Sudan's political crisis has reached its worst since the coup led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in June 1989. The collapsing economy, ongoing armed conflicts between the regime and armed movements in the Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, endemic corruption, and the power struggle within the regime have pushed the country towards a tipping point.
Coupled with current popular protests over the 2018 austerity budget gathering momentum across Sudan, these factors create the conditions that will result in one of two scenarios in Sudan: either swift and meaningful change, or descent into chaos and disintegration. Without meaningful domestic, regional and international efforts to facilitate a credible, all-inclusive conference that leads to a fresh political transition, Sudan will be reduced to the latter.
Collapsing economy and a catastrophic budget
Anti-austerity popular protests erupted when the government announced the 2018 budget last month. Economists and financial experts have described the new budget as a "catastrophic" measure that allots 75 percent of the country's funds to the regime's security apparatus and militias.
These experts are not wrong. The new budget has made the lives of the average Sudanese citizens unbearable. The prices of basic needs and commodities, including bread, medicine, fuel, and electricity have reached an unprecedented level. The Sudanese currency is losing its value daily - one US dollar, while officially worth 18 Sudanese pounds, is now selling for 42 Sudanese pounds on the black market.
To top this all off, the Central Bank of Sudan is issuing new regulations in a rapid-fire manner. Rather than addressing the collective collapse of Sudanese commercial markets, national currency and banking system, the government's only response has been printing more money.
Sudan's former finance minister, Abdel Rahim Hamdi, has commented that the government is losing control of the economy and should leave the market to determine the price of the pound, which would, in turn, encourage foreign investment and reinvigorate the economy.
New wave of popular protests met heavy crackdown
On 16 January, the Sudanese Communist Party led a peaceful demonstration in Khartoum after authorities rejected their request to mobilise and submit a memorandum on the new budget. The protest was joined by Sudan's main opposition groups, youth activists and average citizens.
Since then, other popular protests have mobilised, and not only in Khartoum, but also in other cities and regions of Sudan, such as El Obeid, Nyala, Wad Madani and Port Sudan. Mainstream opposition leaders who were criticised for declining to participate in the 2013 protests now say they plan to sustain this momentum until the masses are large enough to defeat this regime.
Unsurprisingly, the regime and security forces have cracked down on both demonstrators and opposition leaders. So far, five civilians have been killed during peaceful protests (a student in Nyala city and four internally displaced residents of the Hasahisa camp in central Darfur), and more than 20 injured.
Dozens of protesters, opposition leaders and journalists, including Mohamed Mukhtar al-Khatib, secretary-general of the Sudanese Communist Party, were arrested by Sudanese security forces on the first day of protests. That list has grown to include journalist Amal Habbani, AFP reporter Abdulmoniem Abu Idriss, Deputy Leader of the Umma Party Sara Nagdallah and Darfur Bar Association Secretary-General Mohamed Abdallah el-Doma.
During the September 2013 revolt, more than 200 peaceful demonstrators were killed, and there are fears that the regime could resort to a similar brutal crackdown to ensure their survival and stop citizens from mobilising.
Divisions and power struggles within the regime
Political tensions are not limited to the popular protests in Sudan. There is a known rift between Bashir and long-time confidant, the first vice president and prime minister, General Bakri Hassan Saleh, and it continues to widen. Saleh has been rumoured to be the US and some Gulf countries' favoured replacement for Bashir.
Last month, many Sudanese newspapers reported that Ibrahim Ghandour, the foreign minister, had offered his resignation to Bashir, Ghandour was complaining about the interference in his ministerial portfolio. However, he withdrew his resignation after reported interventions of some leading figures in the government.
Ongoing power struggles within the government also encouraged parts of the regime's old guard to re-enter the political game from different directions. Former Vice President Ali Osman Taha is angling to help Bashir win the 2020 elections, while the founder of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and Bashir's former senior assistant, Nafie Ali Nafie, is forming alliances with Bakri to prevent Bashir (and Taha) from returning to power in 2020.
Hence, in his attempt to prepare the ground for his re-election in 2020, on February 11, 2018, Bashir has re-appointed one of the controversial, decisive and ambitious members of the regime's old guard, General Salah Abdallah (also known as Gosh), as a director of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). He is strongly supporting Bashir's re-election in 2020.
Gosh was removed from his post as NISS's director in 2009, and in 2012, he was detained alongside 13 other officers for allegedly being behind a coup against the regime. Nevertheless, he was abruptly released in 2013. In 2006, Gosh was listed by the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur as one of the 17 people who were responsible for the heinous crimes committed in Darfur. Gosh is also widely perceived as the architect of the collaboration between NISS and CIA, especially during the period of Bush administration, since the early 2000s.
Who can save Sudan?
Unfortunately, and in typical fashion, regional and international responses to the current heavy crackdown and mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators have been slow and cautious.
Bashir's regime has failed to implement even the reforms it committed to in its own national dialogue - journalists continue to be targeted and Bashir's militias, such as his "personal army", or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), continue to operate with impunity.
To date, the regime still has no solution to the collapsing economy and austerity budget that are placing an intolerable burden on the Sudanese people. It is evident that Bashir's top priority is to hang on to power at all cost. The Sudanese army, which was once regarded as a unifier of the Sudanese people, can no longer be counted on as guarantor of peace and stability.
Sudan cannot survive like this until the 2020 elections. Bashir's regime will continue to use the army and militias for his own survival. Bashir will also likely exploit the RSF's participation in the Yemen war by asking the Saudis and Emiratis to save his economy. Neither of these tactics offers a permanent solution to Sudan's problems.
Peace talks between the Sudanese government and Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM/N) facilitated by the African Union High-Level Panel of Implementation (AUHIP) in Addis Ababa earlier this month failed to reach any deal on cessation of hostilities or humanitarian access to the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and were neither inclusive nor comprehensive.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Darfur, yet, under the Obama administration, the US welcomed rapprochement with Sudan to collaborate on counterterrorism and migration. Under the Trump administration, the US has removed 20-year-old sanctions on Sudan to continue the rapprochement policy initiated by Obama.
In short, despite the gravity of the situation, the international community lacks a unified, coherent and practical strategy to put Sudan on a more stable political and economic path. Economists such as Professor Hamid El-Tigani Ali of the American University in Cairo believes that the Sudanese economy will completely collapse within a few months if there is no urgent plan to save it.
In the next few months, popular protests will continue, particularly with opposition and youth activists gaining more confidence in the power of mobilisation. But despite Sudanese demands for reform, disorderly change would have a serious impact on citizens and the economy, as well as on regional and international peace and security. The only successful Sudanese scenario would include swift, inclusive and meaningful democratic transition with clear benchmarks.
Key regional and international players must swiftly push for the appointment of a credible and capable international envoy with a clear mandate to facilitate an all-inclusive national conference. There is no other way for Sudan to avoid chaos and disintegration.
The international community should stop shying away from its moral and legal obligations - they must pressure the Sudanese government to release all political detainees and guarantee fundamental freedoms, as well as insist that the Sudanese government comply with international human rights laws in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.