How Sudan's Leadership Will Weather the Storm of Economic Protests

9 MINS READJan 31, 2019 | 19:15 GMT
Supporters of President Omar al Bashir wave Sudanese flags during a rally for him at the Green Square in the capital Khartoum on Jan. 9, 2019.

Supporters of President Omar al Bashir wave Sudanese flags during a rally for him at the Green Square in the capital Khartoum on Jan. 9.

  • There are no easy solutions to Sudan's economic problems, and any financial assistance from allies will only paper over deeper structural issues.
  • The government has few options to deal with ongoing social unrest and is unwilling to pursue a negotiated settlement, meaning that harsh crackdowns will continue.
  • The protests, which began in December, are unlikely to end President Omar al Bashir's reign, but Khartoum's elites may pull support for the president's bid for re-election in 2020 and allow a successor to finally emerge.

Thirty years after seizing power in a military coup, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is doing his best to avoid suffering the same fate as his predecessor. Public demonstrations that began Dec. 19 are now in their second month, and protesters are facing tear gas and live ammunition instead of negotiators. The very absence of meaningful dialogue between protest leaders and al Bashir's government indicates that the unrest will not end quickly or peacefully.

The government in Khartoum has been heavy-handed historically when maintaining public order, but the stick doesn't appear to be working this time around. Neither, however, are economic promises, appeals to Islamist sentiments or attempts to exploit ethnic and religious differences. The protests have endured and have now grown into the most difficult civic challenge that al Bashir has yet faced.

The Big Picture

Sudan has spent most of the past three decades as a pariah state, but economic challenges have forced the country's president, Omar al Bashir, to pivot away from Iran and appeal to the West and the Gulf Cooperation Council instead. That outreach, however, has failed to solve the country's economic woes or prevent public dissatisfaction from metastisizing into demonstrations. As al Bashir weathers the strongest protests he has yet faced, his only recourse could be the kind of brutal suppression that risks alienating the very benefactors he desperately needs, ensuring Sudan's economy remains stagnant.

Less Money, More Problems

Under al Bashir's decadeslong tenure, Sudan has experienced frequent protests as a result of its near-constant economic malaise. The country's status as an international pariah, exposure to economic sanctions and reputation as a state sponsor of terrorism (Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s) have combined to leave it cash-strapped and short of friends. If that wasn't enough, South Sudan declared independence in July 2011, taking three-quarters of the country's oil production with it. Since then, protests have been even more frequent, reaching notable heights in 2012 and 2013.

Regular demonstrations have taught al Bashir that a weak economy could be his eventual undoing, leading Sudan to began a diplomatic pivot in 2014 away from Iran and toward the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — and eventually the West — in search of new financial avenues. The shift yielded initial success in the form of assistance from the GCC, but Sudan's $1.2 billion in foreign exchange reserves are barely enough to cover seven weeks of imports. Sporadic loans and investment promises from select Gulf partners have helped somewhat, but they ultimately fall short of the systemic financial assistance that Western aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would provide. While Sudan's rapprochement with the West resulted in U.S. sanctions being lifted, Washington still designates Khartoum as a state sponsor of terrorism, and al Bashir remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), blunting the benefits of Khartoum's pivot.

A chart shows Sudan's inflation rate during part of 2017 and all of 2018.

Given the absence of true international support, Sudan's already weak economy has entered a full-blown crisis in the past year. Insufficient liquidity has led to fuel and bread shortages, and increased pressure on the Sudanese pound has caused the currency to undergo three devaluations against the dollar. Despite a government austerity program, inflation rose to worrying levels in December, and cash dispensers have begun to run dry. With few available options, Sudan has turned once again to the Persian Gulf for support, but no evidence has yet emerged that help is on its way.

A Protest Movement With Wide Support

Despite the raging economic crisis, al Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has taken steps to extend the president's stay in power. Al Bashir promised in 2016 that his rule would end in 2020, but the NCP nominated him as their candidate for the 2020 elections. The NCP constitution and Sudanese law were originally designed to prevent a candidate from serving more than two terms, but subsequent amendments have allowed al Bashir to continue ruling.

The crippled economy and al Bashir's clear intent to remain in power catalyzed what were initially bread-focused protests that emerged Dec. 19. Spreading like wildfire, wider demonstrations engulfed not only major cities such as Omdurman and Khartoum, but also far-flung locations such as Darfur and Port Sudan.

A chart plots the number of riots and protests in Sudan from 2000 to 2018.

As the movement has grown, opposition groups both old and new have made significant efforts to organize. In addition to mobilizing more established groups such as Sudan Change Now and Girifna, the recent groundswell prompted doctors, teachers and those in similar professions to form the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). The group has organized many local protests, including noteworthy marches on the National Assembly in Omdurman and the presidential palace in Khartoum. The success of SPA and its activities have attracted the support of several opposition parties and other protest organizations, many of which signed on Jan. 2 an eight-point declaration of demands — that includes al Bashir's resignation — dubbed the Declaration of Freedom and Change.

A President With Power to Spare

The current unrest could well be one of the greatest threats al Bashir has yet faced. Still, the Sudanese president has worked throughout his time in office to consolidate power against the ever-present risk of a coup. After he launched his own coup in 1989, al Bashir struck an alliance with Hassan al-Turabi, an Islamist leader whose National Islamic Front eventually became the NCP. The partnership established the two competing forces of Sudanese politics that are still in place today. Al-Turabi was the man behind the throne for much of the 1990s, but al Bashir was able to force the Islamist leader out in 1999, causing the Sudanese political landscape to reshape in his favor. After al-Turabi was sidelined, most military and intelligence officers threw their support behind al Bashir. Among those officers were a number of powerful Islamists, whose new allegiance effectively cut the Islamist movement in half.

Since 1999, al Bashir has tightened his control over security institutions, eliminating senior Islamist leaders who might challenge him. After al-Turabi was pushed out, al Bashir was able to shift his country's Islamist movement away from its Iranian-influenced extremist past by marginalizing prominent figures with radical leanings. In doing so, al Bashir has managed to keep the movement fragmented, thereby preventing an Islamist rival from easily challenging him. What's more, silencing radical voices has the added benefit of making Sudan's government more compliant with Gulf state and Western ideals. The strategy, however,  has not been without cost, and the diminished role of Islamist officers in Sudan's security establishment has been the source of some dissent.

A map tracks the surge in protests across Sudan.

Understanding the critical role of specialized institutions within the state's security apparatus, al Bashir demands the loyalty of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). As Sudan's most capable counterinsurgency outfit, it has deployed throughout the country, most recently to help manage the protests. The unit also serves as a counter to any potential coup attempted by the Sudanese Armed Forces. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) also plays a critical role in regulating dissent, though many Islamist officers within the organization are disgruntled at having been passed over in favor of non-Islamist colleagues.

Entrenched leaders will go great lengths to remain in office, but as history reminds us, nobody is invulnerable. The government-backed Janjaweed militias that eventually spawned the RSF gained a reputation for brutality when cracking down on Sudan's African population in Darfur, leading to al Bashir — along with other militia leaders — to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. And though al Bashir has worked to maintain support from Sudan's ruling NCP by appointing key allies to powerful positions, rival factions within the party remain. Because of the ICC indictment, stepping down is hardly an enticing option for Sudan's president. Any change in his political fortunes could lead to the ICC getting its man. Furthermore, the European Union or the United States could refuse to extend much-needed economic aid until al Bashir is in the court's custody — a fact not lost on those perceiving him as a barrier to prosperity.

Al Bashir and his close allies will attempt to ride out Sudan's protests, using the country's security force to subdue dissent before it reaches a critical level.

Khartoum is trying to plants seeds of disunity within the protest movement, but this tactic has yet to bear fruit. As groups continue to call for the president's removal — either immediately or in a phased approach — the government could offer a cosmetic change in leadership to assuage immediate concerns. Al Bashir could, for example, reverse his decision to run for election in 2020 and throw his support behind a potential successor. Such a move, however, is only likely if al Bashir's allies become concerned that rival factions within the NCP might defect to join the protesters or stage a coup attempt.

What Happens Next

There are few good answers to Sudan's economic and political conundrum. Further violence directed at demonstrators could attract international condemnation, derailing potential aid or the possibility of removing the sponsor of terrorism label. If Sudan's outreach to the West fails completely, the country will have no other choice but the GCC. And even then, spats within the GCC among Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have complicated Sudan's efforts to secure financial support. There is no easy solution to Khartoum's money problems, meaning that the country will continue struggling with regular protests and an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

The government's attempts to end demonstrations have failed thus far. Token offers to increase salaries and announcements of vague economic platforms have not quieted the unrest, nor has the use of live ammunition. Al Bashir will continue to employ the carrot and the stick approach as he and his close allies attempt to ride out the protests, hoping that public discontent does not reach a critical mass to precipitate a change of government. While the unrest has been the most significant Sudan has experienced in years, the military and the ruling party have remained loyal to those in power. Al Bashir and his allies have the forces necessary to weather the storm for now, though in their efforts to cling to power, the possibility of a bloody resolution to the demonstrations is very real.

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