Protests have continued in northern Sudan since Sunday, when hundreds participated in demonstrations against the ruling NCP party and President Omar al-Bashir. The government has cracked down on student activists and opposition media, and Wednesday detained journalists from the communist party newspaper.
The protest leaders say they have been inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, and plan to continue their demonstrations despite the arrests. Professor Gerard Prunier, a Sudan expert in Paris, spoke to Sudan in Focus’ John Tanza to explain how the situation in Sudan compares to that of its neighbors, and to explain exactly what is happening in Khartoum.
Gerard Prunier: I think that the Sudanese government is targeting the communist party for two reasons. One, it has an excellent organizational network. Although the party has shrunk and is very small today, it’s a memory of its former glory, they have a good organizational capacity.
Number two, when you’re still called the communists today, you do not expect the United States or western countries to help you very much, so it’s a safe target for the government. And of course they’re afraid of a contamination of the Tunisian and Egyptian situation.
John Tanza: What would you make of the future of Sudan?
Gerard Prunier: The future of Sudan is a complete question mark.
The referendum went so nicely, not because President Bashir was suddenly converted to respect of human rights and democracy, but simply because he’s afraid. And he’s afraid because there is a long-standing opposition in the north, which has grown. And I’m not speaking of what could happen in the cities, but in rural areas, where you have guerrilla groups in Southern Kordofan, in Darfur, you have militia in Blue Nile.
All these could be a military challenge to the Islamist government in Khartoum. And now with the events of Tunisia and Egypt, this has revitalized the Arab opposition in Khartoum itself and in other cities, which of course means that the peaceful outcome of the referendum in the south is no guarantee at all for the stability of northern Sudan.
John Tanza: How popular is the National Congress Party?
Gerard Prunier: It is not popular at all. It has a clientele. With the money from oil it has been able to spread that money to a certain segment.
The paradox is that this Islamist party has now become an establishment party, which is not at all in the revolutionary line of other Islamist movements elsewhere in the world, or for example in Egypt, but actually is very very conservative and trying to solidify what it has managed to build in the north.
Now there has been a certain amount of benefits from the oil money, but this has been paralleled by the development of a productive economy. It is still an economy linked to the nipple of oil.
John Tanza: Why do you think the opposition is unable to unite and fight towards bringing a change in Sudan?
Gerard Prunier: Because the opposition is old, worn out and discredited. People like Sadiq al-Mahdi or Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani were the people who were in power several times.
Now all these people are in their 60s, they’ve been in power in and out. When they were in power after the dictatorship of Nimeiri in 1985, they basically failed to deliver any kind of political change or to bring peace – at the time the country was at war.
Therefore, they’re not very attractive. The strength of the government is not because it is popular, it is because the opposition is not attractive.
John Tanza: Do you see any new blood coming up to bring change?
Gerard Prunier: This is a huge question mark. This is where the government is sort of betting that no, we’re able to move faster than you.
But obviously in the youth there are people who are rather disappointed, including former Muslim brothers who are disappointed. Because the Muslim brother Islamist government were in a completely different position from that of Egypt. Actually it’s the opposite.
In Egypt the Muslim brothers can say, ‘Everybody is tied of Mubarak, we are the future.” In Sudan the Muslim brothers are the past. People who represent the future have to be against them. It will be very interesting to watch because we might have completely contradictory developments in Cairo and in Khartoum.