Sudan: Last days of the Bashir regime?

Week-long protests following an increase in fuel prices mean that the situation is critical for President al-Bashir.

Protests across Sudan that erupted following last Monday’s the sharp increases in fuel prices have continued for a week. President Omar al-Bashir, who has governed the country since he overthrew Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup in June 1989, is facing his most severe crisis.

The protests began last Monday after the government lifted fuel subsidies to raise revenue. Austerity measures have recently escalated fuel prices, hitting people on low incomes hardest.

The measures were brought in after pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which argued that fuel subsidies skewed government spending. The IMF estimated the subsidy as costing 12 billion Sudanese pounds, some US $2.27 billion.

The IMF argued that up to three-quarters of all tax went to pay for the subsidy, which disproportionately favoured the rich and led to smuggling across the country’s borders. But for the poor the doubling of the cost of kerosene for cooking, as well as the impact on transport and lighting, was crushing.

In the capital, Khartoum, and its twin city of Omdurman, people took to the streets. They were joined in cities across central and northern Sudan, with protests reported in many centres, including Kassala, Port Sudan and Atbara.

The al-Bashir government responded with tear gas and live ammunition. Estimates of deaths vary, from 50 to as high as 200, with a thousand demonstrators having been wounded. Hundreds more have been arrested.

Sudan’s most popular paper has been closed, as have the offices of the satellite channels Al-Arabiya and Sky News Arabia. The internet was cut, to prevent word of the protests spreading.

Despite the repression, the demonstrations have continued. A new movement, describing itself as “Sudanese Change Forces” has sprung up, demanding that President al-Bashir and the National Congress Party government, should step down.

It is far from clear how the authorities will react.  There are reports that senior members of the government have sent their families out of the country as a precautionary measure.

Support for the cuts in fuel subsidy appear to be eroding, even among government supporters.  Two dozen senior officials of the ruling party have sent a memo to the president urging him to reverse the price increases and to end the killing of protesters.

The authorities have so far refused to budge. Sudan will not reverse its decision to increase fuel prices, Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told the French news-agency, AFP on Sunday. “No, it is not possible at all, said Mr Osman. “This is the only way out.”

The government argues that the protests have been infiltrated by armed members of various rebel groups who are united in what is called the Sudan Revolutionary Front. The Front brings together rebels from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile with movements fighting the government in Darfur. The deputy leader of the ruling party, Nafei Ali Nafie, said on Saturday that the government would not allow the country to slide into chaos, blaming the deaths on ‘infiltrated elements.’

A spokesman for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, Yassir Arman, told New Statesman that the allegations were nonsense.  Blaming the deaths on what Mr Arman described as the government’s policy of “blood and iron,” he said that the Front would allow the peaceful protests to take their course, before considering force as a means of overthrowing the government. But Mr Arman said that a month long unilateral ceasefire declared by his movement to allow civilians to recover from the recent severe flooding, was about to end. 

The BBC’s former Khartoum correspondent, James Copnall, argues that the current protests resemble the wave of mass demonstrations of 1964 and 1985, which swept away two governments. But, he believes, the latest protests “are a long way from that point.”

Either the Bashir government will be able to re-assert its authority – and perhaps ameliorate some of the prices rises – or it will face mounting protests. So far the military have not made their position clear, leaving the police and those security forces that are allied to the regime to deal with the protesters. The next week is likely to be critical.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waves to the crowd. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt