KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s history as the first Arab country to have overthrown leaders in popular uprisings may explain why protests here have fizzled as the rest of the Middle East revolts against decades of dictatorship.
Popular uprisings in 1964 and 1985 ended years of autocracy in Sudan. But what came next disappointed the revolutionaries as each time the same old political parties took over with the same old leaders.
Most of those now elderly politicians still head Sudan’s opposition parties today, and this has prompted many to think twice before joining demonstrators to brave arrest or torture. The likely alternatives to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government are just not attractive.
“The old political parties are like very big trees that are sterile and nothing can grow in their shade,” said ex-Prime Minister al-Jazouli Dafallah, one of the leaders of the 1985 Intifada. “They have forgotten everything and learned nothing.”
Sudan’s brief tastes of democracy have never lasted long. Bashir’s bloodless 1989 coup ended three years of democratic rule, remembered by those old enough as chaotic times of rising crime and indecisive opposition leaders.
“There’s no one else who can really lead this country,” said one Khartoum shopkeeper, quick to complain about rising inflation but unwilling to join anti-government protests.
“This government may be very bad but at least there is some stability. I just want to feel safe in my home.”
Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, while responsible for wide-ranging rights abuses with Bashir himself wanted for genocide in Darfur, is actually one of the few with a dynamic younger generation moving up through the ranks.
It is those younger party members who are demanding that their old guard reform in rare public calls which many believe could be the impetus for change in Sudan rather than street protests which have failed to gain wider appeal.
Bashir has already promised to step down at the 2015 elections.#
“The NCP ... has the highest membership among the youth,” said government critic and editor-in-chief of the al-Tayyar paper Osman al-Merghani.
“They are more modern than the other parties and at least to some extent they can provide for the needs of the youth better than the other political parties.”
Dislike of the opposition did not stop uprisings in neighbouring Egypt or Libya. And arguably Sudanese are worse off economically and suffer more regular violence and oppression, yet Bashir has survived armed uprisings from the south, east and western Darfur provinces.
But Sudan, an Arab League member soon to split up after its south voted to secede later this year, straddles the continent’s Arab-African divide.
Its poorest population is mostly rural, tribal politics still dominate and to those living thousands of miles away in fast-developing Khartoum, Darfur and the south might as well already be separate countries.
“This government has created a lot of ethnic, racial and cultural divisions within the people,” said human rights lawyer Amin Mekki. “The question of a popular uprising here has very much got the red light of a bloodbath around it because it can be bloody.”
Weapons are prolific and the gun is the rule of law in many parts of rural Sudan. Many fear a popular uprising would resemble Libya’s civil war or worse, rather than Egypt’s largely non-violent protest movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The government’s strong security apparatus with heavily armed militia and an army of plainclothes security agents on every corner exert tight control over Khartoum.
Protests last little more than a few minutes before being beaten back. Activists are detained before they even reach the protests and those arrested have reported rape, torture and beatings.
“People are hungry, tired and depressed and so to see the light at the end of the tunnel being the weak opposition or the track record of failed democracies, people don’t see why they should go out and get killed,” Mekki said.
Youth protests on January 30 and March 21 were quickly crushed by police who surrounded universities throughout Sudan.