A majority Muslim country in northern Africa is challenged by protests on the streets, a frustrated and disillusioned youth population, and a flagging economy. Rioters recently ransacked western embassies, leading the U.S. to withdraw many of its diplomats. But unlike some of its neighbors, Sudan has yet to experience its "Arab Spring" revolt. Whether that revolt is imminent is a matter of considerable debate.
Sudan was the scene of the Arab world's first successful popular uprisings against unpopular regimes, in 1964 and 1985. Those successes loom large, but are just as much a cautionary tale for President Omar al-Bashir's government as they are an inspiration for the opposition. The engines of those past revolts, professional organizations and trade unions, have been decimated during Bashir's 23-year reign, and the political and armed opposition have yet to find a formula for seriously challenging the status quo.
Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) came to power through a military coup in 1989, touting an ambitious Islamist project. The civil war with then-southern Sudan had resumed in 1983 and the NCP doubled down on a military solution, with the war machine increasingly fueled by proceeds from oil exports that began in the late 1990s (the majority of the oil was located in southern Sudan but pumped by the north). But amidst a military stalemate and intense international pressure, in 2005 the Sudanese government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The CPA prescribed a daunting schedule of changes and reforms for Sudan, and gave southern Sudanese the option to secede, which they overwhelmingly chose to do through a referendum in January 2011. Unfortunately, through the course of its six-year implementation the CPA was boiled down to its bare elements, most notably the referendum on southern secession. What got left behind was an entire democratic transformation agenda, meaning that today's rump state of Sudan is no more democratic than it was prior to the CPA.
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Meanwhile, the NCP's Islamist project has been reduced to a survival project. The government shows little ability to think beyond the current political, security and economic crises or present a compelling new vision for Sudan. International Criminal Court indictments loom over Bashir and a couple of his lieutenants, and he continues to shoulder the blame for allowing South Sudan to secede, taking with it much of Sudan's oil. Severe internal divisions are increasingly apparent, with elements of Sudan's Islamic movement openly questioning the government and criticizing its widespread corruption. But while Bashir is often treated as a pariah internationally, he may also be the element holding the regime together, as he continues to command some degree of respect from the party, the army, and the Islamic movement -- the critical triumvirate at the center of power.
Violence in Sudan's peripheral areas continues unabated. While the western region of Darfur is not the bloodbath it was during stretches of the previous decade, there has been a recent uptick in violence, with a peace agreement between the government and a single rebel group, pushed by Qatar and signed last year, yielding few results. Since South Sudan's secession, the Sudanese states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, bordering the new country and home to groups that fought alongside southerners during the civil wars, have been engulfed by violence. In those states the Bashir government sought to neutralize the former northern component of the SPLM/A -- the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N), which split from the SPLM/A when South Sudan seceded -- doing so with all-too-typical attacks on military and civilian targets alike and indiscriminate bombing. The SPLM/A-N retaliated (likely with the support of South Sudan), essentially creating a military stalemate that is frozen by the current monsoon rains, with fighting likely to intensify come the dry season starting in November. In the wake of this encounter, a horrific humanitarian situation has developed, with hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing to South Sudan and Ethiopia, where they are housed in squalid and under-resourced refugee camps, with many who stayed taking shelter in caves and in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.