Northern Sudan's protests sparked by Egypt and Tunisia, but will they have the same effect?

Protesters say Khartoum protests are connected to events in Tunisia and Egypt, but South Sudan's imminent secession sets these protests against a dramatically different background.

Heavily armed police patrol Khartoum's main streets on Jan. 30. Police beat and arrested students in central Khartoum, witnesses said on Sunday, as demonstrations broke out throughout the city demanding the government resign.

Yesterday, as official results came out showing a nearly unanimous vote among South Sudanese in favor of secession, protests occurred in Khartoum and elsewhere against the regime of President Omar al Bashir. Organizers carefully planned these protests to overlap both with the announcement of Southern secession and with the ongoing protests in Egypt. Student activists appear to be leading the protest effort. Protesters decry Bashir’s rule, economic hardship, and political oppression. The protesters, who Reuters numbered in the hundreds, met violence from police, but further protests are scheduled for today.

Reuters gives more context on Sudan’s economic situation:

Sudan is in deep economic crisis which analysts blame on government overspending and misguided policies. A bloated import bill caused foreign currency shortages and forced an effective devaluation of the Sudanese pound last year, sparking soaring inflation.

Early this month the government cut subsidies on petroleum products and key commodity sugar, triggering smaller protests throughout the north.

Discontent has been mounting for some time. On Jan. 22, a young Sudanese man set himself on fire in Omdurman in imitation of the Tunisian worker whose actions helped spark the protests in Tunisia. Looking back further in time, there were indications of significant dissent during Sudan’s presidential elections last April, as well as widespread human rights violations. And the memory of what popular outcry can achieve in Sudan also extends back further even than Bashir’s reign (he came to power in 1989). As Al Jazeera points out, “Before Tunisia’s popular revolt, Sudan was the last Arab country to overthrow a leader with popular protests, ousting Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985.”

Still, there are also signs that some segments of the population strongly support Bashir. During the elections last year, the New York Times described long lines of voters who “enthusiastically rallied behind” the president. Bashir also retains the capacity to deploy intense repression and violence against protesters. The Wall Street Journal reports that yesterday, “a group of armed students affiliated with Mr. Bashir’s ruling party roamed the campus to keep students inside the school and away from the protests.” And while the accounts of security forces and the accounts of protesters from yesterday differed, it does not sound like the police lost control of events. The public support that remains for the regime and Bashir’s willingness to use repression will be major obstacles for the protesters.

What do Sudan’s protests mean in a regional context? Obviously the protests are, in the words of their organizers, explicitly connected to events in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, again obviously, each country is different. (North) Sudan, having essentially just lost a third of its territory, is in a moment of transition that is different from Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. Given the repercussions of Southern Sudanese secession for Sudan’s oil industry, the economic transition underway in Sudan also differs from what is happening to other economies in the region. Sudan’s international position, and Bashir’s international notoriety, also put matters there in a different light. If nothing else, Bashir is used to being an object of hatred.

Caveats aside, what Marc Lynch writes about the regional picture resonates with me:

Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won’t be next. I’m skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I’ve been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn’t ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn’t ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

One thing this passage makes me think is that there are vital questions beyond just “does the regime survive or fall?” When and if protests fail, they will still have lasting political repercussions. South Sudan is not the only country being born this year – this is a potential rebirth for North Sudan. What kind of country will emerge? With so many forces swirling in the country (calls for Islamization, protests against the regime, opposition party mobilization, etc), the situation seems quite fluid. Even if Bashir survives, he may need to find a new basis for authority and governance.

There are many resources available if you want to keep following the situation in Sudan. Here is the organizers’ Facebook page (Arabic and English), and here is a map of the protests. A list of arrested persons appears here (Arabic), and the BBC hasvideo. The Sudanese Thinker is offering great coverage, complete with photos and video. Twitter, as always, remains one of the fastest and most comprehensive sources of information.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs on Africa's Sahel region at Sahel Blog.

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