'It's Basically Over': The Sudanese Dictatorship's Dwindling Options

Even after it signed a crucial oil treaty with its southern neighbor, the government in Khartoum has plenty to worry about.

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Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir waves to supporters outside the Defense Ministry in Khartoum, just after hostilities with neighboring South Sudan ceased, on April 20th, 2012. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

On September 27, one of the most repressive governments on earth was thrown a lifeline. After an eight-month standoff that ravaged the two countries' economies and brought them to the brink of war, North and South Sudan resolved a long-simmering dispute over how to divide their oil revenue, the primary source of tension after the South became independent in July 2011. The relationship between the two countries is still one of suspicion, proxy warfare, and seemingly-insoluble border disputes that provide a plausible casus belli if either needs an excuse to ratchet up pressure. Even so, the deal allows for the possibility that within the next six months, oil will again start flowing for the first time since February 2012, restoring a revenue source that each government desperately needs.

The oil deal is added evidence of the Khartoum government's astounding ability to weather whatever challenges a polyglot and deeply unstable region throws its way. Since taking power in a 1989 coup, Sudan's National Congress Party, led by the International Criminal Court-indicted Omar al Bashir, has proven itself to be one of the more adaptable cadres of autocrats the modern Middle East and Africa has ever known. In the 23 years since they came to power, they have morphed from revolutionary Islamists into pan-ideological opportunists -- all while effectively defanging or co-opting the country's other political parties, which are some of the oldest and most respected in the Arab world. At various times, the NCP has gotten Iran, the Gulf States, and the Arab League to arm it, fund it, or provide it with crucial political cover. It has used sprawling patronage networks, which extend from local militias all the way to the upper ranks of the military, to turn the country's numerous armed conflicts in its favor. And it has waged scorched-earth campaigns against insurgencies in Darfur and Southern Kordofan -- while deploying less-violent and more tactical methods against peaceful anti-regime activists in places closer to the centers of power.

But there is now ample evidence that the NCP's flexibility is reaching its limits. The regime is facing a crisis because of a basic dilemma: Khartoum is running out of money, and the government is facing fiscal and economic challenges that can only be avoided if its nature and basic outlook undergo a dramatic shift.

The Democracy ReportThe fact that Sudan is not a democracy limits the possibility of such a shift. If the Sudan were ruled by a government beholden to voters, rather than to its exclusive self-interest, the governing clique would not have to be counted on to give up its privileges -- to voluntarily change its fundamental nature, or its philosophy toward governing a populous, complex and volatile country. Yet as Yousif Elmahdi, a Khartoum-based economist and democracy activist explained, the NCP now cares about short-term resiliency to the exclusion of all else. "The regime is so fragmented and so fragile," he said. "There's no ideology, no common goal, no common vision. It's basically survival from day to day."

Elmahdi said that the widespread protests that gripped Sudan over the summer offered a glimpse of the popular frustration that could bring down the NCP. "People are oppressed," he said. "There's a lack of basic freedoms, conflict, poverty -- you name it. Any governance issue you don't want to have, we have in Sudan."

Even so, he doubts the government will fall unless there are paralyzing street protests that would convince more opportunistic elements in the NCP to side against the regime's current leadership. And those won't materialize unless Sudanese see an economic imperative in ousting the government. "It hasn't gotten to the level where we're looking at the revolution of the hungry," said Elmahdi. "If we're going to eventually break this fear barrier outright, the economy's going to be the reason. People are going to go out because they won't have a choice anymore."

"There's no ideology, no common goal, no common vision. It's basically survival from day to day."

It's impossible to know just how far off that is -- the NCP might be able to stretch its resources and preserve its network for several more years. The possible Israeli bombing on October 24 of the Yarmouk weapons facility -- a sprawling munitions factory in southern Khartoum and the site of what might have been a large cache of weapons bound for Hamas and Hezbollah -- exposed the regime's strategy for survival. The NCP has made itself indispensable to Iran's weapons-smuggling network in Africa; one U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks reported that the facility had handled "items on a multilateral control list, or other items that have the potential to contribute materially to WMD, missile, or certain other weapons programs in Iran or Syria."

But the bombing, which saw Sudan's capital city attacked partly because of the recklessness and opportunism of the ruling party, also revealed the destabilizing consequences of such an approach. As one analysis concluded, Sudan is now a front in Israel's conflict against Sunni terrorism and Iran. The Yarmouk incident hardly suggests a government interested in pursuing a more moderate course. And there's plenty to suggest that its current path can't be sustained forever. The attack on the capital must have been embarrassing, but the NCP has much bigger problems on its hands.

* * *

The most telling signs of looming problems for the NCP are economic. Sudan's economic troubles partly stem from the loss of its oil income in July 2011 after the South Sudan became an independent state -- the country was already running a $2.5 billion trade deficit in the six months between the south's secession and the oil shutdown. In a dispute over how the countries would divide their oil revenue, the South froze its oil exports in February 2012.The two sides resolved the issue thanks to an agreement in late September, but only after eight months of economic disaster for both countries. In Sudan, a country that depends on oil for half of its government revenue and 90 percent of its export revenue, government salaries and subsidizes were cut, and the price of electricity and fuel doubled. Official inflation skyrocketed to 42 percent, although Elmahdi said that the actual rate was closer to 65 percent according to estimates he conducted this past March. Inflation had a major impact on the price of basic foodstuffs, since Sudan imports nearly 100 percent of its wheat. Elmahdi said the government, which is currently in $4 billion of debt, had to take out a $700 million loan from China (which buys 66 percent of Sudanese oil) simply to be able to keep importing fuel and wheat.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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