Why the ‘Arab Spring’ hasn’t reached Sudan

What is it about the nation in Libya and Egypt’s own backyards, which in the face of poorer and worsening conditions, continues to be characterised by a culture of complacency?
Elfadil Ibrahim
6 December 2011

Eid Al-Adha, which has recently passed, was celebrated by the public sector and vast majority private sector in Sudan with a week long holiday for an occasion that only spans four days. Dr. El-Tigani El-Tayeb, former Finance Minister and economist at the IMF, noted that Sudan’s vacation days annually totalled 130 days as opposed to 105 in the developed world and much of the G20. The self-contradiction is apparent; citizens complain about difficult economic times but show no resistance in taking an extended holiday that not only stifles productivity, but also their own wages.

We have seen the tactics employed in North Africa find practical implementation across the pond in the United States, materialising in the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Movement. This begs the question, what is it about the nation in Libya and Egypt’s own backyards, which in the face of poorer and worsening conditions, continues to be characterised by a culture of complacency?

The big state and fleeting middle class

The National Congress Party (NCP) has yet to receive popular resistance as it has adroitly embedded itself into society in a way that no previous government in Sudan has. To appease and superficially incorporate various national interests in government, it has created a massive civil service, a plethora of unnecessary ministerial positions in addition to presidential advisorships with no clearly outlined goals, powers or duties. Furthermore, the government annually invests roughly 70% of the national budget into defence, and with a disproportionately large standing army for a nation with its population; national security amongst other bureaucratic positions within the inflated state have attracted many including those who were at one point or other in opposition to the ruling party.

For locals, a revolution has not been as appetising as it has been for those in neighbouring states given the precedent of fruitless revolution in Sudan, the recent secession of the South, coupled with NCP’s rhetoric of ‘broad-based’ governance and Bashir having already made clear that he would not run in the next election. In the face of all of this many have chosen to adapt to rather than oppose the status quo.

Those most likely to be at the heart of a revolution, a young and urban middle class, have been reduced significantly in size as the middle class has been particularly inclined to seek out more attractive alternative destinations in the Gulf, North America and western Europe in the face of the difficult economic conditions that Sudan has grappled with over the last few decades. As a result, a dwarfed middle class was left behind in a nation where lack of disposable income and underdevelopment has made technologies that encourage mobilisation and communication (i.e. smartphones, laptops and the like) inaccessible to many.

The state has not only become a major employer (with around four million employees), but its growth has robbed the civil society of the fervour it once had.  The trade unions, the civil service and professional bodies that played leading roles in Sudan’s previous revolutions, seem fatigued and uninterested in pushing for anything that may prolong and exacerbate instability. In addition, not only are the masses unorganised, but the desire for a revolution is often tempered by extreme prudence in a nation ravaged by a decade of civil war, and currently witnessing insurgencies in Darfur and more recently in the ‘New South’.

The rhetoric of reform: the latest tactic           

The ruling party has exercised extreme caution in dealing with the situation, and has been careful not to light the spark that could torch its own foundation. In October, one of its most vocal opponents, Farouq Abu-Issa, came out of a meeting in the Dutch embassy in which journalists reported he was interrogated in a manner so informal, it more closely resembled a casual conversation. After the interrogation, he was discharged from the headquarters of the National Security Service, unharmed, with a belly full of tea.

The NCP has had little reason to fret; the vast majority of its top figureheads have lived through both of Sudan’s revolutions and have been sure to ‘stack the cards’ in a manner that ensures they stay in power for as long as possible. This has exerted such a controlling grip on the nation that even many of the opposition parties and armed movements have opted for a transformation from within rather than without. The call for a ‘broad-based’ government has been acquiesced to by many after months of wrangling. This is only one of a few tricks up the governments’ sleeve which also includes the Doha Peace Agreement for Darfur, and the manipulation of media outlets in the aftermath of the ‘liberation’ of El-Kurmuk in the Blue Nile state just in time for the Eid holiday. The news was painted as god-sent, and the battle portrayed as a triumph of the government over the nation’s enemies, domestic and foreign, who wanted nothing but to fragment what remained of the Sudan.

The NCP has made sure to speak softly though it still carries a big stick. While it has been less eager to dispense with violence, knowing full well the possible repercussions, its tight grip on all facets of life in Sudan remains an obvious fact of life.  President Omar El-Bashir seems to have made it a point recently to appear in public in civilian attire, eager to market this new, more ‘democratic’ era for Sudan. However, since no long term plans have been detailed and nothing said about a future handover of power or transition of some sort, it seems clear that the only real change will remain limited to President Bashir’s wardrobe.

Stuck in between a rock and a hard place

The adage that says ‘If you can’t beat em, join em’ has found wide reception in Sudan, where the public sector is large and the private sector not very private as it too is heavily politicised. The NCP has thus created a situation where many are forced to gravitate towards it as a result of a lack of alternatives.

How serious the government is about reform is a question certainly worth asking, given its poor record of delivering on its promises in the past. The NCP is a master at conjuring the façade of progress with the transforming skyline of Khartoum a symbolic parallel. From a distance, one would think it to be a modern and booming capital, but on the ground, the so-called ‘developments’ have done almost nothing for people that live within a kilometre of new towers who still suffer from regular power/water shortages, poor schooling for their children, and deteriorating  living standards.

Yes, there is a general discontent with the situation and this has on several occasions materialised into riots. However, because these incidents are isolated, with little large scale planning and coordination, there is a serious lack of momentum that could otherwise turn sporadic protests into something greater. As a result, protests remain isolated, brief and in response to an immediate issue; such as poor transportation, extended water/electricity cuts, and overnight price hikes, rather than representing a rejection of overall conditions.

It’s a difficult task to dissect where this sense of apathy stems from. One thing is for sure, immigrating, as some have done, and hopping on the bandwagon as others have been forced to do, has not brought about the meaningful change the Sudanese crave but half-heartedly demand. What the future holds is truly a mystery, but for the near future at least, a popular revolution for Sudan seems more an illusion than an imminent reality.

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