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Will Sudan be the next Syria? The comparisons are striking

Some elements of the situation in Sudan are alarmingly like the way things were in Syria before the revolt there got started.

Renewed protests against president Omar Al Bashir in Sudan have led to speculation about whether the Arab Spring has belatedly reached the country’s borders. Last year, however, similar demonstrations disappeared soon after they began and it is highly likely that matters will turn out the same this time around.

There are direct parallels with Syria, however, where the regime has confounded expectations by clinging to power against an uprising that is in its third year. The morbid lesson that Bashar Al Assad has taught other Arab dictators is that if they are stubborn and brutal enough, their people and the international community will lose the stomach to risk facing the tragic repercussions that Syrians are experiencing.

Separately, Sudanese opposition figures have expressed fears about a revolution in their country potentially resembling that in Syria.

Mr Bashir, like his counterpart in Damascus, has carefully cultivated the loyalty of the military and filled its top ranks with his supporters, mindful that Sudan’s popular revolutions in 1964 and 1985 succeeded because they had the army’s backing. As such, both presidents have been able to use the military against civilians.

According to Amnesty International, the latest protests in Sudan have so far resulted in the killing of more than 200 demonstrators – many shot in the head and chest – and the arrest of hundreds more.

As well as being heavy-handed, Mr Bashir’s response has been dismissive, describing protesters as “traitors, bandits, and troublemakers” supported by “hostile media” and foreign conspirators. Both have also clamped down on internet access and media coverage.

As with Mr Al Assad, Mr Bashir is greatly helped by the fact that his opponents are divided and disorganised, and lack sufficient public trust and confidence.

The traditional opposition political parties in Sudan are accused of being too close to the establishment, and of not pushing hard enough for genuine change.

This is no accident. Both leaders have deftly created, manipulated and exacerbated divisions within their diverse populations to turn people against each other rather than their autocratic hold on power. Both have also clamped down on parties and movements that would pose any real challenge.

The legitimate fear, as in Syria, is that the situation will be no better, and may even worsen, after the regime is toppled.

The Sudanese people are naturally keen to avoid such a scenario, as there is currently no obvious party or figure that most of them could rally round to replace Mr Bashir.

Even if there were, Mr Bashir could rely on the support of Russia and particularly China, whose economic ties with Khartoum are rapidly developing as part of Beijing’s pan-African strategy to secure vital resources for its fast-growing and increasingly prosperous population.

Both Russia and China have the power of veto in the UN Security Council. They have used it to shield Mr Al Assad from international criticism and punitive measures, and would do the same for Mr Bashir.

Sanctions by individual countries would likely be ineffective.

Sudan, like Syria, has long been accustomed to operating under sanctions, and the only ones that would really hurt would have to come from the very countries that would be least likely to use them. Besides, as with Iraq and Iran, sanctions could well hurt the Sudanese people more than the government.

However, time is not on Mr Bashir’s side. The protests this year and last were sparked by economic issues. These include the rising price of basic goods, an unemployment rate that reportedly exceeds 30 per cent, foreign debt estimated at more than $40 billion, a currency that is losing its value, disproportionately high defence spending, and the loss of up to 75 per cent of oil revenues due to the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

Economic deterioration is likely to continue, ensuring the growth of the protest movement against Mr Bashir. Khartoum has been unable to plug the huge revenue hole left by South Sudanese independence, and to diversify the economy away from the oil on which it was so dependent.

Juba currently has to export its oil via a pipeline through Sudan, for which it pays a fee.

However, continuous bickering over how much should be paid has led to prolonged periods of non-production (and hence non-payment), and to South Sudan looking to build a pipeline that bypasses its northern neighbour.

Once construction is complete, Mr Bashir will lose his biggest leverage over South Sudan.

That in turn may diminish China’s strategic focus on Khartoum in favour of Juba, as oil lies at the centre of Beijing’s relationship with both, and its priority is sufficient, stable supply. And so, Mr Bashir may not be able to always count on the staunch support of his most important ally.

Furthermore, the army is being spread thin by worsening conflicts in the western region of Darfur, and the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, amid a rebel alliance formed to topple the government. In addition, 31 prominent members of Mr Bashir’s own National Congress Party made public a letter they wrote to him criticising the latest deadly crackdown on protests.

The government derided last year’s demonstrations as the impossible act of “elbow-licking”. However, history has shown that the Sudanese people are willing and able to challenge and overthrow oppressive regimes.

Mr Bashir, who has been in power since 1989, would be wrong to assume that he is somehow immune to this, and that Sudanese elbows will remain dry indefinitely.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

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