KHARTOUM – In 2009 and 2010, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) on multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Although president Bashir has been travelling freely around the world despite an eight-year-old international warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes and genocide, his government has been pelted with a heavy stone.
As we approached Christmas, the town of Atbara in northeastern Sudan erupted in protest against the Bashir’s government that has ruled the country for almost three decades.
People took to the streets following a tripling of bread prices to demand “freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the regime.”
However, international coverage framing the protests as bread riots obscures the larger political context, misrepresents protesters’ demands and inadvertently supports the regime’s insistence that the crisis can be resolved by simply reintroducing targeted subsidies and stabilizing the Sudanese pound.
Representing potentially the greatest threat to the regime of President al-Bashir since it came to power in a military coup in 1989, protests have been intensifying.
According to AFP, demonstrators set fire to the ruling National Congress Party’s headquarters.
Military police retaliated, using tear gas and live ammunition, killing two students, Tarig Ali and Mohamed Abdeljalil, and wounding dozens. The protests have since spread to at least 23 towns, Reuters reported on Thursday.
This website has also learnt that the Khartoum government has declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews in towns where some of the first protests took place.
Schools and universities have been closed. National newspapers have been censored or shut down.
The Internet has been disrupted, and several phone carriers have restricted access to WhatsApp and other social media sites. Security forces have deployed tear gas and live ammunition against protesters as the death toll reaches 37 and continue to rise,” the Washington Post reported on Friday afternoon.
Why Sudan protests different than previous ones
While the situation remains volatile, protests will likely continue as new forces emerge.
According to Nisrin Elamin, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Stanford University and a contributor at the Washington Post, unlike previous mobilizations, the protests did not begin in Khartoum where the regime has spent considerable resources to protest-proof the capital region.
He says in a dossier published by Washington Post that the protests in 2012 struggled to gain traction outside of Khartoum, especially in the rural parts of the country.
“But this time is different, with the locus of action initially rooted in the peripheral regions where existing organized violent movements may lend support to a truly national movement,” he wrote.
He also adds that some opposition parties and figures seem to be rallying around the protesters.
“Opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi returned last week from a self-imposed exile and has called for an international investigation into the deaths of civilian demonstrators,” he wrote adding that two of Sudan’s largest opposition groups, Sudan Call (which includes al-Mahdi’s Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party) and the National Consensus Forces, stated they would support the protests,” he adds.
He stresses that youth, view opposition leaders as part of the same elite as Bashir and are suspicious of attempts to co-opt their effort making it for government to contain them.
Elamin also says the ongoing protests are the latest in Africa’s third wave, which has been ongoing for more than a decade now.
Previously, the wave has claimed significant victories in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Egypt and, most recently, in neighboring Ethiopia.
He says that serving as one possible model for resolving the Sudan protests, the Ethiopian regime opted to replace the prime minister rather than further repress its population.
However, it remains unclear whether protesters and opposition parties in Sudan would accept any arrangement that allows the hated NCP party to retain power, even without the aging Bashir at the helm.
Bashir has also built substantive relationships with powerful regional and international actors such as China, regional peacekeepers Uganda and he was recently in Syria for unexplained “state” visit.
Despite all Elamin’s comments, it is still risky to underestimate Bashir.
This website understands that during nearly three decades in power, he has never hesitated to unleash violence against his own population, and his rhetoric now is not different.
To a group of supporters in Gezira state on Tuesday, Bashir insisted that the protests were organized by “traitors, agents, mercenaries, and infiltrators who have exploited daily life hardships to sabotage and serve the enemies of Sudan.”
Yet while Bashir was making his speech, an independent coalition of professional associations — including doctors, workers, teachers, and journalists — organized a march to the Republican Palace in Khartoum, demanding the regime step down.
In response, security forces blocked roads and bridges and used tear gas and snipers to break up the crowds, critically wounding at hundreds. But protesters remain undeterred and plans to mobilize more demonstrations across the country continue.
What is clear is that decades of penned-up political frustration are now finding releases, which even a reintroduction of bread subsidies, is unlikely to solve.