Sudan on the Brink: A Khartoum Spring?

Like other Arab dictators over the past year or so, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989, is facing what’s liable to be his last days in office. His end might resemble Muammar el-Qaddafi’s, with a mob of angry militants cornering him in a ditch or side street, delirious at the opportunity to exercise some small measure of revenge. Or it might look like Hosni Mubarak’s, with a brief message sheepishly read on state television while an opaque yet orderly reshuffling of power occurs far from the prying eyes of opposition forces or street-level activists. Or perhaps his ouster will be like Ali Abdullah Saleh’s in Yemen, with the despised autocrat staggering impotently toward a graceful exit and eventually leaving the remnants of his political machine to shore up a country on the brink of collapse.

Any of these scenarios is possible in Sudan, whose regime is the most oppressive and violent of those that have come under the winds of the Arab Spring: an Iran-allied and philosophically Islamist government whose top leadership has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, and which is now engaged in armed struggle against four declared enemies. Like the similarly embattled Baath regime in Syria, the National Congress Party government in Khartoum can only legitimize its rule, or even maintain its country as a coherent political unit, at gunpoint. But unlike the Baath party in Syria, the NCP faces a well-organized and battle-hardened insurgency with national-level coordination and a demonstrated ability to capture and hold onto territory—in addition to a full-blown economic depression, a growing urban protest movement, and a conventional military enemy that’s better organized and far more motivated than the regime’s own professional armed forces. “The regime is over,” says Abdullahi Gallab, a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in Sudanese history and civil society. “There is no regime now. The only thing that is intact or semi-intact are tools of oppression.”

But if the NCP is facing the worst crisis in its history, what exactly its exit will look like, when it will happen, and what it will leave in its wake are unforeseeable. The fall of the NCP government could be the result of anything from a Tunisia-style urban youth movement to a Libya-style guerrilla struggle, and it could usher in anything from a stable democracy to an ungovernable warlord state. Of all the Arab Spring processes, the violent and nonviolent opposition to the NCP could turn out to be the least predictable—and the most destabilizing—in the region. But it could also offer Sudan something it hasn’t had since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the treaty with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement that ended decades of civil war, and a pact that Khartoum has been sabotaging and violating in various ways for the past seven years. It could offer a chance for the egalitarian and democratic future that Bashir and the NCP have so violently denied their country.

Chief among the challenges facing Bashir’s Khartoum government is the fact that Sudan’s mountainous southern region remains largely beyond its control. Once located near the center of the sprawling Sudanese state, the Nuba Mountains region now makes up part of the country’s borderland with South Sudan, which gained its independence in July 2011 after years of warfare and subsequent negotiations with Khartoum. The area remained on the northern side of the border after the split, but its ties to the South stayed strong, including through the SPLM-N, the northern, semiautonomous wing of South Sudan’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement.

Last summer, Khartoum rigged gubernatorial elections in the area—in violation of the 2005 agreement and on behalf of Ahmed Haroun, the architect of the NCP’s genocidal policy in Darfur and an indictee of the International Criminal Court. In response, the SPLM-N began attacking Bashir’s Sudanese Armed Forces from its Nuba Mountains base. Khartoum replied with an ongoing scorched-earth campaign that threatens the lives of some three hundred and fifty thousand civilians. Yet as of today, it appears the rebels have outmatched the regulars. As of March, this mostly non-Arab militia, which also fought alongside the south during Sudan’s twenty-two-year civil war, held seventy percent of the Nuba Mountains, most of it high ground. Furthermore, according to more than one source I spoke with in South Sudan, much of the SPLM-N’s arsenal, which includes artillery and heavy vehicles, has been captured from Sudanese Armed Forces regulars defeated in battle.

Experts familiar with Bashir’s regular army describe it as an exhausted, incompetent fighting force ravaged by decades of war. On top of that, “the armed forces are completely politicized,” says Gillian Lusk, a longtime Sudan watcher and current editor of Africa Confidential. “The professional aspect of the armed forces was taken out a long time ago, so a lot of them are not good officers, militarily speaking.”

The fight in the Nuba Mountains may be a regional conflict, but it has significant national implications, and not simply because it has exposed the vulnerability of the Sudanese state and its army. The Nuba have many of the same grievances as political and militant movements in other parts of Sudan. Indeed, last November, rebel groups from Darfur and Blue Nile state—sites of two other long-simmering armed rebellions against the NCP—joined the SPLM-N to create the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an armed coalition whose stated aim is the overthrow of the Khartoum regime.

Experts doubt that this coalition is capable of advancing as far as the capital. The SPLM-N’s base of power is hundreds of miles south of Khartoum, and precedent suggests that an attack on the country’s capital city would be ill-fated. In 2008, the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement marched on Omdurman, a suburb of Khartoum. “They were only able to keep the place for a couple of hours before they were crushed,” recalls E. J. Hoogendorn, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group, who estimates that the military balance has changed little since then. If the NCP regime were threatened with a significant loss of territory, Hoogendorn says, the military, which has tactical fighters, helicopter gunships, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other relatively advanced weapons systems, might well decide to simply consolidate its forces in areas it already controls. “You could essentially have people within the NCP say, ‘Look, we’re going to concentrate on our core areas and we’ll just kind of leave the so-called peripheries to fend for themselves,’” Hoogendorn says. “They’ve done that in the past and the regime has survived fine. For long periods of time they didn’t control large parts of the south or Darfur, and to a certain degree life in the capital went on.”

But even as its chances of overthrowing the regime militarily remain slim, the Sudan Revolutionary Front has developed a political dimension that has bolstered its prospects for eventual success. The Beja Congress, the most influential political movement in eastern Sudan, also joined the SRF in November. The movement has the allegiance of high-ranking members of Sudan’s major recognized opposition parties, including the Umma Party, the winner of Sudan’s last free elections, in 1986. These opposition parties have been structurally and ideologically stagnant for decades, and the younger generation of street activists in Khartoum considers these opposition parties to be NCP lackeys. Nevertheless, the coalition that has formed between these parties and the younger fighters offers the armed revolutionary forces a multifaceted, national-level presence and structure. There is an outside possibility of disparate forces unifying into a national movement sufficient to topple the National Congress Party. A full-blown depression, fallout from international sanctions, and a dispute with South Sudan over oil revenues add to the pressure on Khartoum, whose makeup leaves it potentially vulnerable during such a prolonged crunch.

Ostensibly headed by the NCP, Sudan’s government is technically an Islamist regime (the party was called the National Islamic Front when it seized power in 1989). But as Amir Nasr, a Khartoum-based commentator who blogs at the Sudanese Thinker, explained in an e-mail, Sudan’s leadership really functions as “a conglomerate of various interest groups,” held together by mutual, often material, interests, rather than religious ideology. Its factions include “the NCP, the military, the internal security and intelligence body, the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists, an influential business elite, various tribes that are relatively more embedded in the regime, and, more recently, the emerging well-organized Salafis.” The nation’s severe economic crisis has tested this conglomerate’s resiliency, Nasr says, adding that “disgruntled factions of the military, and the business elite, are especially tired of sanctions and stunted development. Burdened by $38 billion in debt and a battery of international sanctions—not to mention instability from insurgencies in different parts of the country—Sudan’s access to foreign credit markets remains limited (the country gets a “C” from the China-based Dagong Credit Rating), and economic pressure is now affecting everyday people. In response to a projected decline in real GDP of more than seven percent this year, Sudan’s government has cut subsidies on sugar and petrol and shorted civil-servant salaries to fund military campaigns.

Maya, a Khartoum-based writer and activist with the pro-democracy movement Girifna (a term that means “we are fed up”), says that emigration and the high cost of living are erasing Sudan’s middle class. “The middle class is dying,” she says. “There will be no middle class in Sudan in a few months. You have to be rich to buy basic necessities and commodities.”

On top of all of these challenges—armed rebellion, social unrest, anti-regime political organizing, and crushing economic woes—lies perhaps the most significant long-term threat to the NCP, one that, unlike these other challenges, is totally outside of Bashir’s control: the government in Juba, capital of South Sudan.

Intentionally or not, the newly independent South Sudan has managed to badly destabilize its northern neighbor. In January, the South shut down its entire oil industry—an industry the IMF says accounts for more than half of Sudan’s revenue and ninety percent of its exports—after negotiations over transit fees and revenue sharing broke down. As part of South Sudan’s split from Sudan last year, both sides had negotiated a division of revenues generated by the countries’ shared oil industry, with Sudan refining and exporting the oil that would be drilled and shipped north from the landlocked South. This favorable split in revenue is one of the likely reasons Bashir allowed South Sudan’s independence to proceed smoothly. But now that the South has shut off the tap, Sudan is left with just a fraction of its previous oil for refinement or export.

In April, responding to months of Sudanese military provocations along the countries’ tenuous border, South Sudan dispatched its Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to Heglig, an important oil town on the Sudanese side of the disputed border area. The campaign was an embarrassment for Khartoum—its regular army, the Sudanese Armed Forces, failed to expel the South Sudanese forces from the town, and only re-entered the area after the SPLA unilaterally withdrew about a week after it had invaded. News reports hinted that Bashir’s defense minister, Abdel Rahim Muhammad Hussein, nearly lost his job over the military’s humiliation at the hands of the comparatively ill-equipped SPLA.

Meanwhile, the loss of oil revenue from Heglig during the South Sudanese occupation reveals the impact that the government in Juba could wield over an economically distressed Khartoum. The Heglig oil fields alone account for half of Sudan’s oil production and approximately twenty percent of the state’s revenue. In the current economy, even a ten-day occupation of Heglig raised the specter of Sudan’s collapse.

“The reason Heglig has become so important is not necessarily because it’s Sudanese territory. It’s because the SPLA has shut down oil production there,” said E. J. Hoogendorn, the ICG’s Horn of Africa expert, during the height of the crisis. “They’ve taken another bite out of the NCP’s revenue stream. And that revenue stream . . . supports a vast patronage network that the NCP has established to maintain its rule throughout Sudan.”

What comes next will largely depend on how the NCP falls. The NCP has compartmentalized the state security apparatus and politicized the military to guard against the possibility of a coup. Bashir has “concentrated power in a very small number of people around him, and he’s fragmented the security services,” says Hoogendorn.“There is a score of security organizations that are loyal to the regime and to different people within the NCP hierarchy. And it certainly would be far from clear that these organizations would cooperate were there to be a coup.”

Widespread unrest could convince the military to act. “It is very possible and increasingly likely that civic activism can topple the NCP as a ruling party,” says Amir Nasr, the Sudanese Thinker blogger. “To keep things under control, the military’s leaders could disown al-Bashir, and dissolve the NCP to please a discontented public. Under such circumstances, the situation would resemble what happened in Egypt.”

In contrast, a partial coup, or a coup that pits different security organizations or interest groups against each other, could usher in what Hoogendorn describes as a “doomsday scenario,” a violent “free-for-all scramble” among the regime’s former constituent parts, with “different security services struggling for who actually gains power.”

Were this to take place, Sudan’s numerous armed groups would be unlikely to stay neutral. “Now, take this picture of a Khartoum in turmoil, and add the very real scenario of heavily-armed Darfur rebels and the SPLM-N taking advantage of the situation and advancing towards the capital from the west and the south respectively,” Nasr said. “We’ll end up with a lovely explosive cocktail on a Libya scale of things, or perhaps worse.”

There are other, equally plausible outcomes that entail less violence—outcomes that could even eventually lead to a representative and democratic Sudan. Luckily, Sudan has a vibrant party system, despite the NCP’s monopoly on power. Umma, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Communist Party are decades old and generally respected, giving Sudan a degree of political structure, organization, and pluralism that pre-revolutionary Libya and Egypt lacked. Abdullahi Gallab envisions a post-NCP Sudan where the society’s latent democratic attitudes and history of political sophistication eventually win out: “If the Sudanese sat down to talk together about some kind of contract, a social contract that would be the basis for a new constitution and for building a new state . . . I think we will have some kind of New Sudan.”

Such a development might prove more likely than the current chaos would suggest. It is often forgotten that the Arab Spring model, in which a frustrated middle class precipitates the replacement of a stagnant and widely despised regime with a radically more representative political system, was a Sudanese creation. In 1985, hyperinflation, fiscal austerity, and the exploding cost of living sparked protests that brought the capital to a standstill. “Khartoum, the scene of daily demonstrations against the government for most of the last 10 days, was virtually paralyzed by a general strike that cut off communications and closed the international airport there,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 7, 1985, portraying a scene that reads like a precursor to the last year and a half of Middle Eastern tumult. Soon after, President Jaafar Nimeiri returned to Khartoum from a visit to the United States to discover that, for the first time since 1969, he was no longer in charge of the country. The military, which had relieved the president of his duties, relinquished power following open elections a year after the coup. Until the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989, Sudan had been on a democratic trajectory for four years. The anti-Nimeiri movement “wasn’t led by the party leaders, but by professionals,” recalls Gillian Lusk, the Africa Confidential editor. “They were doctors and lawyers and bank workers.”

Amir Nasr believes that any non-military movement capable of toppling the regime will likewise originate outside of the existing political order. “The established opposition parties are reluctant and are quite rigidly led from the top down,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If an uprising happens, it will be more spontaneous, and mobilized by civil society, university students, and youth movements like Girifna.”

Girifna is a global network of Sudanese students and young professionals whose stated goal is the nonviolent overthrow of the NCP. As Maya, the Khartoum-based activist, explained, the movement is open to anyone who subscribes to this goal, regardless of their politics. “Girifna literally translates to ‘we’re fed up,’” she says. “This is our message: everyone is girifna. Everyone.”

The group aims at “breaking the fear barrier” that the NCP has spent the past two decades constructing. To a degree, they already have: although it’s officially outlawed, Girifna has organized mass protests and successfully lobbied for the release of hundreds of political detainees. The group has worked with Amnesty International and other foreign civil society NGOs, and maintains an attractive website that publishes ground-level news reports in English and Arabic.

According to Maya, the regime is not sophisticated enough to hack into the movement’s Skype or Gmail accounts (I spoke to her via Skype). When a co-founder’s apartment was recently raided, the security services did not confiscate her iPad because the agents conducting the search apparently did not know what it was or what it did. Girifna’s leadership is decentralized, its membership organized into local cells, which also mystifies the authorities. “They don’t know how many we are, or what our strategy is, or how we’re operating,” one activist said. “They’re so confused.”

Last year, students at the University of Khartoum began protesting, ostensibly over evictions made in preparation for a dam construction project. The government responded by closing the university. It was reported that three hundred students from remote parts of the country refused to leave their dorms, since they had nowhere else to go. They were forcibly evicted, and then arrested, at 3 a.m. on a Friday.

A few days into Girifna’s social media and protest campaign, the government capitulated, freeing the students and protest leaders who had been arrested at the university. “That shows how scared they are,” says Maya. “If something happens at the University of Khartoum, that’s ten thousand students. That could spark something really big. That’s a whole revolution.”

Over the past twenty-three years, the NCP has survived armed conflict, internal division, and financial ruin. But the urban protest movement, and the fear that Maya talks about, is a new and different kind of challenge to its rule. Over the past year and a half, street protests have toppled governments whose rule seemed permanent, regimes whose inherent weaknesses appear obvious only in retrospect. If the fear barrier falls, the NCP could fall right along with it.

Armin Rosen is a freelance writer based in New York.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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