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Are the US and the West really concerned about freedoms of Sudanese protesters?

Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir at the Khartoum International Airport on 25 October 2018 [Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images]
Sudan's ousted President Omar Al-Bashir at the Khartoum International Airport on 25 October 2018 [Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images]

On 19 December, the Sudanese government decided to triple the price of bread, prompting a wave of anti-government protests which swiftly escalated into demonstrations calling an end to the three-decade rule of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. The demonstrations were chaotic, as the demonstrators torched several buildings of Al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), pushing the Sudanese security services to crackdown on protesters.

Al-Bashir and his ruling party believed that the protesters were encouraged and manipulated by certain powers, which wanted to exploit the weak economic situation in the country to bring Al-Bashir’s era to an end. “They want to harass us over dollars,” Al-Bashir told thousands of his supporters who gathered in Sudanese capital Khartoum yesterday to affirm their loyalty to him. “They said there are small things we need to do to make dollars and grain abundant,” Al-Bashir explained, before stressing: “But our pride is worth more than anything.”

Sudanese security services therefore dealt mercilessly with the anti-government protesters. Official Sudanese sources said that at least 24 people died in the protests. Meanwhile, hundreds more were arrested. In a joint statement issued on Tuesday, Britain, Norway, the United States and Canada reiterated their concern over the situation in Sudan. “We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest, as well as reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters,” the statement said. The four countries warned that the Sudanese government’s action “will have an impact” on relations with their governments.

Protests erupt in Sudan over economic difficulties [Sudan Tribune/Facebook]

The right to protest is guaranteed by international law and all human rights conventions and treaties. However, there is still a problem when protesters are pushed out into the streets by hidden hands, using their needs to push for ousting a ruler – regardless to his authoritarianism – who had nothing to do with their plight and miserable life. I am going to explain here how Al-Bashir, who came to power through a military coup, is not to blame for the breakdown of his country.

READ: Sudanese forces disperse hundreds of demonstrators in Kassala

Al-Bashir – who has an Islamic background and links to the Muslim Brotherhood – came to power through a military coup in 1989 and has been holding the top position in Sudan until today. He ousted an elected government led by Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi, ending decades of instability since the country was given its independence in 1956. However, this led the country into a new stage of economic hardship resulting from US hostility towards Islamists. In 1990, Sudan supported Iraq against US aggression in the Gulf War, further straining relations with the US.

The US continued punishing Sudan and designated it a state that sponsors terrorism in 1993, suspending its embassy operations in Khartoum in 1996. One year later the US imposed comprehensive economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan. Since then, the US has been undermining any infrastructure development in the country, even if it was financed by Sudanese itself. For example, the US bombed Sudan’s main Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory in August 1998, claiming it was owned by Osama Bin Laden and was being used to manufacture chemical weapons. Three years later, an investigation reported by the Guardian found that this was privately owned by the Sudanese businessman Salah Idris.

Recognising the reason behind the US-led international hostility to Sudan, Al-Bashir started to make changes in order to bring stability to the country. He pushed Osama Bin Laden out of the country and got rid of his closest Islamic ally, Hassan Al-Turabi. However, the sanctions continued and, according to the Guardian, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda-backed Christian rebels in the south of the country – as well as America’s evangelists – encouraged a kind of crusade to free Sudan’s Christians in the region.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, Al-Bashir became directly involved in the US coalition against terrorism. He provided intelligence information on different issues and allowed the US army to use Sudanese airbases to carry out attacks on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, Al-Bashir did not like to speak about this kind of cooperation with the US and many of his aides denied it. The US, however, could not deny it. Yet despite this essential assistance from Sudan, US sanctions remained in place.

READ: Sudanese launch night protests as economy slips further

Sudan agreed in 2005 to end the conflict with the south, granting it regional autonomy and pledging to organise an independence referendum within six years. A report by the US State Department, issued in 2006, stated that Sudan did well in fighting terror. However, in 2007 US President George W Bush imposed new economic sanctions on companies owned or controlled by the Sudanese government. The US claimed the sanctions aimed to end the suffering of those Sudanese people affected by the crisis in Darfur, in the west of the country, but in fact they aimed to hurt Al-Bashir. Al-Bashir was later indicted by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a war criminal for genocides he did not commit and was baselessly accused of helping the Janjaweed – the militia which in fact committed these genocides.

Blaming Al-Bashir for the Darfur atrocities – which were characterised by the US Secretary of State Colin Powell as genocide in 2004 – contradicts the aforementioned report issued by the US State Department which praised Al-Bashir for his cooperation with the US in fighting terror.

Sudan was lucky to have China accept its bid to work in its oil fields, which led to an income boom from 2005 to 2010. This era ended when South Sudan – encouraged by American evangelists – voted to secede in 2011, taking 80 per cent of the country’s oil resources with it. Evangelicals, who supported George W Bush, had played a big role in reaching the peace deal in 2005, which acted as the prelude to the secession of South Sudan. The evangelicals claimed that Sudan imposed slavery and Islam on Christians in the south.

In 2016, US President Barack Obama renewed sanctions on Sudan, despite a statement from the State Department saying that “the [US] Department of State welcomed Sudanese government efforts to combat terrorism and its increased cooperation with Washington”. However, the statement demanded more from the Sudanese government regarding the “[protection] of human rights, resolving internal conflicts, addressing humanitarian needs, improving regional stability and advancing political freedoms, accountability and reconciliation”. This, however, is not the real reason for renewing sanctions, because the US continues to pay billions of dollars to Egypt – Sudan’s neighbour – while it is still clearly carrying out the very same crimes that the State Department called on Sudan to stop.

In 2017 the US lifted the sanctions, pleasing Sudan, but the Sudanese economy retreated instead of prospering. The problem is that Sudan is still on the US list of countries that sponsors terrorism.  “If it gets the designation removed,” a BBC report said, “debt relief and international financial aid would be possible, bringing an end, perhaps, to the economic crisis”.

Sudan is still suffering the legacy of the 20-year-old sanctions, which were only partially lifted. Foreign Policy explained:

Sudan’s current economic conundrum is the inevitable result of a mutation that occurs after a country’s long period of exile from the global commerce network […] The prolonged application of sanctions has not only made it hard for Sudan to do business with the outside world, but it has also twisted its economy so out of shape that it is impossible to reintegrate into global financial networks in its current form.

“The reasons for the stalled economy,” Foreign Policy points out, was “the rise in demand for foreign currency, as Sudanese companies and individuals began to travel abroad to drum up new business. That demand was not met with a proportional supply in terms of influx of investment”. No influx of investment will happen as long as the country is listed as a sponsor of terrorism.

Foreign Policy reported Sudanese officials claiming that international financial organisations are not motivated to reach out after years of either doing just fine without accommodating Sudan or being punished for doing so. “Do you think the sanctions have been lifted?” a Sudanese minister asked, adding: “They are just as they are – nothing has changed. Banks are too afraid to deal with Sudan and have not been educated out of their fear or complacency.”

Like any other country, the US will not let Sudan survive as long as there is a ruler with any current or former relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Such is the desire of the largest power in the world, which refused to recognise the victory of the Islamic movement in Palestine, helped remove a freely-elected Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt and turned a blind eye to a fierce war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

READ: Sudan forms ‘fact-finding committee’ to investigate protests

The Sudanese writer Abdel-Hamid Ahmad stressed that the relationship of the Sudanese rulers with political Islam – mainly the Muslim Brotherhood – is the main reason behind the regional and international hostility directed towards it. All the dramatic changes made by the rulers of the country to dispel this image, including ousting historic allies like Hassan Al-Turabi, have not worked.

Western countries, headed by the US, do not want Sudan to prosper while ruled by an Islamic leader. US and EU countries are threatening to take measures against Khartoum in case it does not respect the right to protest freely, so why do not they take – or at least threaten to take – measures against Cairo, which has been confirmed by all rights groups around the globe to be a human rights abuser and which has killed hundreds of opponents and detained tens of thousands more?

The demonstrations in Sudan will continue to be encouraged by external powers using disloyal opposition which, according to the BBC, rejected lifting US sanctions on their country until Al-Bashir was ousted, along with his Islamic legacy. The US and the West, which are calling on Sudan to respect human rights and freedoms, will not protect or help a new ruler if he is from an Islamic background but might support a secular dictator if he illegally removes Al-Bashir and takes up his position. The US’ and Western outcry regarding the situation in Sudan is untrue.

READ: Sudan: Bashir nominated for new term, defying protests

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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