The greatest challenge yet to Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir is not from superpower muscle-flexing or armed rebels but from a popular revolt led by unarmed junior doctors, reports The Daily Telegraph.
As the Arab Spring picked off the strongmen of northern Africa, one member of the region’s dictators club remained unshakeable: Omar al-Bashir simply kept calm and carried on. In the three decades since he seized power in 1989, the Sudanese president has stared down two civil wars, years of sanctions, US airstrikes on his capital and a genocide indictment by the International Criminal Court.
Yet, the report says, the man who sheltered Osama bin Laden for five years is now facing the greatest challenge yet to his rule, not from superpower muscle-flexing or rebels with guns but from a popular revolt led by unarmed junior doctors.
Recent protests from Algeria to Jordan have given rise to whispers of a second Arab Spring. But nowhere is the prospect of regime change more likely than Sudan. The report says almost since the revolt began on 19 December, rapidly spreading to towns and cities across Sudan, young medics have been at the forefront of the protests demanding Bashir’s resignation.
The report says they have also been among its most prominent victims, none more so than Dr Babiker Abdelhamid, who was shot dead in Khartoum on 17 January. Babiker, who was 27, was only one of 45 people who have been killed by the security forces since the protests began, according to human rights groups. But the nature of his death, and the controversy it has ignited, has become a rallying call for the protesters, increasing rather than diminishing their determination to oust the president.
The report says according to witnesses, Babiker walked out of his home, where he had been treating protesters and attempted to beg security officers to allow him to take the wounded to hospital. Moments later, a gunshot rang out and an hour later he was dead.
“He walked down the street slowly, with his hands raised,” a colleague said. “He was trying to tell them he had critical cases and to ask them to re-open the road to Royal Care Hospital, which they had cut off. Then he was killed.
The report says facing mounting outrage, Bashir attempted to blame the killing on a foreign plot to bring chaos to Sudan. “The doctor who was killed… was killed by a weapon that did not belong to the army, or the NISS (National Intelligence and Security Services, or police,” he told supporters at a rally in the south of the country. “He was killed by someone among the demonstrators.”
Yet, the report says, there is no question that Sudan’s doctors, the most formidable group in a growing array of opponents to the regime, have borne the brunt of Bashir’s increasingly violent and desperate response to the protests. At least one other doctor, Muawiya Khalil, has been killed, allegedly shot dead inside his house. Many more have been arrested, including the head of the Sudan Doctors Syndicate, his deputy and other members of the executive committee.
Medics and nurses were beaten up after security forces raided two hospitals in Khartoum, firing live ammunition and teargas into the wards before dragging wounded protesters off their beds and taking them to secret detention centres.
The report says the assault on the medical profession partly reflects regime anger at doctors after they called a strike, encouraged other professions to follow suit and then threw open private hospitals to treat the wounded for free. But it is also an indication of the regime’s longstanding fear of the medical profession and the reverence with which it is held in Sudanese society.
After seizing power in 1989, Bashir banned independent trade unions, locked up and tortured opponents in secret prisons known as “ghost houses” and silenced dissent. But the doctors refused to be cowed, staging a strike within months of the coup – the regime responded by allegedly torturing to death one of the organisers at one of the ghost houses – and several more since.
The report says the medical profession’s opposition to the regime was driven by the distaste of secular doctors towards the coalition of Islamists and military figures that have run it and which allowed bin Laden to live in the country from 1991 to 1996. There was particular fury that Islamist militants were allowed to infiltrate a medical university in Khartoum, where students – including at least 16 Britons – were sent to join ISIL in Syria.
But the resentment is more deep-seated, too. Sudan’s medical service was once among Africa’s most efficient. The Kitchener School of Medicine produced some of the continent’s best doctors. But in recent decades, the health system has all but collapsed. As the Bashir regime diverted government funds towards the military, slashing health expenditure to just 2% of the budget, once-functioning state hospitals became understaffed and poorly equipped.
Medicines ran in short supply, free healthcare was mostly abandoned. Corrupt government officials plundered hospitals and ran dodgy procurement tenders. Unable to save lives, doctors were sometimes beaten up by the parents of children who had died in their care.
Doctors’ attempts to galvanise public anger largely failed, however, with many Sudanese still too scared to confront their government. But, the report says, an economic crisis in recent years, the legacy of US sanctions, lifted in 2016, and economic mismanagement in a country ranked by Transparency International as among the six most corrupt in the world, has changed the dynamic.
Starved of cash, the report says the government began printing money, sending inflation soaring to 70%, second only to Venezuela. Forced to adopt austerity measures, Bashir lifted subsidies on basic staples, causing bread prices to treble. The rapid devaluation of the Sudanese pound had meant that the price of medicines, which are mostly imported, soaring by between 150% and 300% in the last 12 months.
The report says December’s protests began spontaneously in the city of Atbara, but they were quickly given direction and purpose by the Sudanese Professionals Organisation, an umbrella group dominated by doctors, which has marshalled near daily protests and industrial action across the country. “Demands for major healthcare changes have been repeatedly ignored over the year,” doctors’ groups said in a statement. “There has been a blatant policy of systematically destroying the once free national health service. Our only option, coupled by our professional duty, was to escalate our protests.”
The report says the Bashir regime has thwarted previous protests, killing some 180 people during the last significant uprising in 2013. Yet Sudan observers say that, this time, the fear factor has been broken, with violence increasing rather than deterring the protesters’ determination. Other professionals have joined demands for Bashir’s resignation, including professors at Khartoum University, another hallowed colonial institution that began its days as the Gordon Memorial College in 1902. Other groups, most significantly dock workers at Port Sudan, have joined the strikes.
And even Sudan’s normally cautious opposition, sensing Bashir’s growing vulnerability, has come out in support of the protests, the report says. Last week, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the bearded Oxford-educated former prime minister overthrown by Bashir in 1989, demanded the president’s resignation.
Some observers see al-Mahdi, great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmed, the Mahdi whose warriors killed General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885, as a potential candidate to head a transitional government – even though he is 83.
The report says Bashir is not beaten yet. Middle Eastern states say they support the regime and Qatar, which has embarked on a multi-million-pound development of the British-built port at Suakin, may bail him out financially. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-linked outfit that has fought in Syria and Ukraine, have been spotted in Khartoum and are possibly assisting the regime’s repression.
Yet there are rumours of splits within the regime, with even some of his generals reportedly sensing that only by sacrificing Bashir will the protests, increasingly well organised and ever more determined, end.
According to the report, some observers say there may be a peaceful way out, with suggestions that the president would be willing to step down if the International Criminal Court dropped its case accusing him of involvement in killing hundreds of thousands during the suppression of a rebellion in the Darfur region.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British billionaire and prominent critic of the Bashir regime, has led calls for the indictment to be lifted, warning that otherwise the demise of one of the Arab world’s most stubborn leaders is likely to be protracted and violent affair. “If that is going to save lives, if it is going to save us from a bloody civil war, let the man go in peace,” Ibrahim is quoted in the report as saying.The Daily Telegraph report