The people of Sudan have been engaged in the protest against the government for the past four months. The protestors have been calling for the resignation of President Omar Al-Bashir who has ruled the country for 30 years.
There are a number of lessons we can learn from the protests; first is the readiness of the military to jump ship when necessary and to stand on the side of the people. Second, the devastation of war in the region has created war fatigue. It has become prudent for the military to give in to the will of the people and not destroy a country to protect the ambitions of individuals. What is troubling however is the renewed role of the army in national politics.
Protestors helped boost the army’s status when they called on it to provide protection during the demonstrations. As a result, the army’s status was unwittingly elevated to a new dangerous level. It gave the army the impression that it is above politics and could intervene whenever necessary to establish stability in future.
Egypt’s recent history has taught us that this is not something that should have been encouraged. After a few months in power, the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi was dethroned by the army at the “behest of the people”.
In Sudan, a call by the people for the army to join in their ranks has now backfired. Their victory is being presented as a coup; crediting the army with removing President Omar Al-Bashir and stripping demonstrators of the glory.
The protests in Sudan, like in many countries in the Middle East, were triggered by the “rise in the price of bread”. “Intifadatul khobz” or the Bread Intifada which spread across Egypt in January 1977 was a result of rise in bread prices. In Jordan in 2006, over 200 people were killed after they took part in protests that were triggered by a rise in bread prices. Morocco and Lebanon has also experienced devastating riots as a result of the increase in bread prices.
Many wars have been fought over bread and grains throughout history, even the way in which bread was made divided people and created political turmoil in communities. Leaven, or yeasted, bread for example is generally symbolic of sin and evil, every instance that leaven appears in the Bible, it represents evil and so the righteous were encouraged to eat unleavened bread.
A staple, bread carries weight in society and has the ability to lead to political upheaval. Like water, it is regarded as a bounty from God, therefore an inability to access it is hard to tolerate.
An increase in price often has a ripple effect and leads to an increase in the price of other essentials. As a result, it has the power to rally people and make them act. In a region where political grievances are rarely voiced, bread has the power to make people act.
However, the heavy-handed response of the security apparatus on these countries and the state’s backlash against protesters and those instigating such uprisings have complicated efforts to force change. Unexplained disappearances, deaths and lengthy jail sentences add to the mix.
It has been food, particularly bread, protests that has historically brought people to the streets. Such protests often morph into larger political platforms encompassing a wide variety of political and social issues.
Omar Al-Bashir failed to learn from the long history of bread protests in the region. His public appearances as they took place in his country showed him to be out of touch with the masses and reality. In the midst of protests he travelled in and out of the country on numerous occasions; as if it was business as usual.
He also went on a tirade blaming external instigators for fueling political tensions in the country. He failed to realise that it was he who was the problem. He repeatedly insisted that the “voice of the people must be heard”, well those voices were asking for him to resign.
Over the years I have tried to understand the significance of bread in religion and indeed in politics. It is my conclusion that bread is never meant to be hoarded, it is something that has to be acquired and consumed fresh daily. The Egyptian manner of making bread i.e. leavening bread, corrupted important cultural processes by introducing a shelf life for bread. Elongated shelf life introduced laziness and has had devastating political and economic ripple effects some of which are being witnessed in Sudan today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.