Sudan on Verge of Bankruptcy — Militarily, Economically and Politically

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Amnesty International reports that ahead of a new round of protests against the government in Khartoum, activist Magdi Aqasha, the head of Sharara (Youth for Change), was arrested on the pretext of causing a traffic accident. Sudanese security agents, who used the accident as a pretext to take him in before Friday’s demonstrations begun, were reportedly tailing Aqasha.

Additionally, internet users in Sudan reported that Zain Mobile, one of Sudan’s largest cell phone providers, went down for two hours early on Friday morning, though state-owned media and other private outlets were apparently not affected. Though Zain Sudan’s services are now functioning, the blackout — and the censure of the Arabic-language news outlet Hurriyat Sudan plus three independent dailies — unnerved Sudanese activists and reporters, who expect the next few days to see further crackdowns on demonstrators protesting government austerity measures. There are also rumors that classes at the University of Khartoum and other schools will again be suspended, as they were last winter, as a result of the protests.

The crackdowns have been going on since June 16th, when students from the University of Khartoum took to the streets, supported by opposition parliamentarians in the Sudanese legislature. Protests have now spread across the country. Any demonstrations held on June 30th are expected to draw a large security presence because it is the anniversary of the coup that overthrew the government of PM Sadiq al-Mahdi. Sudan’s leader, then-Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir, led the coup and then appointed himself President in 1993. He has threatened the protestors with draconian measures if they do not disperse, and the students who have led the protests have reportedly been attacked by pro-regime gangs as well.

Human Rights Watch estimates that around 100 demonstrators are still being held without charge after hundreds were arrested over the course of the week and released. Student leaders and journalists1 have been particularly suspect by the security forces. Sudanese journalist Moez Ali tweets that Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed, Secretary-General of the UMST (University Of Medical Sciences and Technology) Graduates Union was recently arrested, as was “citizen journalist” Usamah Mohammed, who had been covering the demonstrations up until last Friday and compiling “a collection of tips and technical information about the best ways to demonstrate in Sudan and deal with the suppression of the police.”

Though a nationwide telecommunications shutdown has not occurred, the regime is still thought to be manipulating the Internet to quash protests. Lisa Goldman notes that activists have been using Facebook and other websites to organize protests, and Evgeny Morozov has written that in the past, the Sudanese government has “cleverly mixed provocation and intimidation, by publicizing fake protests online and then arresting those who show up.” Some activists fear that police informants are trying to incite people on Twitter.

But despite al-Bashir’s curt, dismissive remarks — he has called those chanting the Arab Spring slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime” pie-in-the-sky “elbow lickers” — his actions evidence a deep sense of unease over the protests (for their part, organizers have taken his words and are calling the planned marches “Elbow-Licking Friday”). The loss of three-quarters of the country’s oilfields to South Sudan in 2011 — and a stalemate in negotiations between Khartoum and Juba over affecting (among other issues) a possible pipeline agreement that could ameliorate the loss of oil revenue — has undercut government spending significantly as inflation, fuel prices and food costs have all risen dramatically. Around 40% of Khartoum’s revenue comes from its oil fields, and the recent clash between Sudan and South Sudan over disputed territory is thought to have cost Khartoum some US$741 million this year.

On top of this, an arm of the southern liberation movement now governing in Juba continues to fight in the Juma Mountains and Blue Nile Province of Sudan, as do other armed groups in Darfur and the southwestern border areas. Khartoum is on the verge of bankruptcy — militarily, economically and politically, opines Eric Reeves at Muftah.org:

… although the regime has vaguely promised to cushion the blow of inflation for food purchases, there are simply no means available to halt the effects of inflation, even for food. A typical food basket that today costs what is deemed an exorbitant 30 Sudanese pounds could very soon cost 60 pounds; and any stabilizing (i.e., subsidizing) of this price at previous price levels (in non-inflated pounds) will then be twice as expensive and will create an even greater budget gap—and more inflation.

The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) are likely to remain loyal to the end, but the army is potentially another story, especially given the evident rift between the most senior generals now exercising greatest political power in the regime, and the mid-level officer corps. The NIF/NCP ruthlessly purged the army on coming to power in 1989, and effectively destroyed it as an institution in the Egyptian mold. The army has never regained a true esprit de corps, and disaffected officers up to the rank of colonel may soon refuse to obey orders to use violence against protesting civilians.

Sudan is not on the verge of state collapse, Reeves believes. But the economy shows little sign of improving absent an end to fuel subsidies (the governing party’s MPs already struck down attempts to do so) or a pipeline deal with South Sudan: Sudanese economist Yousif Elmahdi even goes to far as to call the country a failed state.

None of this month’s events bodes well for the government, especially if violence escalates and it finds itself confronting major demonstrations all over the country.

1Foreign reporters are also being made to feel unwelcome: Egyptian Bloomberg correspondent Salma El-Wardany was interrogated and then deported from the country this week as a result of her coverage of the demonstrations.