International focus over the last few weeks, quite rightly, has been on the momentuous events that led to the downfall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia and more recently the massive upsurge in popular protests in Egypt, principally centred on Cairo. However, while Egypt and Tunisia (to a lesser extent Yemen) have been in the news and discussed by international leaders and in international forums, other states in the region have also experienced major political crises. One such state is Sudan which had been the focus of media attention as the southern part of the country went to the polls to decide on whether there would be unity between north and south or separation. The result surprised no-one with almost 99% of southern Sudanese voting for seccession.
In more recent days, though, the Sudan has been experiencing the same level of popular discontent with the ruling party that we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt. The difference in Sudan, and especially for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is that unlike Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, his international standing is poor to say the least. He is the only serving international leader to be indicted by the International Criminal Court and amongst European leaders in particular is persona non gratis. As his position in Sudan worsens, he will not be able to call on his international friends to support his government in the same way that the Egyptian President has been able to do over the last week. Support for al-Bashir will not be coming as readily as it has for the Egyptian President because the fear of instability in Sudan does not worry the US or the EU anywhere as much as it does in the case of Egypt. This raises the question of how serious are the protests that have broken out in Sudan and are they strong enough to bring down a regime that has been in power for over two decades?
Of this I am still somewhat uncertain, but it can be said that al-Bashir is weaker now than at any other time over the last decade, at least since the very public internal conflict within the ruling party in 1999 that resulted in the purge of Hasan al-Turabi and his supporters and paved the way for the peace deal between the Sudanese government and the southern Sudan. The culmination of this process is the above-mentioned separation of the north and the south which is highly unpopular in the northern Sudan and has been one of the issues that protesters have been referring to in the recent outbreaks of unrest. Opponents of the peace deal, such as Hasan al-Turabi, have called for the president to stand down and follow the lead of Tunisia’s Ben-Ali. This public criticism of Omar al-Bashir has earned Turabi another stint in jail which for the elderly Islamist leader will only serve to increase his popularity amongst some segments of the protesters. Whether the protests intend to replace Omar al-Bashir with his former bed-fellow in government is unlikely as the popular mood seems to be mirroring that in Tunisia and Egypt for more drastic changes than just the return of past political leaders.
While, the popular mood is for change, the past has some relevance, certainly Omar al-Bashir will be aware of the power of the Sudanese people. Before Ben-Ali’s dramatic fall from power, Sudan was the last country in the Middle East where the popular will successfully challenged an incumbent government. In 1985, mass protests on the street of Khartoum combined with a general strike led to the fall of Jaafar Nimeiri. Prior to this, Sudanese popular protests brought down the military regime of General Abboud in 1964. The Sudanese people are very proud of this tradition and in the current moment of protests seem to be buoyed by references to the successes of the past. They must be wary though, for al-Bashir is in one way much stronger than both his ousted predecessors who were fighting wars in the southern Sudan at the time they were forced from office. This time, the Sudanese miltiary can focus on buttressing the President and protecting the regime, a luxury they did not have in either 1985 or 1964.
And it is the role of the southern Sudan that may prove to be the basis for the biggest irony, even if no-one is laughing, of the political situation as it pans out. If al-Bashir is saved by the military, then it might be the peace in the southern Sudan which proved crucial for defeating the uprising. If, on the other hand he goes, then it might be the anger in the northern Sudan towards the secession of the south that overwhelms the regime. Either way, the future of Sudan is very unstable and the possibility that al-Bashir may be the next Arab dictator to flee the ire of the people is very real.