x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sudan's protests have deeper roots

Twenty-three years after assuming power in Sudan, President Omar Al Bashir faces a difficult task in containing protests

Twenty-three years ago yesterday, a Sudanese colonel in his mid-40s led a coup against the civilian government in Khartoum and assumed leadership of the country. President Omar Al Bashir is still there, but the challenges he now faces will leave him with little to celebrate.

The most pressing problems are street protests against his rule, which have escalated over the past two weeks. The protests centre on recent cuts to government subsidies, which have seen food and fuel prices soar - increasing the pain for motorists at the pump and causing a hike in public-transport fees.

The economy is on exceedingly shaky ground following the secession of South Sudan in July last year. Most of the oilfields of the former Sudan are in the new south, and the two countries have been in conflict, sometimes verging on open war, regarding how to share revenues. That is the background to Khartoum's decision to reduce subsidies.

While the protest movement - which is still relatively small and led by student groups - started by calling for bread, it now speaks of freedom. After Friday's prayers, the chants called for Mr Al Bashir to leave office.

There are signs that fear of the Bashir regime is slipping. The day of demonstration on Friday was called "The day of licking our elbows" - a reference to a Sudanese expression suggesting the impossible. A government official has been widely quoted as saying: "If anyone dares to hit the streets, the day they lick their elbows is the day they will topple our regime." That confidence will now be shaken.

All of this puts Sudan - and Mr Al Bashir, of course - in a difficult situation. The last thing the country needs is a prolonged period of instability. The Bashir government has few tools at its disposal to assuage the discontent: political expression is suppressed, and there is no economic quick fix. The International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Mr Al Bashir (which has done little to curb the violence in Darfur or on the disputed border with South Sudan) has isolated the country and deterred foreign investment.

The long-term solution is to repair relations with South Sudan, and use the proceeds to rebuild the economy. In recent days, however, protests have been met with a heavy hand. Mr Al Bashir insists that this is not an "Arab Spring" moment, but he would do well to learn from his neighbours' experiences nonetheless and institute the reforms that Sudan needs.