Licking your Elbow: Sudan’s Arab Spring Revival



Sudan’s most recent spate of demonstrations that began on 16 June at the University of Khartoum and have since spread across the country have been a long time coming. Similar student demonstrations began in late January 2011 and were revived in January 2012. Both were met with strong crackdowns by police and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Demonstrations on 29 and 30 June were dubbed “lick your elbow” a slogan similar to “when pigs fly” which President Bashir has frequently used as a jibe against his opponents. Over 1000 activists were arrested in demonstrations on 29 June.


The latest round of protests has also been met with brutal tactics of suppression by the National Congress Party (NCP) controlled Sudanese state. Many activists have been arrested and subjected to torture, with some released only to face criminal charges of “disturbing the peace” and “rioting”. Activists can be detained for up to four and a half months without charge under the 2012 National Security Act. Several journalists have been arrested. The NCP have armed pro-NCP students who set fire to the University of Khartoum’s dormitories alongside the NISS.


Despite the obstacles, the demonstrations have continued to grow and attract more attention while the NCP is at its most vulnerable. Leading student group Girifna (which means "fed up") has formulated a list of 15 demands, including the resignation of the NCP and its replacement with a transitional government, national elections in two years, the elimination of all public order laws, release of all political prisoners, and reversing the current austerity measures.

Organised around rising prices of basic commodities and petrol after the imposition of austerity measures on 18 June by the Ministry of Finance to combat an estimated 2.4 billion gap in Sudan’s budget, the demonstrations have quickly gained traction and attracted the support of Sudan’s broader civil society, opposition party members, and Sudan’s most prominent rebel coalition. Opposition parties have successfully linked it to corruption and financial mismanagement by the NCP. The movement’s potential has been amplified by the successful forging of a link between student demonstrators and the streets, particularly with Sudanese who may not typically find themselves in solidarity with the country’s beleaguered youth and opposition movement.  As a professor at the University of Khartoum put it, “hunger creates anger”.


The massive budget gap itself comes from the loss of oil alongside South Sudan’s secession. Oil comprised ¾ of Sudan’s national budget before secession in July 2011. Failure to reach an agreement on transit fees for the exportation of Southern Sudanese oil through the North led South Sudan to halt oil production in January 2012. As insecurity and militarisation increases along the border, Sudan is estimated to spend 1.5 million dollars a day on the wars in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur. Activists have accused the government of trying to force Sudan’s poor to finance the wars. The fiscal gap grew in April following the brief fighting between Sudan and South Sudan in Heglig, which destroyed much of the oil field and depleted oil revenues by an additional 20%. Additionally, it has weakened Khartoum’s ability to suppress dissent as 70% of oil revenues were previously channelled to the military and Popular Defence Forces. In 2011, the government spent 80% of its budget on defence and security, with only 1.5% and 2% going towards health and education.


Although civil society and opposition capacity is limited, the demonstrations due have the potential for an “Arab Spring” style regime change. The demonstrations have a strong resonance with previously successful coups that brought down Sudanese regimes. Sudan already has a pariah status in the international community due to the standing ICC indictments against many of its top leaders (including Omar al Bashir), and the failed talks between Sudan and South Sudan led to a UNSC Resolution in May that will put outstanding border demarcation issues up for international arbitration if an agreement isn’t reached by 2 August. 


Sudan is also under increasing pressure from its opposition and rebel coalition at a time when the NCP internally faces several rifts over the negotiations with South Sudan and the opposition. On 22 June, members of the opposition joined the demonstrations. SPLM-N leader in South Kordofan Abdul Aziz al-Hilu announced his support and warned government members, police and Army to join the protests. There are early signs that some have, with eyewitnesses reporting that police in al-Haj Youssef disobeyed orders to fire at protestors, forcing security agents to attack them with machetes and light arms. Party hardliners have attempted to reassure the public of their popularity, with President Bashir stating in a speech on 24 June to 1000 pro-NCP students that he had taken an “open car” around Khartoum on 22 June, a day dubbed “Sandstorm Friday”, and the same day that tear gas had hung over the city and riot police had battled demonstrators. The same day, Bashir relieved nine members of his cabinet, including six NCP members. The entirety of Sudan’s regional governments stepped down in protest except for South Darfur state. Rare public dissent has been seen within the NCP, particularly with hardliner Ali Osman Taha’s criticism of Bashir’s derogatory comments regarding the Southern leadership in late May. The party may not have time to assess and decide on the best way to quell dissent before the opposition and civil society’s influence increases.



Arab Spring, Sudan, South Sudan