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How Sudan’s Bashir flew from historic visit to Syria into frying pan

KHARTOUM | Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was Friday forced to evacuate Sayida Sanhouri Mosque in Khartoum after worshipers chanted slogans calling for regime change. Although he is clinging on and promising concessions, the events of the last ten days have hit Bashir hard — like it would any dictator in Africa who  has overstayed their welcome.

The protests that erupted on December 20 were triggered by a government decision to triple bread prices from one Sudanese pound ($0.02) to three Sudanese pounds ($0.063). Food prices have soared since the start of this year after the government stopped state-funded imports of wheat.

Sudan has been facing heightened economic uncertainty in recent years with an acute shortage of foreign currency resulting in the Sudanese pound plunging against the dollar.

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As al-Bashir, 74, faces his most trying moment since coming to power after overthrowing Saddiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup in 1989 to end the civilian government’s three-year honeymoon. Interestingly, there have been several usual events in the lead up to the protests against al-Bashir’s government.

Despite the lifting of US economic sanctions last year, international banks have continued to be wary of doing business with financial institutions in the country.

On December 4, Sudanese lawmakers offered al-Bashir another blank cheque to rule for life after a majority backed a constitutional amendment to extend term limits that would have required him to step down in 2020.

Al-Bashir was ineligible to stand again when his present term ends, having won two elections since a 2005 constitutional amendment took effect imposing a two-term limit. He won elections in 2010 and 2015 after the constitution was changed following a peace agreement with southern rebels, who later seceded forming South Sudan.

Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party announced earlier this year it was nominating al-Bashir for president in 2020.

“We agreed to amend the articles after we collected 294 deputies’ signatures,” said party head Abdurrahman Mohamed Ali.

“The parties saw that President Omar al-Bashir is the protector of the people of Sudan in the coming period.”

Thrilled and spurred on by the development in his parliament, the ‘protector of the people of Sudan’ made history on December 17 when he became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since civil war erupted there nearly eight years ago.

Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League soon after war broke out in 2011. Arab countries have sanctioned Damascus and condemned Assad for using overwhelming military force and failing to negotiate with the opposition.

In October, Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a “major understanding” with Arab states after years of hostility, AP reported.

Al-Bashir did not name the Arab countries in the interview, which was his first with a Gulf paper since the war erupted, but he said Arab and Western delegations had begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions.

Bashir visit appeared to confirm as much. At least Sudan, on the evidence of the visit, became one of those Arab countries Assad cited. Much was to come when President Donald Trump announced US troops would pullout of Syria, a decision with many faces to interpret from.

The reason for al-Bashir’s visit was not immediately clear. But with the war in Syria winding down in favour of Assad as his troops recapture key cities and population centres — added to it by Washington’s decision on pullout –, the AP reported that some Arab officials have expressed interest in exploring the restoration of ties.

However, Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the Sudanese president as saying during the meeting with Assad that he hoped Syria will recover its important role in the region as soon as possible.

SANA said Assad thanked al-Bashir for his visit, asserting that it will give strong momentum for restoring relations between the two countries “to the way it was before the war on Syria.”

Between that historic visit to Damascus and the eruption of protests in Khartoum, it was barely 48 hours. Al-Bashir had affirmed readiness to provide all that it can to support Syria’s territorial integrity during that visit but it is him who now needs Assad’s readiness to overcome what is increasingly looking like an end to his three decades in power.

While this might sound deeply ironical as well as comical, there is no doubt that, after nine days of protests, al-Bashir knows he will need a counter revolution to overcome the crisis.

The ill-fated front row: Omar al-Bashir is the last man standing in the front row that has seen Saleh of Yemen, Gaddafi, Ben Ali and Mubarak all ousted.

Of all the African leaders who have had to deal with such protests, only Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria managed to wiggle his way around like a warm too fat for the fisherman’s hook. After nearly two years of protests and self-immolation, the protests died and the ailing Bouteflika remains on wheelchair but ruling all the same.

Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ousted, charged, exiled and government overthrown.
Egypt’ Hosni Mubarak ousted, arrested, charged, and government overthrown. Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi ousted, arrested, charged and government overthrown. and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi killed.

These leaders could not crush the uprising once it took on the revolutionary scope. If there is anyone al-Bashir is looking up to now, it is Bouteflika and his inexplicable survival.

Of more headache for al-Bashir is that, like the Arab Spring of 2011, his troubles are familiar. An uprising over basic services that then is fueled silently by Western powers giving little or no room whatsoever to survive the heat.

Any of the previous US administrations would have ceased the momentum and called for al-Bashir’s end. Although Paris appears to be dazed by the recent Yellow Vests protests, London is awake with anti-Bashir protests across Britain painting a bleak future for the Sudanese dictator.

Waiting on with cuffs are the guys from the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands who have for decades wanted al-Bashir to face war crimes charges stemming from a conflict in his own country.

Just what was in that meeting in Damascus that has turned the government of al-Bashir on its head and made it look like the military ruler has flew from the smoldering embers in Syria straight into a steaming frying pan in Khartoum?

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