By IWPR contributor and Simon Jennings
Although leading Sudanese opposition parties came together last week to back the grassroots movement for regime change, the move has so far failed to take the ongoing street demonstrations to a new level.
The Umma Party, Communist party, and Popular Congress Party – all part of the National Consensus Forces, an opposition umbrella group – signed the Democratic Alternative Charter, DAC, on July 4.
Under the agreement, the three parties committed themselves to efforts to oust the National Congress Party, NCP, of President Omar al-Bashir, and agreed plans for a post-revolutionary government, with a three-year transition period in which current opposition parties will share power before elections are held under a new constitution.
Protesters stand firm
Demonstrations calling for regime change, which started on June 17 in response to government plans to impose austerity measures on Sudan, have rumbled on in Khartoum and other major towns for the last three weeks. (See Sudan: Beginning of End for Bashir?)
Participants have remained defiant although hundreds have been arrested and signs that the government is weakening are hard to spot.
Protester numbers increased on June 30 around the planned “lick your elbow” demonstrations – a reference to a speech by presidential adviser Nafie Ali Nafie, who suggested that overthrowing the regime he represented would be impossible.
The numbers increased again on Friday, July 6, when hundreds of protestors were trapped inside a mosque in Wad-Nobawi in Omdurman. According to protesters who spoke to IWPR, police stationed outside the mosque fired rubber bullets at people trying to leave.
“We were trapped inside for hours and they kept throwing tear gas. It was very strong and some people fainted,” a protestor interviewed by IWPR said.
As the security crackdown intensifies, activists estimate that as many as 2,000 protestors have been detained. Many have since been released, but will probably face trial. The NCP has denied that any peaceful protesters have been arrested.
The arrests may prove counterproductive. A protester in Omdurman told IWPR that people no longer feared the security services, and were coming out onto the streets “because of” rather than in spite of oppression.
“People are aware, angry and hungry now, and that’s what makes a revolution happen,” he said. “I think we will have a million-man protest very soon because the numbers are increasing and protestors are becoming more organised.”
It has become a trial of strength in which the resolve of demonstrators like this man is pitted against the regime’s determination to use force to maintain its position – a response that some see as a sign of a regime with few options left.
“The detentions are making the street even more angry, [and] a financially bankrupt regime even poorer, as it does very little to address the dire economic situation which was the trigger for this revolution,” Dalia Haj-Omar, a member of the Girifna student activist group, said.
Osman Hummaida, head of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, draws similar conclusions.
“I think the people managed to break the fear in the last few weeks and there is some sort of sustainability and gaining of momentum,” he said.
Government losing both carrot and stick
Some question whether the regime can count on the loyalty of its police force over the long term. The police themselves have to live on wages far outstripped by price rises, just like the wider population.
“Last week, a police officer told me that, if we continue protesting, they will join us,” one protestor in Khartoum said.
Another driver of revolution that the government may no longer be able to control is the deteriorating economic situation. After shooting up by 50 per cent even before the austerity package came into force, the prices of basic foodstuffs like bread, cooking oil and onions have risen further by as much as 30 per cent in the last two weeks.
“The demonstration is building, because every Friday in terms of magnitude is higher than the Friday before,” said Hafiz Mohammed, director of the advocacy group, Justice Africa Sudan. “The main issue is the real impact of [austerity] measures taken by the government will be felt gradually.”
The austerity measures were prompted by severe budget problems in Khartoum, caused by two factors. One of these is the loss of 75 per cent of oil revenues after South Sudan seceded in July 2011. The two countries have been unable to agree on the division of income from reserves now lying south of the border. Khartoum still has some leverage, as the crude can only be exported through a pipeline that runs through its territory. But South Sudan halted extraction in January, after accusing its northern neighbour of stealing oil from the pipeline.
The other factor in the spending squeeze is the continuing high level of defence expenditure amid prolonged conflicts around Sudan’s periphery – in Darfur, and more recently in the Nuba Mountains and on the border with South Sudan.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, accused of committing genocide in Darfur. The Hague court has also issued arrest warrants for two of his NCP colleagues, Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein and South Kordofan provincial governor Ahmed Mohammed Haroun.
Can political opposition play credible role?
The three parties that signed the DAC accord presented it as a major step forward, as the first attempt of its kind to build a unified opposition leadership.
However, the new alliance is yet to call its own people out onto the streets to join the mainly young, student demonstrators, and they in turn have not hailed it as a leadership they will gladly follow.
On social media websites, the talk among young Sudanese activists was that the DAC was drawn up by politicians out of touch with the current situation.
“The people that call themselves the opposition have specified a transitional government before they got power,” one typical web posting said. “Their old brains cannot grasp that youth are still revolting to achieve this, they think they can put us under their armpits.”
Osman Habila, a human rights activist and writer from the Nuba Mountains criticised the DAC for not ensuring the interests of Sudan’s border regions were represented.
“The political power in the centre did not engage in serious talks with the marginalised, especially from the Nuba Mountains,” he wrote in an article for Sudaneseonline.
The parties behind the DAC say they are in talks with armed movements in the border regions. But although these groups have expressed support for the street protests, it is unclear whether they will embrace the opposition parties’ charter.
Magdi al-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst, argues that the opposition is part of the political mainstream and will therefore struggle to reach out to a broader constituency, including underprivileged rural communities.
“A successful mass political strike cannot be carried out by the political establishment,” he said, adding that it must happen instead “through an alliance of social forces antagonistic to the NCP’s hegemony – organised labour, the fluid mass from informal sector, small-scale farmers, small businesses, professionals and junior civil servants”.
Anyone seeking regime change must, al-Gizouli said, “bridge the bloody rift between urban and rural struggles in Sudan, and transform the terms of the conflict from one between the centre and the periphery to one between the oppressed majority and the elites of the political establishment”.
Bashar’s NCP appears to understand the ambivalent position of the opposition parties. This week, it invited two of the opposition parties to discuss a new constitution. “They are doing that deliberately, to try and divide the opposition,” said Mohammed.
Opposition parties appear to want regime change with a “soft landing”, rather than all the uncertainties of a radical revolution that might swallow them up. The opposition is “keen to have a change of regime, not a change of system”. Mohammed said.
This article was written by an IWPR contributor in Khartoum who asked to remain anonymous, and IWPR’s Africa Editor Simon Jennings. This article appeared at IWPR’s ACR Issue 326.