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.