After 30 years, Sudan's president to step down amid protests

President Omar al-Bashir, accused of genocide in Darfur, remains in office as Sudan is rocked by the largest sustained protests in its history.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir leaves after delivering a speech at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan February 22, 2019 (photo credit: MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/REUTERS)
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir leaves after delivering a speech at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan February 22, 2019
While clinging to the presidency, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan stepped down on Friday as leader of the country’s governing National Congress party, ceding control to its deputy chairman, Ahmad Harun. The move came after Bashir declared a national emergency in late February following three months of widespread demonstrations.
Alan J. Kuperman, an Associate Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, explained to The Media Line that poor living conditions sparked the protests.
“The impetus, as usual, is economic suffering,” he said.
The Sudanese economy, still feeling the effects of now-lifted United States sanctions and struggling with high inflation, has suffered since oil-rich South Sudan seceded in 2011. Facing a large deficit, the government in Khartoum stopped subsidizing wheat and other essential goods, making them even less affordable for the already impoverished populace.
“When [the government] tries to remove subsidies and raise prices, as western economists urge, the people revolt,” Kuperman said.
The economy is not the only thing negatively impacting the quality of life in Sudan. Citizens enjoy little protection in the realms of speech and property rights, and the government, rife with corruption and infighting, faces violent conflicts among rebel groups in states like South Kordofan, which borders South Sudan.
“Sudan has experienced tough challenges in the past but nothing like what we have now with an almost complete collapse in economic, political and social aspects of life,” Abdel Adam, a freelance Sudanese journalist, told The Media Line.
According to Eric Reeves, an independent analyst on Sudan, one reason for the national emergency was to bring the protests under control.
“Bashir felt he was losing the battle against demonstrators and no longer had any other option,” he told The Media Line.
Dr. Hamed El Tijani Ali, an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at The American University in Cairo, told The Media Line that "these are considered the longest and most sustained demonstrations in the country’s history."
He further explained that unlike protests in 1964 and 1985 that led to the ouster of the leadership, the current unrest is being organized by young people using social media.
“They have little hope for a prosperous future,” Ali noted.
Adam, the journalist, described the protesters as being diverse “geographically, demographically and culturally, with different religions and languages represented.”
Johan Brosché, a researcher in the Department of Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University in Sweden, explained to The Media Line that Bashir’s emergency declaration suspended the country’s constitution. Security forces can now search and seize property without a warrant, while individuals must obtain a permit to hold public gatherings.
He added that Bashir might also have declared the state of emergency to ensure good relations with the military by increasing its authority.
Having assumed the presidency in a 1989 military coup, Bashir understands first-hand that keeping the military happy is crucial to retaining power.
“The key determinant in whether these ‘people power’ protests will succeed is usually whether the security services stay loyal to the political leader,” the University of Texas’ Kuperman said.
Adam believes that one of the reasons Bashir does not want to step down is a fear of revenge and accountability. Once out of office, he explained, the president would no longer be able to protect associates as well as members of his family from prosecution.
Furthermore, he could be tried by the International Criminal Court, where he has already been charged with two counts of war crimes for the genocide in Darfur and five counts of crimes against humanity.  
The American University in Cairo’s Ali said that regional authoritarian leaders fear the protests in Sudan could trigger democratic fervor in their own states, much like the Arab Spring. Bashir’s removal, he said, would serve as “a reminder to autocrats in the region that we cannot trade off liberty with security.”