Yesterday, as atrocities in Libya and protests against Moammar Qadhafi dominated headlines, another Arab leader spoke of giving up power: North Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, who pledged through a spokesman not to run for re-election in 2015. I see several possible readings of Bashir’s decision:
- Bashir is exhausted from being president, like Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Also like Meles, Bashir may have remained in power partly out of solidarity with his party and not out of personal ambition.
- Bashir wants to placate domestic protesters by making concessions, like Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This view circulated in Khartoum yesterday. One student told the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman that Bashir’s announcement was “just an attempt to anesthetize the street.” The regime in Khartoum denied any link between Bashir’s future resignation and the Arab protests, but some Sudanese saw Bashir’s move as an effort to avoid the fate of his colleagues in Egypt and Tunisia.
- Bashir hopes to preserve his political flexibility. Put differently, Bashir wants to defuse tensions now, and then have time to change his mind later and run in 2015 if he wants to. Another of Gettleman’s sources “has his doubts about whether Mr. Bashir is even serious about stepping down, saying that if Mr. Bashir really intended to give up power, he or someone else close to him would make a major address, not task a government spokesman to deliver such news.”
The protest movement in North Sudan has thus far been significant but not consistent. Repression by the government has to some extent prevented protesters from building a sustained movement to drive Bashir from office. By taking this preemptive step before protests truly balloon into a mass phenomenon, Bashir may succeed in undercutting the political demands of opposition parties and youth activists. Still, an announcement like this, which would have been extraordinary in December, is no guarantee of political salvation in the current climate. Bashir may feel that this maneuver has brought him out of immediate danger of mass revolt, but events could still overtake him.