Sudan: The Next Arab Spring Uprising?

There are several points of tension simmering beneath the surface in this African country.

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FILE - On this Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 file photo, Sudanese anti-government protesters chant slogans after the Friday noon prayer in the Omdurman district of northern Khartoum. Protests over subsidy cuts on fuel and food are erupting at a time when President Omar al-Bashir’s regime is facing a dangerous fraying. Opponents, some from former members of his regime, warn that if he does not carry out political reforms, the regime will collapse and with it, this country could fragment even further than it already has.

For a few chaotic days, both supporters and opponents of the Bashir government feared or applauded what they thought might be the arrival of the so-called Arab Spring in Sudan. The precipitating events were massive street demonstrations and violent protests across the country after President Omar Bashir announced, during a nation-wide television address, economic reforms to save the country's hemorrhaging economy, which included an end to heavy government subsidies for fuel. Earlier this month, the uprising appeared to have run out of energy following a brutal crackdown by the internal security apparatus in which as many as 200 people may have been killed and more than 700 people arrested.

Numerous reports out of Khartoum described white vans driving up to demonstrators and armed men pouring out who then fired directly into crowds of demonstrators at point blank range. While the Sudanese government denied its involvements in the bloodshed, the news media, international human rights groups and local civil society denounced the government's claims as lies.

Some reports have been circulating in Khartoum that individual government leaders have created, trained and armed their own militias to carry out regime dirty work, so they can deny official involvement. Bashir reportedly traveled himself to selected neighborhoods in Khartoum, North Khartoum and Omdurman to urge the population to prepare to defend themselves against the demonstrators when the uprising appeared to be growing out of control and chaos was spreading.

A "reform" faction within the ruling party publically denounced the government's crackdown, and 30 members of the faction wrote to Bashir urging immediate reforms. Instead of reform, the Bashir government, in a desperate effort to retain power, has increasingly played the race card to try to keep the Arab population in the North united behind the ruling party.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

When South Sudan seceded from Sudan and formed an independent country, it left a shrunken northern Sudanese State in which 55 percent of the population now self-identify as Arabs, while the remainder see themselves as Africans who have been treated historically as second class citizens or worse. Government-controlled television and radio describe African population as the "abid," or a low-class African slave, in an effort to unify the Arab population behind the faltering Bashir government.

The Arab elites in Khartoum fear the Sudanese African population will seize control of the government, putting their privileged position and even their lives at risk. In these latest events, Khartoum's race-baiting tactic appears to have worked, depriving the demonstrators – most of whom are women, internally displaced people escaping conflict and students—of the mass support of the Arab population needed to convert their street demonstrations into an Egyptian-style rebellion.

Public support for the Bashir government among the Arab population has been in precipitous decline not only because of the withdrawal of fuel subsidies, rising food prices, government layoffs and rising unemployment, but because of widespread corruption in the government. Nothing has eroded public support more for what was once a supposedly morally pure, Islamist government lead by the Sudanese chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood than the pervasive, systemic corruption of Bashir and his ruling party. A cable by the U.S. embassy in Khartoum made public by Wikileaks several years ago reported to Washington that as much as $9 billion had been systematically looted and sent abroad by the Bashir government. If anything, the looting of the national treasury has accelerated since then.

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As the demonstrations grew out of control, some cabinet members and their families began moving their own looted booty out of the country. The son of the minister of oil, Dr. Awad Ahmed Al-Jaz, one of the most militant hard-line Islamists in the government, was arrested in Dubai holding $10 million in cash. He was later released by Dubai authorities who claimed that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the money had been legally withdrawn from the Bank of Sudan. No one in Khartoum believed the government's denial because of the general public perception that the regime is looting the government's treasury when the people are unable to feed themselves. According to the 2012 Transparency International corruption index, the Sudanese government in Khartoum held the distinction of having the 173rd worst rating in level of public corruption out of 176 countries.

The charges of corruption have enraged the Sudanese military leadership more than even civil society, and so when the recent demonstrations began, the Bashir government questioned senior officers' loyalty to the regime and kept all but the most loyal units out of Khartoum, fearing a coup. Some observers reported that regular police refused to carry out orders to shoot at demonstrators, so units of the feared secret police, the NISS, were once again called in to save the Bashir government from collapse.

It is not only potentially disloyal police and military units that pose threats to regime survival. During the two civil wars between the North and the South since independence in 1956, more than 2 million southerners migrated to Khartoum to escape the violence and famine. Successive Khartoum governments have panicked during periodic uprisings by this displaced Southern population which threatened the Arab elite's hold on power. Most of these displaced people returned to South Sudan after it became an independent country only to be replaced by hundreds and thousands of newly displaced northern Sudanese. This new displacement has been driven by targeted attacks by the Sudanese military on civilian targets in the four civil conflicts raging in the periphery of the North: in Darfur, Blue Nile Province, the Nuba Mountains and Abyei.

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This year alone, Khartoum has purchased more advanced weaponry from Belarus to make up for the slow deterioration of the Sudanese army's combat readiness. These new more powerful weapons will allow them to extend their bombing campaigns in the four regions in revolt. Ironically, the more lethal the attacks on Sudanese African targets, the more unstable greater Khartoum will become as displaced people from the regions under attack migrate there to escape the violence. They will carry with them the memory of central government atrocities against their families as Khartoum grows increasingly African and increasingly hostile to the Bashir government.

The most significant outcome of the latest Sudanese uprising, even though its force has dissipated, may be that the Khartoum elites now see the relentless brutality of the Bashir government up close, not just through media reports. Many educated members of the Arab elite told me, while I served as the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, that they were horrified by the violence in Darfur in 2003 and 2004 directed against women, children and the elderly. But Darfur was 700 miles from Khartoum, and so they did not witness the atrocities personally.

That changed when the bloodshed moved to Khartoum proper. While the Bashir government appears to have weathered the political storm and crushed the uprising for now, the growing grievances of the Northern population simmering below the surface underscore the fragility and the tenuous nature of the Bashir government. After all, no government can hold power permanently.

Andrew Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of "Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know." He served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan.

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