For those who wished the winds of the Arab Spring would blow south from North Africa, Sudan was always the biggest might have been.
When protests took off in the country at the start of 2011, it seemed to have the same combustible mix of too many young people – more than two-thirds of Sudanese are under 30 years old – too few jobs, too much corruption and too few natural resources that would eventually unseat the president of its neighbour to the north.
And yet Omar Al Bashir, the president since 1989, put down the protests. They appeared again the following year, led by activists from Girifna (“We are fed up!”), a youth-led protest movement roughly analogous to the Egyptian Kefaya (“Enough”), a movement that played a prominent role in mobilising against Hosni Mubarak in 2005 and in 2011. Again, they were put down as was, at the end of last year, a coup attempt.
But the recent protests are the biggest challenge to Mr Al Bashir, because, for the first time, the middle class is rising up. And even if they are quiet now, the underlying causes of their anger have not gone away.
Protests started in Sudan three weeks ago, after the government lifted subsidies on fuel, prompting thousands to take to the streets. Similar public demonstrations against austerity measures were the beginnings of the summer 2012 protests. This time, however, the crackdown by Sudanese security forces was brutal, prompting foreign governments, including the UAE, to urge restraint from Khartoum. By the time the protests were silenced, dozens, perhaps hundreds, were killed and at least 700 were arrested. Many of them remain in jail, without charge.
The reason this year’s protests were different has to do with one group: the middle class. All of the Arab republics that faced protest movements over the past three years had enriched a core group of elites at the expense of the majority of the population. But all of them could also count on the tacit support of the middle class, that broad group of professionals and business families who prefer stability to revolution. Few leaders could survive without them keeping the economy ticking over. Indeed in Tunisia, the first of the Arab uprisings, it was only once the middle class took to the streets that it was clear the end of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was at hand.
Sudan is nowhere near such a broad-based protest movement. But the crackdown has reached the middle class, epitomised by the death of a young pharmacist during the demonstrations. Salah El Sanhory, who came from a prominent Sudanese family and was born and lived in Abu Dhabi, was shot dead during protests at the end of September. A definitive answer on who killed him has not yet been offered, but his family and friends have accused the security forces. In death, Sanhory has become the figurehead of the protest movement, galvanising members of the middle class who see him as one of their own. On social networking sites, he is already spoken of in the same tones as Khaled Said, the young Egyptian whose torture and killing by police officers in 2010 galvanised the revolution.
The rise of middle class protesters, who also include the “silent women of Sudan”, the occasional gatherings of wealthy Sudanese women who stand silently in protest, has spooked Sudan’s political class that has seen what happened once the middle class turned on the political elite in other Arab republics.
The result has been divisions in the ruling party, culminating in an unprecedented public letter sent to the president and signed by 30 of his allies from within the ruling National Congress Party, calling on Mr Al Bashir to rethink his economic strategy, compensate those protesters who were wounded and investigate the circumstances behind those killed.
“You have to let out the pressure,” said Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, the most prominent of the 30 signatories and a former presidential adviser, in a television interview. “If you don’t do that, if you don’t have a political recipe addressing those issues, the country can easily descend into chaos.” Few doubt what he means: Sudan’s equally populous neighbour to the north has been riven by protests and political rivalries since the fall of Mr Mubarak.
The protests have now subsided, or at least been put down. Even at their height, they were not a mass movement like that witnessed in Egypt or Yemen. But the political anger of the middle class remains: rising prices have affected their living standards, eroded their savings and made their businesses suffer.
Mr Al Bashir is now struggling to hold on both to his party and his country. He will have to do both: losing the former will eventually impact his ability to hold on to the latter; but losing the latter will immediately destroy his political position. Mr Al Bashir has based his legitimacy on bringing stability to one of the Arab world’s largest states; if he can’t end the tension, it is possible the political elite will find someone else who can. That scenario, absolutely unthinkable before the Arab Spring, is now a possibility, as divisions emerge in the previously regimented ruling party. For if there is one thing that Arab elites have learnt from the Arab Spring, it is that trying to hold on too tightly to the figurehead can bring the whole political edifice tumbling down. If Mr Al Bashir can’t see that, the people around him certainly can.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai