian leaders.
Sudan’s government has shut off access to social media sites across the country in an effort to contain the protests, but widespread use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, has allowed the Internet to remain a space not just for sharing information but also for sharing graphic pictures and videos of wounded or killed protesters.
Sudan’s economy under Bashir has tanked. Bashir, who came to power in an 1989 coup, spends billions on defense contracts while skimping on health, education and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of Sudanese people have attempted the dangerous journey across the Sahara desert to Europe.
Many of the protesters are students and professionals whose savings have evaporated as inflation has risen.
Ayman Saeed, a 29-year-old with a master's degree in business, recalled the crackdown on protests in Khartoum on New Year’s Eve.
“People started staring at someone on the roof a building and starting chanting at him that he was a sniper,” he said. Then, “the trucks of armed forces closed in on us and started beating and tear-gassing people.”
This isn’t his first experience with a mass movement. In 2013, protests in Khartoum were met with brutal force from the government and around 200 were killed. But Saeed feels more hopeful this time.
“In September 2013, the situation was different,” said Saeed. “Khartoum was chaotic, but nothing was going on in other cities in Sudan.”
The bloody aftermath of the 2013 protests led one of Bashir’s closest advisers, Ghazi Salaheldeen, to quit. He now is a leading figure in a coalition of 22 political parties calling for Bashir’s resignation.
“I saw death like never before in those events and saw the inability of the leaders of [Bashir’s National Congress Party] to admit to having made serious mistakes,” Salaheldeen said. “The callousness, the insensitivity to the people is what shook me most.”
Salaheldeen’s coalition is made up of many former allies of Bashir, and the largely youthful protests have so far rejected their leadership while still calling for a transitional government to replace Bashir until elections can be held.
Under pressure, Bashir has already made small concessions. On Thursday, he said his government increased salaries of public-sector workers and that he may also expand health insurance benefits and improve pensions for them.
“A total collapse of President Bashir’s regime is neither an imminent nor a guaranteed outcome of these protests,” said Muhammad Osman, an independent political analyst based in Khartoum. “It all boils down to whether the protests can keep going strong. If they do, the most likely scenario to happen eventually is a coup as more and more members of his security cabal continue to realize that he has become a liability.”
Bashir has blamed the economic crisis on Western sanctions that stem from years of alleged harboring of terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, and human rights violations that include war crimes. He lost a civil war with the largely Christian southern third of his country, leading to the secession of South Sudan in 2011. Throughout the 2000s, he was responsible for militias that repressed an uprising in the western Darfur region, which led to him being indicted by the International Criminal Court.
“What has happened lately is a serious turn in the path of Sudanese people towards revolution. But no matter what, I believe Bashir will not budge — will not resign,” said Salaheldeen. “It’s like someone who has found himself on the back of a lion. He can’t get off without the lion devouring him.”
The protests come as Europe and the United States eased sanctions in return for Bashir’s promises of humanitarian aid in South Sudan and help reducing migration toward Europe.
On Friday, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the new chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “The Sudanese government has reverted to violently repressive behavior.” Engel called for a review of the lifting of sanctions.
Bashir has turned increasingly toward other Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, for economic support, but they have not responded with offers to help him outlast this crisis. He has sent more than 10,000 militiamen to fight on the front lines of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen in return for financial assistance, for instance, and has sold enormous chunks of Sudan’s farmland to wealthy Arabs.
The benefits of such deals haven’t reached most Sudanese people. Sudan is still a country where banks limit withdrawals to $15 a day, and where the removal of subsidies on daily staples like bread can plunge thousands into hunger.
“I simply feel like we’ve been living without dignity. People are standing in endless lines for bread — the elderly and even children. I have girlfriends who would spend the night at the petrol station waiting to fill up their cars,” said Aseel Abdo, a 25-year-old woman who was at each of the past Sunday protests. “We hit our threshold a long time ago, but now our voices are being heard.”
Bearak reported from Kinshasa, Congo.