Why Sudan’s Protests May Not Lead to Revolution

The first of Sudan’s intermittent protests began in January 2011. Though inspired by the revolutions emerging across the Middle East, the demonstrations were rooted in long held frustration at the economic and political mismanagement of the country by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

Initial protests opposing President Omar al-Bashir’s regime were limited mostly to university students. Although quickly crushed, they raised hopes that the barriers to expressing public dissent against the country’s notoriously heavy-handed regime had been crossed.

In the ongoing cycle of protests and calm, the question remains, however: why are the demonstrations in Sudan failing to gain significant momentum?

Ethnic and Class Divisions

While many Sudanese sympathize with the protesters, ethnic mistrust and class divisions have prevented the demonstrations from transforming into a formidable force.

Sudanese groups who have faced marginalization and violence from the regime, including the Darfuris, Nubans, and Easterners, fear involvement with the protests. While their counterparts from the northern Shaagi and Jaali tribes may be abused, tortured, or detained for participating in the protests, marginalized groups face the prospect of death for their dissent.

These groups also hold resentment and distrust toward student protesters, who are predominantly from the northern tribes and failed to come to their defense when the Khartoum regime launched various brutal campaigns in the peripheries.

As with most protests, these students have kept the momentum alive. They have, however, received limited support from across the socio-economic spectrum. Sudan’s small class of middle-income professionals has yet to see enough promise in the current protests to take to the streets.

For some members of Sudanese society, regime connections have ensured survival during the country’s current economic crisis. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder have borne the brunt of Sudan’s floundering economy and austerity measures. While they briefly participated in popular outbursts in the summer of 2012, their participation was short-lived for numerous reasons, including the brutality of the police crackdown, ethnic divisions that manifested into class divisions, and a sense of resignation with both this and any prospective future regime.

Lack of an Alternative

The absence of viable alternatives to the current regime has further limited support for the protests. The two most historically significant parties, the Ummah Party, headed by former Prime Minister and Ansar sufi order leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Khatmiyya sufi sect leader As-Sayed al-Mirghani, offer only a diluted version of the NCP’s Islamism.

Much of the population is disenchanted with the Islamist Ummah and DUP, which have both been co-opted by the current regime. Both parties and their members hold comfortable positions within the government. The son of Sadiq al-Mahdi is, for instance, an assistant to President Omar al-Bashir, while the DUP is a minority member in the current government.

Most Sudanese view these organizations as little more than pockets of aging political dinosaurs unwilling to relinquish their diminished power to the younger generation. Sudan’s political parties have repeatedly failed to seriously challenge the NCP’s rule or to connect with the disenchanted youth who have only known al-Bashir’s oppressive rule.

Even more pragmatic in its resigned simplicity is an oft-heard explanation from ordinary citizens about the protests’ limited chances of success: the current government has already filled its belly through widespread corruption; any new regime will come hungry with an empty stomach subjecting the already suffering population to further corruption.

A few years before, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North), presented an interesting alternative for some Sudanese youth. It is the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement, a southern rebel army that fought against the government in a decades long civil war and is now South Sudan’s ruling political party.

The group’s talk of a pluralist, tolerant Sudan based on equality, justice, and individual citizenship rights exclusive of identity was promising, but short lived. Subject to the will of its mother party in the South, the SPLM-North was curbed in its efforts to alter the northern political landscape. The Juba-based SPLM was focused on its long awaited prize of southern independence in the run up to the April 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections. It had no interest in shaking up the northern political scene and upsetting the NCP’s domination, only to jeopardize timely implementation of the referendum on southern independence.

Held in contempt by the NCP and the black sheep in Sudan’s primarily Islamist opposition, the SPLM-North lost any viability as an opposition group after the April 2010 election. Now all that remains of SPLM-North is a rebel movement fighting against the government in parts of Blue Nile and the South Kordofan states. The two border-states remained a part of Sudan after South Sudan’s secession, but have significant populations that aligned with the South during the civil war.

Lack of Organization and Support

Many of the current protests in Khartoum have been mobilized by the youth-led opposition movement, Girifna, which means “we are fed up.” Although Girifna has managed to mobilize youth, students, and Sudanese expatriates, its ability to mobilize other sectors – labor, the working class, and diverse ethnic groups – within and outside of the capital has been limited.

This can partially be explained by limited media and internet accessibility outside of Khartoum. Additionally, most traditional trade unions and labor syndicates have been broken and co-opted by the state leaving no room for organizational linkages to form between student groups and organized labor, a historically important alliance in previous revolts.

Though the opposition parties did sign the Democratic Alternative Charter on July 4, 2012 unequivocally calling for regime change, they have done little to put this commitment into action. Opposition parties have made it clear that, until the protests become more successful, they have no interest in relinquishing their political gains to take to the streets.

Then there is the old vanguard of feminist and secular opposition members from the 1950s and 60s who played significant roles in the Sudanese Communist Party. Many of these individuals have found comfortable positions running civil society organizations and academic institutions, which are monitored by security agencies. They manage to stay afloat on dwindling international funding, host conferences, publish occasionally, and hold armchair discussions on the need for regime change. They, too, are more talk than action, disconnected from most of the youth leading the current protests.

Security Force Restraint

Some commentators suggest that severe police brutality against protesters, including the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas, as well as prolonged detentions and sexual violence against female opposition members, have deterred many from joining the protests and dispersed those who have participated.

Notably, however, the Sudanese security forces have been surprisingly restrained compared to their counterparts in neighboring countries. Though employing brutal force, Sudan’s security forces have been careful not to create any martyrs;[1] in neighboring Arab countries, martyrs have been a strong mobilizing point for protesters.

In Khartoum, there have been only two deaths reportedly related to the protests. A student protester died from injuries sustained during the January 2011 protests, while a second protester died from tear gas inhalation in June 2012. While a number of protesters have died outside Khartoum, namely in the Darfur region, the tempestuous cycle of youth martyrdom has yet to take hold in Sudan.

Lack of Media Coverage

In neighboring countries, widespread use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, were instrumental in organizing and mobilizing the revolutions, and providing footage for international news media broadcasts.

In Sudan, access to the internet has been limited outside major cities. Overall internet penetration in the country is estimated to be a mere 10 to 25 percent. As such, reports and footage of security force brutality outside the capital has been significantly limited. Even protests in Khartoum have received limited coverage on YouTube compared to Egypt and Tunisia, and even less in local and international media outlets.

Most of the social media coverage on the protests has resulted from the efforts of the expatriate Sudanese community, which continues to consistently report on events in Sudan. Girifna as well as #SudanRevolts, a collaboration of Sudanese residents and expatriates, have been crucial in providing analysis, coverage, and promotion for the revolt. While their online contributions have been important for publicity purposes, their ability to overcome organizational hurdles in order to galvanize further domestic support for the protests has been limited.

Closed Democratic Spaces

Although the April 2010 general elections were seriously flawed, they received only mild criticism from an international community intent on making it to the 2011 referendum on southern Sudanese independence.

With the elections’ passage, many northern Sudanese believed the chance for a democratic opening was lost. Having won the elections, the NCP could now claim a democratic mandate to rule over the country, even though all opposition groups except the DUP had boycotted the election. Any incentive for the NCP to compromise with the opposition had been quashed.

In addition to this, the referendum’s completion brought an end to the NCP’s superficial and temporary attempts to accommodate southerners in northern Sudan. International donors, once optimistic about prospects for government reform, quickly lost hope and most funding and democracy-related activities came to an end.

Recent Protests

The mostly-student led protests against the regime continue. A unique development in these demonstrations came in December 2012, when protests spread across the country following the death of four Darfuri students from Gezira State University. While state officials claimed the four students had drowned, many believe they were killed by security forces after being arrested for demanding tuition exemptions as per the Darfur peace agreements.

These demonstrations were one of few instances when violence against Darfuris, or any peripheral group, incited protests across the country. At least temporarily, these developments presented the shimmering possibility for greater solidarity between disparate ethnic and regional groups in the country.

Mostly recently, on January 31, 2013, dorms at the University of Khartoum caught fire after security forces fired Molotov cocktails at students protesting against Sudan’s Second Vice-President, Al Haj Adam Youssef, who was attending an event on campus.

The attacks led to further sit-ins by students frustrated with the muted response from the school’s administration and unsatisfied with the insufficient compensation given to those who suffered losses from the fire. The resilience of these students, unwilling to back down in the face of state violence, may hold the promise of a new chapter in the country’s protest movement.

Conclusion: Future Change

Now that they have begun, the protests will likely continue, although they may never become large enough to single-handedly oust the NCP regime. Sudan’s ailing economy, combined with internal divisions within the NCP, may, however, provide more concrete possibilities for regime change. At the same time, any such changes may lead to little more than mutation of the current regime, sporting a new face but following similar policies.

The loss of oil revenue from the South and implementation of austerity measures are causing suffering across the country. Inflation rates have more than doubled and prices for basic commodities such as wheat, flour, sugar, and oil have risen dramatically.

In May 2012, the Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud reported that the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent, while youth unemployment was 25.4 percent. In the summer of 2012, the country’s deteriorating economic conditions led to protests with widespread and diverse participation, although they eventually petered out and have not reappeared since.

Factions within the NCP are also discontent with the ineptitude and corruption of the current regime. These groups have called for reform and may seek to capitalize on the current unrest to topple the regime from within. Different elements affiliated with the NCP, including the youth movement, the parliamentary bloc, the army and student movement, have independently sent letters of protest to the leadership. Bashir has attempted to handle this dissatisfaction in typical fashion, pitting factions against each other and implementing further Islamization and Arabization policies to appease those who believe his regime is insufficiently Islamist.

The International Crisis Group report on Sudan in November 2012 included several unconfirmed reports of army generals criticizing Bashir’s ongoing war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. While Bashir has attempted to placate the generals, he lacks the support of junior officers, many of whom are also strong Islamists. Internal upheaval triggered by discontentment among junior officers or hardliner Islamist factions within the NCP may prove to be the most likely scenario for regime change of some kind.

Revolution, however, is inherently spontaneous and disregards all expectations. Perhaps the Sudanese will again defy all odds and, as in 1964 and 1985, continue their country’s trend of rising up against the repressive dictatorships ruling Sudan.


[1] Dziadosz, Alex (Khartoum-based journalist). (9 February 2013). Personal interview.

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*This piece was originally published by Muftah on February 18, 2013.

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