The cry rippled through the crowd in the early hours of April 11th, accompanied by the beating of drums and blasts on whistles: “It has fallen. We have won.”
And, so it appears, they have. Almost exactly 30 years after Omar al-Bashir seized power in a bloodless coup, shunting aside his democratically elected predecessor, the man who did so much to wreck Sudan has himself been toppled. His fall marks the culmination of four months of almost ceaseless protests against one of Africa’s longest-ruling tyrants. “In spite of all hurdles and hardships, it is over,” said Ahmed Elyas, an engineer in Khartoum who was in the crowd. “We won.”
As The Economist went to press tens of thousands of demonstrators—encamped outside the main army compound in central Khartoum since April 6th—waited on an announcement from the generals as the army moved troops onto the streets and state radio and television played patriotic music. Yet even amid the jubilation it was unclear whether this was a coup that would lead to another military strongman stepping in, or a revolution that would put civilians in charge.
Initial reports were contradictory. Some suggested that the army was trying to form an interim administration led by Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, the defence minister, who has had sanctions placed on him by America for his role in war crimes. But protest leaders including the Sudanese Professionals Association, a coalition of trade unions, said they would only accept a handover of power to a civilian transitional government. Unconfirmed reports said that Mr Bashir and two other people wanted by the International Criminal Court (icc) for war crimes had been arrested.
What is clear is that the fall of Mr Bashir is the latest in a wave of change that has swept away many of Africa’s longest-serving rulers, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. “It is the extinction of the dinosaurs,” says Alex Vines of Chatham House, a think-tank. Driving this are urbanisation and the spread of mobile phones, which make it easier to organise protests, says Judd Devermont of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Jon Temin of Freedom House, another American outfit, says three of the five countries posting the biggest moves towards democracy last year were African; Angola, Ethiopia and Gambia. “There is a growing people-power dynamic,” he says.
The protests in Sudan erupted in December in response to rising food prices. But people soon turned their ire on Mr Bashir, who has governed woefully since 1989. His men have massacred and raped civilians in wars against rebels in Darfur and the south, acts that have led the icc to indict him and some of those closest to him.
His Islamist allies have flogged women for “immoral” behaviour, such as wearing trousers. Corruption is rife. The economy shrank by 2.3% in 2018. Inflation reached 70% at the start of the year (though the government claims it has since fallen).
When protests broke out in December the government responded by arresting, beating and killing people. In February Mr Bashir declared a nationwide state of emergency, dissolved the government and replaced all 18 state governors with soldiers or securocrats. Yet still the crowds calling for him to go continued to swell.
On April 6th, the anniversary of the revolutionary overthrow in 1985 of Gaafar Nimeiry, a previous military dictator of Sudan, tens of thousands took to the streets in the capital. Many hoped to repeat the earlier feat in which months of mass protests had prompted the army to step in and depose a hated tyrant. Democratic rule followed in 1986 before it was cut short by Mr Bashir’s coup a few years later.
Within days of the new protests erupting in the capital, thousands of people set up camp outside the headquarters of the armed forces and Mr Bashir’s current residence. Although this is not the first time that Sudanese people have tried to rise up against Mr Bashir, the marked difference now was that they had won the support of sections of the armed forces.
When the government tried to clear the protest in Khartoum using tear gas and bullets, soldiers and sailors joined the crowd and fired their guns to defend it. Naval officers exchanged fire with members of the spy agency and paramilitary forces. On April 9th some junior officers told the crowd they had joined the revolt.
The big question now is who will succeed Mr Bashir. The formal opposition is less divided than it was in the past, but it still has no obvious leader of its own. Several are tainted in the eyes of protesters for having worked with the ruling National Congress Party (ncp) in the past. Yet a new government may have to include current and former members of the ncp for their bureaucratic expertise.
Events in Sudan will be watched nervously by Mr Bashir’s fellow Arab and African leaders, who fear a second phase of the Arab spring that swept away several of them in 2011. After the recent resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, many are wondering: who’s next?