KHARTOUM, Sudan – When Sudan's longtime president Omar al-Bashir introduced drastic austerity measures, he berated the public for being ungrateful over how his regime had improved their lives, boasting that before he came to power, Sudanese never ate hot dogs, talking as if they were a strange, luxury food.
For the protesters streaming out into the streets for the past week demanding his ouster, al-Bashir's talk of hot dogs in his Sept. 22 speech was one more sign of how out of touch he has become after 24 years in power. The protests, prompted by cuts in subsidies that sparked dramatic hikes in fuel and food prices, have brought out an unprecedented diversity — from the poor in Khartoum's fringe neighborhoods to upscale districts of the capital.
Al-Bashir's security forces have responded with a fierce crackdown, opening fire on marches. At least 50 people have been killed, and Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud said Monday that 700 people have been arrested, while authorities have clamped down on Sudanese media, trying to impose a blackout on reporting of the events.
The response is a sign of the vulnerability al-Bashir's regime is feeling at a time when it has increasingly been fraying. Discontent has grown within the military and his own ruling party over the 69-year-old president's handling of Sudan's relentless stream of crises. After South Sudan broke away in 2011 and took with it most of the country's oil resources, the economy is in a shambles with inflation mounting and nearly half the population living below the poverty line. The regime has been unable to deal with multiple internal wars that further drain the treasury as ethnic minorities wage insurgencies in the east, west and south, complaining of unequal distribution of power and wealth.
Even former allies are warning al-Bashir must carry out real democratic reforms or else the system could collapse, leading to the further fragmentation of Sudan.
"I am afraid that the contagious disease that inflicted Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia will spread to Khartoum," said Hassan Mekki, a leading Islamist figure and one-time al-Bashir ally.
Al-Bashir, an army officer, came to power in a 1989 military coup backed by Islamists. Since then, he has kept a powerful grip on power through a regime based on the support of the army and his ruling party, which controls all levers of government and is infused by Islamists, as well as an elaborate security apparatus he created, including the powerful National Intelligence and Security Forces, or NISS.
Mekki said a hard core of the regime still supports al-Bashir — he estimates them to number about 3,000 top officials who serve as governors of Sudan's 15 states, members of provincial and national parliaments, top aides, commanders of the army and police and the heads of the main media outlets. They are resisting any talk of reforms that would loosen the ruling National Congress Party's lock on power. "The regime has a bloc of people who benefit from him being in power," Mekki said.
But Mekki, who remains in close contact with the presidency, said even al-Bashir's security officials are advising him that he cannot solve things simply by cracking down. "Gradually, al-Bashir will become a burden and his authorities will shrink as more people around him get fed up."
Grumbling within the military has raised the possibility that the country could see yet another coup, as it did in 1964 and 1985. Former Army General Salah Eddin Karar said some in the officer corps feel al-Bashir has been monopolizing power, saying he failed to consult on major issues like the negotiations that led to the south's separation or the conduct of the war in Darfur, the western region where rebels have been waging an insurgency since 2003. Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes in Darfur.
In one sign of discontent inside military, seven high ranking army officers were arrested late last year after authorities uncovered a coup attempt.
"The military is not separate from what is happening in the street and in critical moments, it will side by the people as it always did," Karar told the Associated Press. "Coups are always possible but the question is would it work?"
Karar — who was part of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, the junta led by al-Bashir in the early days after the 1989 coup — was among a group of 31 figures, including other former generals and politicians from the ruling party, who recently put forward a public call for al-Bashir to carry out reforms. They warned that his "rule has never been at stake as now," and urged him to form a national unity government including opposition parties and set out a road map for the future.
Ex-presidential aide Ghazi Salah Eddin, who was also one of the 31 signatories, warned that if the regime digs in against change, it could tear the country apart. "We are walking in a field of land mines," said Salah Eddin, a former information minister. "In a country with divisions and cracks, this is recipe for setting things ablaze."
Last year, when small-scale protests over economic woes broke out, al-Bashir colorfully dismissed them as "elbow-lickers" — meaning, they were trying to do the impossible by calling for his downfall. Those protests quickly died out. This time however, the marches have been wider, in several cities along with the capital, and have only been fueled by the bloodshed. The main opposition umbrella group, the National Alliance, has latched on, calling for more rallies.
Presidential elections due for 2015 are seen as a major landmark — some are calling on al-Bashir not to run and to pave the way for a genuine election and a peaceful transition.
One senior official in the ruling party, Mohammed al-Amin Ahmed, said discontent with al-Bashir's leadership is growing in the party. But the core is pressing him to take a tough line because otherwise "it means their end." As a result, he said, al-Bashir is "hesitant" over whether to run or not.
Diaa Eddin Bilal, chief editor of the Al-Sudani newspaper, said the government itself must bring some reforms or else the army could intervene, which he fears could open up new violence.
"Any change forced by arms, will only open up other fronts to resort to violence and the greatest danger is that the central government falls apart."
Amgad Farid, a youth leader in one protest movement, Change Now, says activists are hoping the military takes limited action — not a coup, but a move to "protect the people from the regime's atrocities."
"Citizens are fed up. They are fed up with price hikes, corruption and theft," he said. "And we have been living in 24 years of ideological dictatorship."