Essays | October 11, 2013

Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum

Khartoum Sept 2013
Protests in Khartoum, September 2013
Source: Anonymous

In the ten days following September 23, Sudanese cities witnessed the largest anti-government protests in many years. Many of the protesters aimed to bring down the government; others sought a reversal of its recent decision to reduce fuel subsidies. The police and security services responded with lethal force, and according to Amnesty International, killed more than 200 protesters. The ruling party played on the fear that, if the protesters should bring down the government, they would bring down the state as well. The protests have now since subsided.[1]

This essay begins with the similarities between the September protests in Khartoum and other major Sudanese cities and popular uprisings against dictatorships in Sudanese modern history and in Arab countries in 2011—similarities that have led some to see this as heralding a “Sudanese spring” and the demise of President Omar al Bashir and the National Congress Party (NCP) government. I then turn to some important dissimilarities, including the weakness of the organizational structure of the protest movement, and the ways in which the armed opposition forces tend to negate the potential for non-violent civil uprisings. I briefly dwell on Sudan’s economic plight, before concluding with some observations on the importance of a historicized political-economic analysis of Sudan.

Sudan’s History of Collective Action

The street protests that erupted on September 23 in Wad Madani and Khartoum have a superficial resemblance to the April 1985 popular uprising that brought down the dictatorship of President Jaafar Nimeiri, and also the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. The protesters shared immediate economic grievances, and opposition to authoritarian and kleptocratic rulers who had been in power for too long.[2] In all these cases, government legitimacy was undermined by a clumsy and brutal crackdown, which in turn generated new focal points for outrage and protest.

It is often overlooked that there have been numerous protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in northern Sudan over the last two and a half years. When President Bashir returned to Khartoum from his visit to Juba on January 4, 2011—a visit in which he promised to respect the outcome of the imminent referendum on self-determination in southern Sudan—he was greeted by a protest over economic issues. The secession of South Sudan six months later, and with it 75% of Sudanese oil, required the government to undertake painful austerity measures. Shut off from access to the IMF and other international concessionary finance by U.S. financial sanctions, and encumbered by more than $40 bn in international debt, Sudan had to face this economic crunch alone. Although the “financial gap” of approximately $3 bn per year was well-known before the separation of the South, the government prevaricated on imposing the needed measures, so that each round of cuts was deeper and more unpopular than necessary.

The Sudanese have a powerful repertoire of collective action against authoritarian regimes. As Abdelwahab El-Affendi recounts, “before April there was October,” meaning that the April 1985 uprising was possible in part because the protesters remembered their successful uprising nineteen years earlier, and the army command similarly recalled the way in which capitulating to the protesters’ demands had made them heroes, not villains.

A Sudanese Spring?

The September protests chiefly took the form of loosely-coordinated rioting and demonstrations. Most of the protesters were drawn from the urban poor, but there was also an element of middle-class protest. Sudan’s doctors, one of the most powerful professional associations in the country, went on strike. Disaffected members of the ruling coalition reportedly instigated some riots, perhaps to stake a claim to a bigger payout in the next government reshuffle. Some demonstrations were supported by an emergent generation of activists using social media, modeling their tactics on the repertoire of measures used in Egypt in 2011. They tweeted pictures, some of them extremely gruesome, of those killed by the security services’ gunfire.

The killing of a young pharmacist, Salah al Sanhouri, served as a rallying point. The son of a prominent family, his funeral provided an exemplary moment for a classic repertoire of anti-governmental assembly.[3] Ajil Suwar al Dahab, director of the morgue resigned rather than sign a death certificate specifying “natural causes.” The Assistant President, Nafie Ali Nafie—reported to be a friend of Salah’s father—was humiliated when he went to pay his respects, and caught on video when he was forced by angry taunts to leave the Sanhouri house. Police also reportedly opened fire on the funeral procession.

This was certainly an uprising, but it was not entirely non-violent. As the Sudanese Government’s ablest press officer, Khalid al Mubarak, pointed out, “42 gas stations, 9 pharmacies, 2 companies, 40 public vehicles, 8 police stations, 81 comprehensive security sites, 35 police vehicles, 5 banks and 23 government buildings were attacked.”

The subjective conditions for revolution appeared to be there. As pointed out by Asim al Hag, there is a crisis of confidence in the government, brought about by a combination of misleading public relations over the fuel subsidy cut, and the brutality of the repression. Still the protests did not achieve their goals. After their zenith on September 25-28, they began to fade. The government remains in power, the austerity measures will be implemented, and the impact will be painful.

Objective Conditions for a Revolution?

The differences between the September protests and earlier Sudanese uprisings are as significant as the similarities.

First and most important, the protests lacked a deep organizational structure. The 1985 intifada was meticulously planned and the street demonstrations were scrupulously disciplined. It was coordinated by the National Alliance for National Salvation (NANS), a coalition of trade unionists and leaders of professional associations, who had no illusions about the challenge they faced—indeed they anticipated months of struggle rather than barely a week of massive demonstrations that closed down the capital. Their repertoire was creative and rigorously non-violent. For example, when the ruling Sudan Socialist Union announced a counter-demonstration, rather than trying to outbid or confront the pro-regime forces and risking violence, the NANS declared a “dead city day.” The pitiful SSU rally contrasted with a magnificent, unprecedented quiet over virtually the entire metropolis.

Expecting (correctly) that its steering committee members would be arrested, the NANS established, in each town, a shadow committee ready to take over the coordination role. Expecting that the security services would spy on them, the NANS counter-penetrated governmental institutions and set up a system for intercepting the police and national security radio communications. They even had a contingency plan for what to do when President Nimeiri returned from meeting President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office with a generous financial package in hand—one of the chief air traffic controllers was in on the plot. He changed the duty roster for the night of April 5/6 so that he was on duty, and shut down Sudanese airspace, forcing Nimeiri’s plane to land in Cairo. Meanwhile, the NANS had announced the biggest demonstration yet, two marches simultaneously to the Republican Palace and to army headquarters. The military commanders debated late into the night whether to crush the protesters by force, and decided—by a close margin, possibly clinched when they discovered that Nimeiri would not be landing at Khartoum airport that night—to side with the people.

Today’s demonstrators may possess cellphones and Twitter feeds but they do not have a fraction of that organizational capability.

The government has penetrated cyberspace and is using various tactics to monitor and divide the opposition. Intelligence agencies can turn social media against its practitioners, with false pages and announcements aimed to mislead and entrap activists, or to sow distrust among them by implying—truly or falsely—that some of their members have been turned and are security informers.

A second factor is that the Islamists are divided. Some, notably Ghazi Salah el Din, have moved into opposition and made public their critique of the direction of the government. Others remain in government, either protecting their positions or seeking internal reform. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in 2011, the Islamists were in opposition and supported the protesters, as indeed they were at the critical moment in Sudan in 1985, when they remained on the sidelines, hoping to reap the benefits of the uprising. Despite the way that their reputation has been compromised by the last quarter century of wielding power, the Sudanese Islamists remain the most formidable organized political force in the country, and the fact that they are not united against the government is a challenge for the opposition.

A third factor is the army. The immediate success of a protest movement is best secured when the army “sides with the people,” or when there are enough defectors for the regime to lose its nerve. When the army hesitates, as in Yemen, the transition is at best protracted. When it sides with the regime, as in Syria, there is either repression or civil war. On the other hand, a purportedly pro-people coup may not later turn out to be so democratic—as Egypt shows. (Erica Chenoweth has recently made this point.) The Sudanese protesters hope that the Sudan Armed Forces high command will refuse to follow the orders of the President or his close friend, Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Hussein.

Nothing can be ruled out in Sudanese politics, but there are reasons to believe it unlikely that the army will either split or abandon the President. For a start, the most recent military promotions have brought a cadre of Islamist-oriented officers to the most senior ranks. Additionally, the army is at war, with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, and with the factions of the Sudan Liberation Army loyal to Minni Minawi and Abdel Wahid al Nur in Darfur, and with the Justice and Equality Movement in both. These groups are corralled under the Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF). The SRF is not popular in Khartoum, seen as responsible for escalating a war, spurning peace agreements, supporting the secession of South Sudan, and inflicting grievous economic damage on the country by, among other things, participating in the South Sudanese attack on the country’s main remaining oil installation at Heglig in April 2012.

The SRF leadership claims that a peaceful intifada is one of its strategies. This is ironic, as the SPLM refused to endorse the outcome of the 1985 uprising, thereby helping condemn the transitional government to failure. But after the formation of the National Democratic Alliance in 1994, John Garang spoke of a “protected uprising”—an intifada in which opposition fighters would rush to Khartoum to bring the intifada to a successful conclusion—as one of his three strategies (the other two being continued war and peace negotiations with the regime). This was a dream.

Challenges for the Civic Opposition

Today, there is virtually no political coordination between the SRF and the civic opposition in Khartoum, and the rhetoric of SRF leadership and the political language and goals of the SRF undermine the non-violent protesters. For example, the SRF has taken a strong stand against the army, demanding that it be dismantled. Yasir Arman, Secretary General of the SPLM-North, uses the framework of the “new south” to describe the resistance in the marginalized areas of northern Sudan, fuelling fears that he intends those areas to follow South Sudan into secession.

This provides the government with an opportunity it has used repeatedly and without hesitation invoking the specter of the armed opposition and promising that if the uprising were to succeed, Sudan might disintegrate or descend into sectarian conflict like Syria. Government leaders frightened urbanites by drawing parallels with the destructive riots that convulsed Khartoum following the death of the SPLM Chairman John Garang in July 2005. These may be cheap points, but they hit home.

A final problem for the opposition—both the SRF and elements of the urban protesters—is their tendency to learn lessons from abroad rather than analyzing conditions at home. A central plank of the opposition strategy is presenting its case to major western powers in the hope of obtaining an intervention of some kind. The time that Sudan’s “hotel guerrillas” spend away outside Sudan has long been a source of mockery inside the country, and one of the reasons for the respect commanded by Abdel Aziz al Hilu, leader of SPLM-N in Southern Kordofan, is that he remains in the field. But he is exceptional. El-Affendi observes that external orientation may have also contributed to paralysis of the civic opposition. He writes:

“One sarcastic Sudan-based non-governmental organization (NGO) worker has another explanation [for the lack of a third intifada]. Remarking on the fact that leading opposition figures have been busy courting international support against the regime, he quipped, ‘The revolution has not yet erupted in Khartoum because the opposition is too busy mobilizing in Washington DC!’”

There is an uncomfortable ring of truth to this observation. Much of the Twitter conversation was in English or French, and even that in Arabic often seemed aimed at an external audience. The focus of at least some of the activists was borrowing and applying a script derived from a particular narrative of the Arab Spring, or even the Enough Project, rather than exploring how best to innovate methods appropriate to the specific circumstances of Sudan. It is rare, for example, to see discussion of the main theorists of progressive change in Sudan such as Khatim Adlan, despite the acute relevance of their writings to the current situation.

In turn, the perception of external orientation has played into the government’s hands. Khalid Mubarak, media counselor at the Sudan embassy in London, taunts the opposition on his blog:

“The opposition is busy courting the West and keen to portray itself as a submissive alternative to President Bashir’s coalition government.  That’s why its spokespersons cannot (repeat cannot) declare that they are against free market economy. Even the moderates among them have no alternative to the IMF recipe and dare not reject it openly.”

Sudan’s Economic Crisis

Following the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, the decade-long economic boom that saw Sudan’s GDP expand from approximately $10bn to $60bn, came to an abrupt end. The government faced a revenue gap that the IMF estimated at just over $10bn over three and a half years, and a general agreement was reached between Sudan, South Sudan and major international partners that this gap would be filled by three equal contributions: Sudanese austerity measures, South Sudanese transitional financial assistance (TFA), and international assistance. No international concessions have been forthcoming other than some cash-in-hand from Arab countries after the South Sudanese capture of Heglig in April 2012.[3] South Sudan’s TFA payments began only in August 2013 when oil exports resumed, after the prolonged total shutdown. As a result, Sudan faced its economic crisis alone.

As noted by Asim al Hag, the key issue in the removal of the subsidies was less the economic rationale than the way in which the government presented the cuts in a misleading manner, compounding the already-low level of popular confidence in the regime.

Petrol prices were SDG4.5 per gallon in 2010, rising to SDG12.5 in 2012 and SDG21 after the latest increases—slightly below the estimated market price of SDG24 if the subsidy were to be removed entirely. Diesel prices rose comparably. Cooking gas rose from SDG13 to SDG15, to SDG25 today, which represents still a subsidy of about 40%.[5]

Reducing the subsidies saves the government about SDG7.2 bn (US$1.3bn) per year, almost 20 per cent of total expenditure, and enough to wipe out the expected government deficit for 2014. The impact will be inflationary, but less so than the alternative strategy of printing money. The urban poor will be hit hard, as will the agricultural sector as diesel prices rise. However, IMF data indicate that more than 50% of the fuel subsidy benefited the richest 20% of the population the poorest 20% received just 3% of the benefit, so the longer-term impacts will be progressive in terms of equality. The IMF estimates that the economic reforms will, in the medium term, lower inflation and increase growth, and that Sudan’s economic crisis is now approaching its worst point.[6] But it does not deny that there will be a short term negative impact on urban and rural poverty including general welfare and malnutrition.


President Bashir has survived to fight another day. He will count on improvements in Sudan’s economic situation, the continued disarray and weak strategy of the opposition, and the genuine fear, at home and abroad that Sudan might slide into state failure. The Sudanese government’s basic message, that in bringing down the government the opposition risks bringing down the state as well, resonates in both Khartoum and Washington DC.

The irony here is that the government’s weakness is its principal strength. In eviscerating government institutions and changing the structure of Sudanese governance into a patronage marketplace, the NCP is posing a choice between authoritarian patrimonialism and warlordism.

The immediate challenge for the opposition is intellectual. Sudan’s political economy needs a structural transformation, and dismantling the ruling party and security institutions will not achieve that. Over the sixty years since self-rule in 1953, Sudan has tried different basic formulae for governance including centralizing modernization (of different ideological strands), liberal parliamentarism, and unity in diversity. The challenge is to find a combination of all three, which in turn means there must be an inclusive national dialogue. Lacking unity of analysis and purpose, the opposition is reduced to tactically responding to the blunders and crimes of the government, hoping that one day it will be lucky and that a fortuitous alignment of the stars will deliver it to power—or what remains of that power. This is simply not good enough. We miss Khatim Adlan.






[1] This posting draws upon an article I published earlier this year in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies special issue on social movements in Africa, which brought together analyses of democratization movements in North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The main theme of the collection was that a comparison of social movements shows how they are shaped by the structures of state institutions and informal power and patronage relations in which they operate. Insofar as African systems of governance tend to hybrids between the institutional and the patrimonial, civil and political protest movements reproduce this hybridity, both during their oppositional periods, and also in the event of them gaining power.

[2] In the Sudanese case, at least, a republican dynasty is out of the question, as President Omar al Bashir—like President Nimeiri—does not have children.

[3]  A similar killing of a student on October 18, 1964, followed the next day by a funeral was the catalyst for Sudan’s first popular uprising.

[4] Sudan is hoping for some progress at the fall meetings (October 11-13, 2013) of the IMF and World Bank.

[5] Data privately provided by economic advisers in Khartoum.

[6] Unpublished IMF assessments.

6 Responses to “Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum”

  1. nell okie

    From a Sudanese friend: I am very aware of where he (De Waal) stands, he is just a bookish academician who does not not know what it means to be oppressed or tortured or having a family member killed because of a word of truth, no one cares about him in Sudan!

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