x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sudan prisoner release hints at new openness

If Sudan can implement reforms, the country could maintain its stability – even opposition leaders have said they do not wish to see another Egypt.

On the face of it, Sudan, sandwiched between a postrevolutionary Egypt and a post-secession South Sudan, appears to have weathered the changes of the past two years. But it is precisely the events of these two years that are leading Khartoum to reconsider its approach to governing.

Omar Al Bashir, an Arab strongman who has ruled unopposed for years, moved swiftly to crush any protests in his country after Hosni Mubarak's fall in Egypt. But more recently he has shown a willingness to compromise. His attempt at detente with the opposition is a result of regional changes that, if genuine, could turn out for the better. Though there is reason to be sceptical of his motivation, concessions are a side of Sudan's leader we've rarely seen.

Protests against Mr Al Bashir have continued since 2010, often over specific political policies. But they've never reached the level seen in other revolutionary states. Girifna, the umbrella opposition movement that predates the Arab Spring - and whose name in colloquial Arabic translates to "we've had enough" - seems more like its Egyptian counterpart Kifaya (also "enough") in the years after 2005.

But in Egypt it was the networks of Kifaya that allowed protesters to coordinate and take down Mubarak. In Sudan, Girifna is protesting and organising but perhaps waiting for its moment. And Mr Al Bashir has been assiduously working to ensure that moment never comes. Not long after Mubarak fell, for instance, he vowed not to contest a further term as president in 2015.

More dangerous to his position have been events in the south of the country, where South Sudan separated in July 2011, taking with it the majority of Sudan's oilfields. It is this financial squeeze and the resultant austerity measures that triggered the most widespread protests last year. And it is for these reasons that Mr Al Bashir may be willing to compromise.

In the past two weeks, the government has offered two major concessions. First, Khartoum offered to talk to the Southern rebels, armed groups that want the departure from Sudan of two southern provinces, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Then this week, Mr Al Bashir announced that all political prisoners would be freed, and the next day seven major opposition figures were released.

Mr Al Bashir has further to go - encouraging political unity, overhauling a biased judiciary and targeting corruption, to name just a few tasks he must tackle.

Averting further war will not be easy. But if Khartoum can implement these and other reforms, the country could maintain its stability. Even opposition leaders have said they do not wish Sudan to become another Egypt.