The decision by Sudan's Intelligence Services to release protestors arrested during the ongoing demonstrations across the country may come as a surprise to human rights organisations and detainees alike. However, those close to President Omar Al-Bashir are aware that after 30 years he remains an astute strategist capable of doing whatever it takes to hold on to power.
Al-Bashir's recent visits to Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt have been described by the media as an attempt to secure financial aid to assist Sudan's ailing economy. The discussions, though, have equally been very useful for drawing a roadmap on how to put the country back on its feet and minimise growing international pressure on the government in Khartoum.
Over the past few weeks, the government has been careful not to repeat the security forces' lethal violence against unarmed, non-violent protestors. Officially, 30 people have been killed in the protests that began on 19 December; according to human rights groups like Amnesty International, the death toll is closer to 45. Reports and video evidence continue to surface of raids and beatings of those suspected of organising or joining the anti-government protests.
This week's release of prisoners solves a number of problems for the government; at the very least, it eases the overcrowding in Sudan's jails. Nevertheless, the release is principally a goodwill gesture designed to ease domestic pressures, with officials guessing correctly that the continued detention of protestors will increase resentment against the government and heighten calls for more demonstrations. Moreover, this is also a response to criticism from the international community, which has called on the government to exercise restraint, albeit without adding that punitive actions or sanctions against Sudan might be necessary.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources have revealed that many of the detainees were poorly treated and beaten. Those released were forced to sign pledges that they would not take part in further protests against the government. I was told that one individual's pledge was signed under the duress of knowing that he would face a fine of up to fifteen thousand Sudanese pounds (£210) or a custodial sentence of up to five years if he took to the streets again.
During his visit to Egypt, President Al-Bashir spoke derisively about "the so-called Arab spring" uprisings. He admitted, candidly, that the Sudanese were going through some difficulties, but said that the situation in his country is under control. He continues to push a narrative which reflects that of sections of the Sudanese media on issues ever since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 that did not appear to affect Sudan. The situation in his country, the President insisted, may be harsh but it is preferable to the events in Arab Spring countries that have brought death and destruction in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The fear of civil unrest was echoed by some opposition groups such as the Popular National Congress party (PNC) which at the beginning of the protests stood with Al-Bashir, pleading with those taking part to avoid plunging Sudan into chaos. The PNC said protestors should show their displeasure at the ballot box by voting out the government in the 2020 elections. However, the decision by former Prime Minister and opposition leader Sadiq Al-Mahdi to order his followers to join the protests and the brief arrest of his daughter and deputy leader of the Ummah Party, Mariam Sadiq Al Mahdi, suggests that political tensions could intensify.
In Sudan's towns and cities, meanwhile, the situation has improved but queues for bread and fuel continue. "I couldn't get bread, couldn't get fruit and vegetables and meat prices are astronomical," commented Al Amin Metcalf, who returned to Britain recently after living in Sudan for more than 15 years. "And yet I could buy as much Cola and Cadbury's chocolate as I wanted; Mars Bars too!" Metcalf's comments reflect the perverse economic situation in Sudan where imports of foreign products continue but the supply of staple foodstuffs is still limited.
Given that the conditions that prompted the protests remain, few people expect them to die down completely. However, this week the government moved to issue new bank notes in an efforts to ease the cash liquidity problem which led to long queues at ATM cash dispensers.
The government hopes that the release of prisoners, a series of economic measures and international support will change the mood in the country. Judging by some of the conversations I have had with Sudanese diplomats, there is indeed a sense that the worst of Sudan's problems are over. However, with major nationwide protests planned for the coming week, we will have to wait and see if that is going to last.
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