This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 21/05/2011
Is Sudan safeguarded from the "Arab Spring"? Is the current Sudanese regime immune to uprisings and revolutions?
This question has been asked repeatedly following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the protests spreading to other countries in the region, particularly since Sudan is witnessing a number of problems, most importantly the consequences of Southern Sudan's secession, the ongoing war in Darfur, and the deteriorating economic situation in the country which means that [national] insolvency is looming on the horizon. In addition to this, the Sudanese people tasted popular revolutions and uprisings a long time prior to the Arab Spring, namely the October 1964 revolution, and then later the April 1985 revolution. Therefore, the Sudanese people have always been prime candidates to rise up against despotic rule and security suppression, whether this was a purely military rule, a military rule in civilian clothing, or a coercive civilian rule under the banner of the "one party." From this point of view, many people within and beyond the Arab world are wondering how Sudan, to a large extent, has remained outside of the sphere of Arab revolutions, and whether the al-Bashir regime has succeeded in taming the people, and conclusively eliminating the opposition, or whether it has managed to form a popular base that prevents the outbreak of a significant uprising against the regime.
The reality is that the Sudanese government's approach to the "Arab Spring" and the statements issued by Sudanese officials over the past three months reflect a deep sense of concern about the possibility of Sudan contracting this contagion, even if the regime is trying to play down and deny that Sudan is being affected by what is happening in the region. When the Egyptian revolution was reaching a climax in the final days of January, the Sudanese regime imposed a complete blackout on news of this revolution, as if it were happening on another planet, not in a neighbouring country that shares borders and a long history with Sunday. The people [of Sudan] had to watch what was happening [in Egypt] on Arab and foreign satellite television channels because the official Sudanese media was not allowing people to keep abreast of the latest developments, which is something that the entire world was closely monitoring. When a group of young Sudanese, inspired by what was taking place in their northern neighbour, took to the streets to demonstrate and call for change, the regime responded with a violent crackdown, utilizing its brutal security machinery which it had hardened over the past 21 years, in order to protect itself against any popular uprisings or military coups.
After the Mubarak regime had been ousted, al-Bashir flew to Cairo to "welcome" the new regime, and the Sudanese foreign minister issued a statement saying that the relations between the two countries had entered a new phase of cooperation. After this, the figures within the Khartoum regime began to talk about "integration" and the unity of the Nile Valley, knowing that Islamists within the al-Bashir regime had been repeating this line and fervently hoping to extend their influence by strengthening relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the coming period. The Khartoum regime, which is looking for a way to renege on its commitment to Southern Sudan's secession by focusing on the talk of implementing Islamic Sharia Law and the establishment of an Islamic republic, does not view a democratic or post-revolutionary Egypt as a natural ally, unless of course their aspirations towards seeing the Muslim Brotherhood strengthen their presence in any future Egyptian government is realized. At the very least, Khartoum can hope to neutralize Cairo by talking about the "integration" initiative, in the same manner as the Nimeiry regime did in the past. For in reality [former Sudanese president] Gaafar Nimeiry was looking for political support for his regime, rather than genuine economic and social integration [with Egypt]. Of course, this is a Machiavellian perspective that is not so far removed from the approach of this Sudanese regime which came to power by staging a military coup against a democratic regime and which since then has ruled the country with an iron fist.
Despite the changes taking place in its two neighbouring countries (Egypt and Libya), and in another nearby country (Yemen), as well as in allied country (Syria), the Sudanese regime is refusing to learn any lessons. It is continuing, until now, to bet on the iron fist, and on eliminating and marginalizing other forces. The hawks have gotten rid of all the figures within the regime who want to hold dialogue and reconcile with the opposition, something that would lead the country towards genuine democracy and [political] pluralism, putting an end to the autocratic period and resulting in a peaceful transition of power. Over the past few weeks, the Sudanese people have been monitoring a battle that has come into the public view, between two of the President's aides, over the issues of an economic open-door policy and dialogue with opposition parties. Prior to this, the people had monitored the statements made by presidential aide Nafie Ali Nafie, one of the regime's most prominent hawks, during which he described the opposition forces as being "parties subject to [foreign] embassies" and said that the opposition was deluding itself if it believed that the revolutions that had erupted in other Arab countries would strengthen their position in Sudan or bring them to power. Nafie, who is a security figure lacking in political flexibility, said that he believed that Sudan – under its present regime – had "inspired" the region's people to rise up "after they witnessed the dignity with which the Sudanese people are living in by refusing to submit."
What "dignity" is this that has inspired the Arab people? Is it the dignity seen in the division of one's homeland or the ongoing Darfur war? Is it the dignity which resulted in the spread of corruption and prejudice, and the country being run as if it were a private company, with the revenue solely being passed on to the regime's supporters?
Sudan is in for a hot summer, especially as Southern Sudan's secession is officially taking place in July, and there is heightened tension over contact lines and shared borders. The [Sudanese] regime has even failed in managing the secession process. In other words, it has failed in handling a failure, and did not achieve the long sought after peace. In fact, there is still a chance of war being renewed with the South, amidst the ongoing problems and escalating rhetoric. This coincides with the possibility of further escalation with regards to the Darfur War and the aggravated economic problems in northern Sudan, with the country losing a huge percentage of its oil revenue [due to the secession of the south]. All of this means that Sudan remains within the sphere of influence of crises, and is not immune to the repercussions of the "Arab Spring', even if these are coming late. As the people of Sudan say, there is no spring in Sudan, it is either hot or boiling.