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Can Sudan protests succeed without a leader to replace Al-Bashir?

January 22, 2019 at 4:15 am

Sudanese demonstrators gather during an anti-government protest in Sudan on 20 January 2019 [STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images]

A month after a spontaneous protest in the Northern Sudan of Atbara, known as the “City of Iron and Fire,” morphed into a series of organised demonstrations, there are still no signs that the resistance movement is coming to an end.  What began as a protest against bread, fuel and cash shortages, in an town famous for the intersection of the Sudanese railway system and its now-antiquated Cement factory, became a nation-wide campaign to drive President Al-Bashir and his government out of power.

Atbara has never been a friend of the Islamic movement that came to power in 1989. Located on the Nile River, where locals pride themselves on drinking its brown water for medicinal purposes, the city has been politically recognised as the Northern home of Sudan’s Communist movement. Nevertheless, the question remains in the city and elsewhere in the country, is there a viable alternative political and economic programme to the incumbent government? Will the protests that begun in Atbara lead to the fall of the government or real changes in Sudan?

Families in Atbara remain divided on this question. Some are public sector employees who have benefited from government links with the private sector awarding separate sources of extra income for security or ex-army officers. Others are disillusioned with the conditions created by a government they once supported. However, in the past few days, following government-organised rallies supported by hundreds of thousands of citizens. The danger has emerged of Sudan is fast becoming a highly divided and ungovernable country, at best; or falling into a state of lawlessness, at worse. The large crowds that showed up in the Green Square, the rally in Niyala in the Western State of Darfur and the President’s visit to the White Nile, a few days ago, produced a defiant President unwilling to respond to the demand that he step down and give up power.

Read: Sudan freezes credentials of two journalists covering protests

Ironically, much of the success of the protest has been its ability to galvanise support around some simple messages: #taskutbus hashtag “just fall” and the 2011 Arab Spring mantra: “The People want the fall of the regime.” These messages have been strong enough to draw almost 400,000 demonstrations on to the streets, but increasingly there’s a hollow response to the question what should happen after the Sudanese President Al-Bashir goes. For many, the lack of a definitive answer to that question leaves a worrying prospect.

Sudanese-born international businessman Mohammed Ibrahim has touched on the issue of what happens to Al-Bashir and how best to force him to leave. He suggests dropping the International Criminal Court charges against the 75-year old leader in exchange for him stepping down from power or at the very least concede that he will not run again in 2020.

Such a move may or may not bring a halt to these protests, but it would please a sizable band of opponents within Al-Bashir’s party who do not want the President to run again for another term of office in the forthcoming elections. The 2020 elections have become a divisive issue, and It is believed that some of his opponents within the party have been chiefly responsible for helping to accentuate the economic crisis as a means of creating an unfavourable impression of Al-Bashir’s leadership.

Image of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on 4 April 2017 (Minasse Wondimu Hailu /Anadolu Agency)

Image of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on 4 April 2017 [Minasse Wondimu Hailu /Anadolu Agency]

Questions remain about the 75,000 government sacks of bread flour allocated to the States, like Atbara, that were not delivered on time and why only 17,000 sacks were later found in government stores in Khartoum around the days the deliveries should have taken place. There are those in the internal opposition who appear to have turned a blind eye to the mismanagement of the fuel and bread distribution to the states and from the practice of selling off subsidised flour to outlets that produce cakes and sweets, such as baklava commonly known in Sudan as “baasta.”

In the last few days, details of those leading the resistance movement have emerged. To date, a combination of breakaway professional unions has managed to galvanise the protests from inside and from outside of Sudan. However, the movement against Al-Bashir appears to be broadly inclusive of young and old, men and women of all ages and political persuasions.

Read: Sudan’s Bashir to visit Qatar amid ongoing unrest at home

No apparent links to any opposition party position or armed opposition groups have been established; although the government have pointed to armed groups, like Abdel-Wahid Al Nur of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) in Darfur, looking to spread chaos and dissension.  Also, unsubstantiated reports are beginning to surface that the leader of the Reform Now party, Ghazi Salah Ad-Din is the principle face behind the protests – a former ally and adviser of President Al-Bashir – who led 22 parties away from the National Reconciliation Government.

The lack of a clear leadership suggests two things: either the movement will fizzle out in the absence of a united direction or alternative action plan to replace President Omar Al-Bahir.  Or it is entirely possible that Sudan could be moving into a new-phrase of its history where a populist leader – an unconventional politician – may emerge from the professional associations that have so far galvanised protestors via social media on to the streets.

Clearly, for peaceful change and a viable alternative government to happen, the protestors are hoping that the initial enthusiasm behind the protests over this last month is maintained. However, the government and the President will continue the drive to persuade people away from the protests through staging rallies of its own and through seeking financial support from foreign allies like Qatar.

In Atbara, where the troubles began, a series of peaceful protests have taken place since the first December insurrection. Few believe that the government’s position is sustainable and perhaps even fewer are holding out hope that the economic, social and political woes of the country will disappear anytime soon.


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