To the almost certain relief of several nation-states and a number of NGOs, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will not be attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York as a crisis over fuel subsidies roils Sudan. While the Sudanese leader may have provided a reprieve for U.S. officials paralyzed by the awkward conundrum of his visa stunt — and spared the ICC another international embarrassment in the process — the circumstances that have detained al-Bashir at home are serious cause for global concern.
As riots stretch into their third day in Khartoum and other cities, the death toll is mounting with security forces aggressively confronting protesters. This is not the first time Sudan has seen unrest break out over fuel prices — last June smaller-scale fuel subsidy cuts also provoked protests that were quickly quashed by a government crackdown. This time, however, the backlash to the subsidy cut, which caused fuel prices to double overnight, appears less easily contained and could constitute the greatest challenge to Bashir’s government since the leader came into power in 1989.
The urgency of the crisis for the Bashir government was underlined by its decision to cut internet access on Wednesday. The 24-hour internet blackout is reminiscent of that of Egypt’s prior to the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. The Mubarak regime too attempted a countrywide internet blackout in the early days of protests there — a tactic later copied by Muammar Qaddafi. Remarking on the parallel on Thursday, Egypt’s state-run Al Ahram questioned whether Sudan’s current unrest could mean that the country was about to experience its own Arab Spring moment.
Yes, Sudan has been long due for some form of a political outburst as a result of the combination of an authoritarian long-ruling regime and the consequences of a looming fuel crisis sparked by the secession of South Sudan in 2011. That things have not boiled over sooner is testament to the strength of Bashir’s grip. At the moment, it is not clear if regime-change is the goal here — or if there is a goal beyond the expression of outrage. Though the situation bears striking similarities to the Arab Spring upheavals, European anti-austerity protests are a more apt comparison (for the time being, anyway). Whether the rising death toll and the government’s repressive measures transforms the direction of these protests will become clearer in the coming days. What looks undeniable is that any solution — i.e. a narrow political or economic fix, rather than wholesale structural change — won’t be sustainable for long.