KHARTOUM: Outside the University of Khartoum, riot police in blue fatigues perch on pickup trucks, keeping watch as young women in bright headscarves and men in button-down shirts walk by carrying textbooks to class in Sudan’s intense summer heat.
Less than a week earlier, the campus – just a few hundred meters from the national security headquarters – was a battleground. Police fired teargas and used batons to break up hundreds of protesters, who threw rocks back at them.
No one expects the shaky truce to last. After more than a week of anti-government demonstrations fueled by budget cuts and tax increases, Sudan’s rulers are digging in. Riot police have been deployed, coverage of protests in local media restricted, and scores arrested, activists and opposition groups say.
It is still far from clear whether the protests, which have rarely mustered more than a few hundred people at a time, will gather the kind of momentum seen in last year’s Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and so pose a real threat to Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
But the tough response to the demonstrations shows how high the stakes are for Sudan’s rulers, already struggling to contain multiple armed rebellions and an economic crisis triggered by the loss of oil output and revenues through South Sudan’s secession last year.
In a defiant speech on Sunday – two days after the most widely spread demonstrations yet – Bashir lashed out at the protesters, dismissing them as a handful of agitators whose aims most Sudanese rejected.
“I drove around the capital on Friday in an open car. There was nothing. The people greeted me by crying ‘Allahu akbar’,” Bashir said. Anyone looking for an Arab Spring in Sudan, he added, was going to be disappointed.
Activists who want to end Bashir’s 23-year rule, sensing an opportunity in the economic troubles, have presented a starkly different picture: “There will be no escape from the tidal wave of popular uprising,” read an article posted on the website of one of the main activist groups, Girifna (“We’re Fed Up”).
The country’s main opposition parties, although fractured, have for the most part backed the protests to pressure the NCP to open up the political system and end the wars festering in the country’s western and southern regions.
An alliance of the rebel groups fighting in those areas has offered to declare a “strategic ceasefire” if the Bashir administration were to be toppled.
Such hopes may still be farfetched, but activists were encouraged last Friday when demonstrations spread beyond the core of students who had dominated them and into a variety of neighbourhoods in Khartoum and other cities.
The success of the movement will depend on whether that trend continues, analysts say. Activists have called for big protests this weekend, which will be a major test of their resilience.
Running out of options
The University of Khartoum, whose brown brick buildings were put up along the Nile by British colonial rulers in the early 20th century, has been a hub of political ferment for decades.
The institution was central to popular uprisings that ousted two military leaders since the country’s independence in 1956 – once in 1964 and again in 1985.
Authorities – many of whom were once student activists themselves – are keenly aware of this history and have not been taking chances with the demonstrations.
Scores, sometimes hundreds, of riot police have been deployed to contain even small protests, dispersing them with batons and teargas before they can pick up momentum. Some activists have cried foul, although police and officials have repeatedly denied using excessive force.
Local media has been almost entirely silent about the demonstrations, except to carry official statements playing them down or blaming “foreign elements” for the unrest.
The government, running out of policy options that can both stabilize the economy and soothe discontent over inflation, may have to depend on such security measures to maintain order at least in the short term, analysts say.
“The regime seems largely bereft of ideas of how to regain the political and economic initiative – the time-horizons of the main players have become weeks, rather than months and years,” said Harry Verhoeven, an Oxford University researcher who has studied Sudan extensively.
Last week’s government move to cut fuel subsidies – which the finance minister described as the act of a “bankrupt state” – showed how serious the fiscal crisis has become.
Politicians have long avoided the measure, which is widely unpopular because many people fear it will stoke inflation.
Officials say they had no choice. The economy – struggling after years of conflict, US sanctions and mismanagement – was hit hard by South Sudan’s secession a year ago.
The new nation took about three quarters of the country’s oil output with it, erasing most of what was Sudan’s main source of foreign currency, state revenues and exports.
The former civil war foes were supposed to work out a deal whereby the landlocked South would pay fees to Sudan to export crude through the north. But the two, caught up in what analysts call a “war of attrition,” have failed to agree.
South Sudan shut down its crude output in January after Khartoum started taking some of the oil in place of fees.
Neglected during the oil-boom years, other sectors of Sudan’s economy such as agriculture have failed to make up for lost crude production, leaving the government with few resources to fill an estimated US$2.4 billion public finance gap.
With Bashir indicted at The Hague since 2009 for war crimes in Darfur – charges he dismisses as political – Sudan finds itself diplomatically isolated. And if Arab League allies are discreetly helping out, any such aid has been fairly limited.
In an interview last week, Sabir Hassan, chairman of the NCP’s economic affairs department, said it took the urgency of the economic situation to finally build the political consensus within the party needed for the new austerity measures.
“It’s necessary to start this reform at this time, and if we don’t do it at this time, of course, the deterioration will continue,” he said. “Things will get worse.”
The new measures – which cut fuel subsidies by roughly a third, raise taxes and trim government bureaucracy – aim to halve the expected budget deficit from around 6 percent of gross domestic product to about 3 percent.
The goal, Hassan said, is to “contain the deterioration, and regain economic stability and prepare the ground for sustained growth”.
Activists and opposition groups, however, point out the loss of oil was only one factor in the country’s economic decline. If not for years of mismanagement, corruption and neglect, they say, things never would have become so bad.
The country’s leaders have not proven up to the task of making hard decisions, they say, particularly the sensitive task of cutting into the substantial spending estimated to go to security and defense sectors and local governments.
“If reforms are undertaken to reach political consensus, we might be able to then stop the downhill fall in the economy,” Abda Yahia El-Mahdi, a Sudanese economic expert and former state minister at the finance ministry, said.
“If nothing changes in the political arena and the government wants to continue in the status quo, then I think we will see further deterioration in the economy regardless of these austerity measures.”