Why the Arab Spring might miss Sudan this time

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Hundreds of Sudanese protesting against the government's austerity measures. Photo - Ashraf Shazly/AFP/GettyImages

By Yassir Karooka

A popular uprising takes more than deep-seated grievances among the masses and the courage to stand in defiance against injustices. A successful popular uprising requires inspirational leadership and a political force bestowed with the ability to effectively mobilise the people. Sudan lacks such leadership and political force at the moment rendering what might have been an opportune moment for change into a painful miscarriage of meaningful political transformation.

Sudan has been witnessing widespread demonstrations across many cities and towns following the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies in June, as part of an austerity package it said was aimed at trimming down the $2.4bn budget deficit. The deficit was triggered mainly by the loss of three quarters of state revenues when South Sudan seceded last year taking with it the majority of the country’s oil output.

Many Sudanese, especially the youth, have hailed the current wave of protests as the beginning of an Arab Spring to overthrow Omar Al Bashir’s regime, which has ruled the country for the last 23 years. The protests bring resonances of two popular uprisings successfully orchestrated by the Sudanese people in 1964 and 1985, and which also took place amid turbulent economic and political circumstances.

But this is hardly why the protests are significant. The significance of the protests lies in the fact that they are unceasing and have spread beyond the capital to over 10 provincial towns. The protest movement has also spread beyond the students core that initiated it to include other segments of the Sudanese society. The protests continue amidst great political challenges for the regime resulting from a range of unresolved post-secession issues with South Sudan that almost culminated into war in last April.  The question of Darfur is also still unsettled and some pockets of resistance in the east of the country continue to challenge the legitimacy of the regime.

The combination of political and economic blows, which Al Bashir’s regime is facing at the moment, present a rare opportunity for mobilising the Sudanese people who have suffered tremendously under the leadership of Al Bashir. However, Sudanese oppositional politics seem to be missing the kind of political force or figure that is able to capitalise on the moment and turn it into the kind of revolutions seen in neighbouring Egypt and Libya.

The Umma Party, one of the oldest and largest opposition parties in the country has already excluded revolt as one of its options calling instead for a comprehensive and inclusive process through a national conference aimed at addressing Sudan’s root political problems. Its leader and former prime minister of Sudan Al Sadig Al Mahdi would like Al Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) to be part of this process and refuses to end his dialogue with the regime.

The other traditional party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Mohamed Osman Al Mirghani committed a political suicide last year by joining the regime in the formation of its first government after South Sudan’s independence. Such move prompted opposition stalwarts, who desire real transformation, saw the party as an accomplice of the regime rather than an ally. Furthermore, both the Umma and DUP parties are viewed as non-democratic, hereditary and obsolete by the new generation of young progressive Sudanese who are at the forefront of the protests.

The Popular Congress Party (PUP) led by Hassan Al Turabi is essentially a breakaway party from the ruling NCP. The PUP seems to appeal only to the disfranchised Islamists of Sudan whose superficial ideological differences with the NCP are not enough to award them the confidence of many Sudanese. Its leader Hassan al Turabi is still viewed by many as the orchestrator of the military coup, which toppled Sudan’s democratically elected government in 1989 and brought Al Bashir to power.

The Sudanese Communist Party is a party in transition as both its President and Secretary General passed away recently.  The party’s new leader Mohamed Al Khatib hardly enjoys the respect, charisma and experience of his predecessor Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud. Moreover, the Sudanese communist party has historically been the home of enchanted Sudanese intellectuals and has never been a populist force in Sudanese politics.

So, whom are the Sudanese people going to rally behind to bring about their Arab spring? The armed movements are certainly an option with no fewer problems than Sudan’s main political parties. The different Darfuri armed movements are themselves divided and their rhetoric, which is heavily based on regional grievances, is unlikely to appeal to all Sudanese.

The other significantly armed resistance to the regime comes from the Sudan People Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), which is also seen by many in Sudan as a satellite force of the ruling SPLM in South Sudan. Before it can emerge as a popular alternative in Sudan, the SPLM-N needs to relieve itself from the burden of South Sudan’s separation, which did not resonate well with most northern Sudanese. To regain the trust of Sudanese, the SPLM-N needs an even more inclusive political vision, and more importantly; it needs time.

The lack of a single political force that is capable of captivating the political imaginations of the majority of Sudanese who desire change necessitates working in collaboration, which is something that the different oppositional groups and parties have been attempting to do, albeit unsuccessfully. The National Consensus Forces (NCF) – which include the Umma, NUP, PCP, the Sudanese Communist Party and some armed groups and small political parties – is a loose alliance hampered by differences that have thus far prevented it from crafting a collective vision for the future of Sudan.

The current economic crisis and general feeling of discontent in Sudan provide conducive conditions for an Arab uprising. To realise the change, however, there is a desperate need for the emergence of a trustworthy leadership that is capable of bridging the differences among the opposition while effectively mobilising ordinary Sudanese.

Yassir Karooka, a Sudanese born Canadian writer, is a graduate student of International Development at York University in Toronto, Canada. He also holds a degree in Economics and Political Science from the University of Toronto. He has worked for the United Nations and the International Organisation for Migration. Yassir currently resides in the Dominican Republic.

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