Protests have broken out in Khartoum and other cities around Sudan. While initially voicing their opposition to austerity measures that witnessed the increase in price of food and petrol, the protests -- now entering week three -- experienced a change in rhetoric over the last weekend demanding the overthrow of the regime.
Taking a play from neighboring states, President Omar al-Bashir responded to the week long protests with orders for a swift and decisive end to demonstrations by police. The call for violence is worrisome on a number of levels. First, if the uprisings that have played out in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya are any indication, police and or military violence will only serve to exacerbate the situation. Second, Bashir is not known for his constraint when dealing with opposition, and this has the ability to turn extremely violent and extremely oppressive.
Hoping to quell the movement, the Sudanese government has arrested numerous journalists, both local and foreign, and has arrested several opposition leaders. Neither of these actions seem remarkably out of character. Bashir is extremely intolerant of opposition and has a long history of arresting dissidents, with prominent opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi, head of the Islamist opposition, frequently taken into custody. Moreover, press censorship, newspaper closures, and journalist arrests are routine.
Bashir’s popular support both domestically and internationally is strained. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity for the brutal actions committed in Darfur. Support from fellow African leaders has waned; past supporters are now affirming their intent to arrest the leader should he visit their country.
Domestically, the standstill in negotiations over the price the country intends to charge South Sudan for refining and piping the oil to Port Sudan have resulted in the near collapse of the economy, forcing austerity measures. In response to the erosion of the economy, border conflicts on disputed oil rich areas have increased over the past year with the two countries nearing war earlier this year, when Heglig came under siege. Meanwhile, negotiations over border determination have once again halted in neighboring Ethiopia. These very much influence the current climate and the need for austerity.
It is expected that the current events will only continue to escalate. Reports from the deported Egyptian journalist covering the story, Salma Wardani, indicate that participation in the demonstrations is growing. Wardani also details how the crackdown is intensifying, with police using tear gas, batons and live ammunition to disperse crowds. The response by Bashir is both predictable and unfortunate. Unfortunate for him because it will only lead to further escalation, and unfortunate for the people of Sudan because it looks like this could turn even more brutal, resulting in significant casualties in the process.
Meanwhile, the opposition has formulated 15 demands including: resignation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) which would be replaced by a more representative transitional government; cancelling the price increase of staples such as food, fuel, and sugar; upholding rights of political participation and freedom of the press; release of political prisoners.
Bashir’s Sudan is a calamity. The people, like the people living under all autocratic regimes, deserve better. These protests will not end without tangible changes to the current system. However, given Bashir’s track record, this is will not come quickly or easily. In the meantime, international coverage and pressure needs to build. The relative absence of news on the story only further serves to permit Bashir carte blanche in his dealings with the demonstrations.