KHARTOUM, Sudan — Faced with three months of tireless street protests calling for his resignation, authoritarian Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had two options.
He could enact reforms that might lessen the economic malaise and political repression stifling the lives of many Sudanese, or double down on the brute force that has sustained his 30-year rule.
Bashir chose the latter, declaring a year-long state of emergency that gives his security forces nearly unlimited power to quash the protests, which are also technically illegal now. In response, the protests have only grown.
Many in Sudan’s streets see Bashir’s decision in the past week as a classic mistake repeated by desperate dictators in their final throes, and it raises their hopes that his days are numbered.
“Bashir’s latest move is nothing but an attempt to stay in power in order to avoid prosecution for the crimes he committed,” said Salah Shoaib, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which is leading the protests. “We will continue the struggle to get rid of the regime and rebuild the country with new democratic institutions.”
Bashir, 75, has been challenged by waves of protests over the past three decades, but none have come as close to dislodging him as the present unrest. His latest move makes an escalation in violence more likely than ever.
Human rights groups say more than 50 people have been killed by security forces since the protests began in mid-December. Thousands more — including prominent opposition figures, lawyers, doctors and journalists — have been held indefinitely in a constellation of detention centers run by Sudan’s intelligence service. The protests began over a sudden increase in prices for basics such as flour, but demands quickly expanded to include Bashir’s ouster.
Bashir, in turn, has tried to consolidate his power. Along with the state of emergency, he dissolved federal and state governments, replacing almost all of Sudan’s 18 state governors with army officers, and ordered parliament to delay deliberations over proposed constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for an extra-constitutional term in next year’s elections.
Even before the declaration of a state of emergency, members of Sudan’s security forces were immune from prosecution, and rights groups expect their heavy-handedness to increase in the coming weeks.
“The latest emergency laws and decrees to ban protests are hugely problematic,” said Jehanne Henry, associate director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. “Sudan’s leaders should be ordering forces to stop using excessive force against protesters, and investigate all the reported killings, beatings, torture and ill-treatment to date.”
Bashir’s foreign backers are also i ncreasingly wary of him. In the past, he has been buoyed by financial assistance from Persian Gulf states as well as Egypt and Russia, but lately, those allies have done little but offer him vague statements of support. Western governments — which were beginning to warm up to economic opportunities in Sudan, offering much-needed investment — have issued stern reprimands.
“Economic stability cannot be achieved without first reaching political consensus. Political consensus cannot be achieved by imprisoning, shooting, and criminalizing peaceful protesters,” the governments of the United States, Britain, Norway and Canada said in a joint statement.
“Those countries have no right to intervene in Sudan’s affairs,” the Foreign Ministry in Khartoum responded in a statement. “In President Bashir’s measures they saw only the state of emergency but not his call for holding a dialogue. The state of emergency will not impact freedoms of people and their rights.”
Bashir’s dissolution of the government created a space that he filled with close associates. His former defense minister, Awad ibn Auf, became his vice president, and Ahmad Haroun became deputy chairman of Bashir’s National Congress Party. The three men have something in common: They are all accused of orchestrating atrocities during a protracted conflict between the Sudanese government and rebels in the Darfur region. The International Criminal Court has had an arrest warrent against Bashir for a decade.
His reshuffling of the government may create more enemies than friends, some analysts say. Military leaders were given top positions at the expense of longtime members of his political party who might have been hoping to take power whenever Bashir relinquished it. And while Bashir’s embrace of the military has been seen as a way to “coup-proof” himself, it only gives more power to those capable of carrying out a coup.
“Bashir is attempting to win favor with senior officers. He effectively handed a coterie of the top brass the reins of state governments while ripping authority away from the National Congress Party,” said Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese political analyst. “The officers entrusted now with government are more or less the ones you would be worried about to mount a coup.”
What is clear is that Bashir’s attempt to scare protesters off the streets with new decrees has backfired, at least for now.
“Taking these measures at this time is a clear indication that the regime is getting weaker,” said Rasheed Bakheet, who has regularly attended the protests in Khartoum. “The government clearly has no response to our demands.”