Foreign Policy: Springtime In Sudan? Omar al-Bashir's many opponents are organizing to end his 22-year rule. But Foreign Policy's David Ottoway wonders, can the Arab Spring reach Khartoum?
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Foreign Policy: Springtime In Sudan?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waits for the arrival of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at Khartoum's airport on Sept. 16, 2011. Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waits for the arrival of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at Khartoum's airport on Sept. 16, 2011.

Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

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David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Washington Post Middle East correspondent.

The first civilian uprising against a military dictator in the Arab world occurred 47 years ago in Sudan. Beginning on Oct. 21, 1964, tens of thousands of doctors, lawyers, students, and workers marched for days in the streets of Khartoum, braving police batons and bullets, until Gen. Ibrahim Abboud agreed to turn over power to civilian rule.

The anniversary of the 1964 "October Revolution," normally a cause for national celebration in Sudan, received no official attention last month. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a military leader in power for 22 years who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, banned all attempts to celebrate the occasion — and for good reason.

Uprisings in the Arab world have so far toppled three long-ruling dictators in North Africa, two of them also army leaders, and have emboldened Bashir's many opponents. As I witnessed during a trip to Sudan last month, they are now gearing up to push for an end to his regime — whether through negotiations, as happened in the case of General Abboud, or by arms, as proved necessary to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi in neighboring Libya.

Sudan seems a prime candidate to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen following Bashir's risky gamble last July to allow the southern quarter of his country to secede peacefully, taking with it 75 percent of the country's oil wealth. Northern Sudanese are still in a state of shock, blaming Bashir for misjudging the South's intentions and making no preparations for the ensuing economic crisis. Somewhat miraculously, Bashir still appears very much in control after crushing a spate of student protests early this year. However, with a score of opposition parties, half a dozen youth movements, and three armed rebel groups mobilizing for his overthrow, that could change quickly.

If and when the storm breaks here, there is good reason to fear that Sudan will witness an extremely violent power struggle that could degenerate into civil war and possibly the disintegration of north Sudan. Sudanese and foreign analysts drew comparisons to the bloody, prolonged uprisings in Libya and Syria and the territorial fragmentation of Somalia. There will be no Tahrir Square moment.

These fears have led the Obama administration to emphasize the dreamy goal of "the emergence of two viable states at peace with one another," in the words of its special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman. At the same time, past American supporters of the Christian-led rebels in the south, such as the Washington-based ENOUGH Project, are pressing for regime change — peacefully or otherwise.

The main U.S. concern is that renewed warfare between the north and south could produce two failed states, sending ripples of instability through their African and Arab neighbors. The United States is particularly concerned about Ethiopia, a close U.S. ally that is presently making facilities available that allow U.S. drones to do battle with Islamic extremists in Somalia.

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