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Date: Friday, 01 February 2019

While Omar Al-Bashir shuttles between Arab states to gather support for his regime, the people of Sudan appear to be uniting in opposition behind the Sudanese Professionals Association, reports Haitham Nouri

A demonstration against Al-Bashir in the city of Omdurman (photo: AFP)
A demonstration against Al-Bashir in the city of Omdurman (photo: AFP)
Haitham Nouri
Friday, 01 February, 2019

Attempting to overcome the toughest test in his three-decade rule, Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir flew to a number of Arab states, starting with Qatar and Egypt, to gather support for his regime, threatened amid protests in Sudan that have continued for more than six weeks.

After a two-day visit in Doha for talks with Prince Tamim Al-Thani, Al-Bashir landed in Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials. Qatar was the first country Al-Bashir visited since the eruption of protests, the largest dissent movement against his rule since the June 1989 coup.

The official Qatar News Agency reported a statement from the court of Al-Thani saying, “The emir affirmed Qatar’s firm stance on Sudan’s unity and stability.”

Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz sent a ministerial delegation to Khartoum to reiterate the kingdom’s solidarity with Sudan in the face of its current economic challenges.

Maged Al-Qasabi, Saudi minister of trade and investment, said upon meeting Al-Bashir that King Salman, “affirmed that the security of Sudan is part of the security of the kingdom and vice versa”. Al-Qasabi added that, “The kingdom supports Sudan and its people, especially due to the large role the Sudanese people played in supporting education in the kingdom.”

It is no secret Sudanese forces, made up of thousands of military personnel, have joined the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Houthi militias in Yemen. In addition, Khartoum remained neutral during the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Arab quartet, composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

To pave the way for a visit to Kuwait, the date of which is yet undecided, Al-Bashir in Doha confirmed “Khartoum’s support of Kuwait’s initiative to resolve the Gulf crisis”.

Sudan is receiving support from Arab states that have their own conflicts of interests and differences, which adds more complexity to the Sudan situation. It appears Arab states share in common a fear of an “unorganised fall” of Al-Bashir’s regime without the presence of a viable substitute, a scenario that would spread chaos in Central and East Africa and the Red Sea regions, which are already volatile.

Qatar, on one hand, is working tirelessly to preserve the only remaining Islamist stronghold in the Arab world after the Muslim Brotherhood lost in all Arab Spring countries. This loss was a deafening blow to Doha that put all its stakes on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is careful to preserve the only Arab military force fighting in Yemen alongside the internationally recognised Yemeni government, that has the support of the UAE and the Saudi kingdom.

As far as Egypt is concerned, its political leadership fears the eruption of chaos if the Sudanese regime is toppled without the existence of a ready substitute, with the probable spread of weaponry across the large expanses that comprise Sudan.

Arab countries’ support of Al-Bashir appears to be giving the kiss of life to his Islamist-oriented government amid economic difficulties Khartoum has been suffering for years.

Sudan lost more than 60 per cent of its hard currency revenues after the independence of oil-rich South Sudan in July 2011 following a two-decade civil war. It imports the majority of its needs in fuel, wheat and medicines, resulting in scarcity and exorbitant prices.

The final straw was when the government increased the price of bread from one Sudanese pound to three. Even with the price rise, bread was not available at the majority of bakeries. Hence, the 19 December protests, ongoing until today.

The demands of the demonstrators turned from being economic in the first week to ousting Al-Bashir in the second. His second period of tenure ends in April 2020.

Al-Bashir has been ruling Sudan since his Islamist-supported coup of 1989 until 1996 through the National Revolutionary Command Council which he headed. He won his first presidential elections almost uncontested. In 2005 he signed an accord to end the civil war (1983-2005) in the region of South Sudan and gave its people the right to self-determination. After a new constitution was drafted, Al-Bashir was given a six-year transitional term, following which presidential, legislative and municipal elections were held in 2010.

With his term coming to an end, Al-Bashir’s ruling party sought to amend the constitution to lay the groundwork for Al-Bashir’s running for a third term, or to allow him to re-contest presidential elections for an undetermined period.

Since the break-up of hundreds of protests in Sudan, more than 40 people were killed, according to figures provided by Sudanese and international rights groups, while the government’s investigative committee announced that no more than 29 people died. Since 19 December over 800 were arrested and 300 injured.

Currently leading the protests is the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) that has called for demonstrations across the country. Despite ambiguity surrounding its leadership and structural organisation, the association succeeded in mobilising thousands of people.

The Sudan government, for its part, is doubting the motives of the SPA, accusing it of implementing a foreign agenda.

The SPA was founded in 2013 following the September protests in which 200 were left dead.

According to the SPA’s manifesto, a copy of which was obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly, the association aims to win the trust of the people to lead the opposition, offering itself as an alternative to conventional political parties.

“The SPA is a brilliant solution to the situation in Sudan. The young Sudanese no longer trust the parties on the political scene, but at the same time they need a political alternative to lead the protests,” said Waddah Taber, a Sudanese political activist.

The SPA, moreover, targets the creation of a socio-political tool to organise civil disobedience and an all-out strike as a peaceful means to topple the regime.

In addition to its members, the SPA comprises the Coalition of Democratic Lawyers, the Sudanese Journalists Network, the Central Doctors Committee and the Sudan Teachers Committee.

The SPA signed its manifesto in Khartoum at the beginning of the year, the suggestions of which were agreed upon by association members. The manifesto suggests having a transitional period of four years after the removal of the Al-Bashir regime during which a new constitution and laws guaranteeing rights and freedoms would be drafted.

The association is keeping secret its activities and movements, as well as the identity of its members, fearing they be arrested.

Last week, the SPA called for organising sit-ins across Sudan from Sunday to Wednesday.

“It was the SPA’s popularity that forced an opposition member, such as Sadiq Al-Mahdi, to call on Al-Bashir to step down,” said Taber.

Al-Mahdi was the prime minister in the government Al-Bashir overthrew in 1989. At his Friday sermon, preceding the noon prayers, he called on Al-Bashir to leave office and suggested the formation of a transitional government.

Many among the Sudanese people, the majority of which are youth, fear the return of Al-Mahdi for a third time, just like after the fall of the first military rule of president Ibrahim Abboud in 1964, and the toppling of the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry in 1985.

Meanwhile, Al-Bashir is maintaining his habit of political manoeuvring. This time, though, he is facing a tough test. There are no clear indications whether his regime will fall or continue until the 2020 elections.

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