Many demonstrations have been taking place for several weeks now against Omar al-Bashir’s Sudanese regime. The demonstrators, who first took the streets to protest against the high cost of living after a hike in the price of bread, are now calling for the resignation of President al-Bashir. They are supported by the Umma Party, the main opposition party. Is Sudan engaged in the revolution that will bring down Omar al-Bashir (in power since 1993)? What future does this prospect open for the country?
A revolution with a high risk of conflagration
It is difficult under the current circumstances in Khartoum not to remember Hassan al-Turabi’s warning (died in 2016). Answering questions from the Sudan Tribune in July 2015, this former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said that a new revolution in Sudan would “set the whole country on fire” and make the situation on the ground “worse than in Somalia or Iraq.” This warning is based on at least two background elements of the political and security situation in the country.
At the political level, first, the Omar al-Bashir regime relies on a network of religious and tribal supporters, including three tribes in the North of the country (Danagla, Sha’iqiya and Ja’alin), the most influential since independence on the one hand, and the Sudan Islamic Movement (SIM) on the other, the main source of religious legitimacy of the Khartoum regime. Secondly, this highly dominant configuration since President al-Bashir came to power has been decisive in the intensity of the three main rebellion fronts in the country: Darfur (West), South Kordofan (around the disputed territory of Abyei) and Blue Nile State (Southeast). The result has been an arms race between several armed groups active in the country on the one hand and tribal self-defense militias on the other.
In this context of heavy circulation of arms and ammunition, fuelled by long-standing defiant attitude against the regime in several parts of the country, the protests that began in December 2018 present a serious risk of a conflagration. The high command of the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) keeps the troops out of the repression of demonstrators. Still, the Khartoum regime has deployed a police anti-terrorist unit, loyal to President al-Bashir. They are accused of using live ammunition against demonstrators in repressions that have already caused the death of some 30 civilians (51 victims according to Human Rights Watch). In addition to this violence against demonstrators, there have been repeated acts of violence against several mosques of the Sufi Islamist dissident movement, such as the Hijra Mosque in Omdurman (led by former Prime Minister and leader of the Islamist movement Ansar Sufi, Sadiq al-Mahdi).
Two possible scenarios of the evolution of the situation on the ground
It is difficult to establish definitive scenarios of the evolution of the political and security situation in Sudan. The volatility of the security situation is reinforced by the high circulation of arms and ammunition fuelled by the many conflict zones that have been open in the country for several years. At the political level, in a country where 93% of the population is Muslim, the influence of Islamist religious movements and their political rivalries is of decisive importance in understanding possible developments in the crisis. However, at least two scenarios emerge from the analysis of the forces involved. On the one hand, President al-Bashir’s departure without replacing the ruling political class, and on the other hand, the continuation of the regime under President al-Bashir at the cost of the opening of a new front of insurrectional conflict of varying intensity in several regions of the country.
The latter scenario is the most likely. The Sudanese Islamist movement (SIM) recently reiterated its support to Omar al-Bashir. At the end of 2018, the leader of the movement, Al-Zubayr Muhammad al-Hassan welcomed the opening of new “economic prospects for Islamists” thanks to the Khartoum regime. Added to this, the loyalty of several elite units of the Sudanese armed forces and the anti-terrorist police in particular, is largely due to their membership in this very influential Islamist branch, which played a decisive role in President al-Bashir’s arrival in power in 1993. In addition, after declaring a state of emergency in the country in February 2019, President al-Bashir, among other measures, replaced all governors with officers close to the regime. It is highly probable in these respects that the street will engage in an unequal and lasting struggle with Khartoum. With the availability of weapons and the support of another influential Islamist branch in the country, Ansar Sufi (whose sanctuary, Omdurman, is about 50 km from Khartoum in the west of the Nile), this might evolve in an insurrectional type conflict of varying intensity in the medium to long term.
Secondly, the possibility of Omar al-Bashir’s departure is only conceivable if the Sudanese armed forces are directly involved. In view of the predominant place of the military high command in the political apparatus in Khartoum, it is expected that this action will lead to the departure of President al-Bashir without changing the core political figures. As such, it is highly unlikely that the Umma Party will be able to take power in favor of this departure.