Jan 9, 2019

Sudan protests shake strongman Omar al-Bashir

Sudanese protesters at an anti-government demonstration in the capital Khartoum on Jan. 6. Photo: AFP/Getty

In recent weeks, thousands of young people across Sudan have taken to the streets in protest against strongman Omar al-Bashir, the leader of one of the world’s most repressive governments.

Why it matters: While the protests were initially sparked by economic issues — inflation in Sudan is currently running around 70% — a brutal crackdown has helped stoke broader popular demands for Bashir’s resignation. 

Bashir, a former paratrooper, is a wily and brutal survivor. He first took power 29 years ago in a coup backed by Islamic fundamentalists, and he immediately dialed up the Arab-dominated government’s long-running war against black and predominantly Christian separatists in the country’s oil rich south.

  • By the time that war fully ended with the south’s internationally brokered secession in 2011, more than 2 million people had been killed. 
  • Even as that war was winding down, Bashir crushed a rebellion in the western Sudanese region of Darfur with such brutality that he became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide.
  • Tight U.S. sanctions imposed in 1997 over human rights abuses and support for terrorism (Osama bin Laden briefly called Sudan home) helped him burnish his image as a populist defender of his people against a neo-colonial West. 

Flashback: In 2013, he crushed a street movement in the capital that was inspired by the Arab Spring.

  • This time around, however, protests appear more sustained and widespread, even if they lack coherent leadership and structure. And stripped of the cash that South Sudan’s oil fields once pumped into Khartoum, Bashir has much less room to prop up a badly mismanaged economy, even with the help of Gulf Arab allies. 
  • In addition, the removal of long-standing U.S. sanctions in 2017 exposed the deeper rot of Sudan’s economy while stripping the wily populist of one of his go-to excuses for economic hardship. 

The bottom line: The future of this turbulent African country may be about to take another historic turn. 

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