CAIRO — Thousands of people were out on the streets Thursday at several locations in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, calling on the country’s longtime ruler to step down, according to videos circulating online and activists.
The demonstrations are the latest in a wave of unrest that began Dec. 19 across most of Sudan, first to protest worsening economic conditions but soon to demand an end to Omar al-Bashir’s 29-year, autocratic rule.
Thursday’s demonstrations began in more than a dozen of the capital’s residential neighborhoods and in at least six cities across the country, with numbers in each protest varying from scores to the low hundreds.
In response, security forces in Khartoum sealed off main roads to keep protesters on side streets and used tear gas to disperse them, said the activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
They chanted “Just leave!” — which is fast becoming the uprising’s definitive slogan and already is a Twitter hashtag used by activists — and “Freedom, peace and justice. ”
Al-Bashir, who led a 1989 military rule that toppled a freely elected but ineffective government, has repeatedly said that any change of leadership could only come through the ballot box.
Already one of the region’s longest serving leaders, he is expected to run for another term in office next year.
Thursday’s protests came one day after al-Bashir met in Doha with the ruler of the tiny but energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, likely looking for financial support.
The Sudanese leader and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not speak to the press after their meeting and there was no word in the official Qatari media on what they agreed on to help al-Bashir ride out the ongoing crisis.
Sudan’s official news agency said last month that Sheikh Tamim promised in a telephone call with al-Bashir that Qatar will “provide all that is needed” to help Sudan get through its crisis. Qatar at the time only acknowledged the phone call took place.
If Qatar were to help al-Bashir, whose position is becoming increasingly precarious after a month of continuing protests, it would likely in part be to spite Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, together with Bahrain, are boycotting the Gulf nation for its alleged support of militant groups and its close ties with non-Arab, mainly Shiite Iran.
Bahrain, another Gulf Arab monarchy, stated its support for al-Bashir in the early days of the unrest. Bahrain’s more powerful Gulf allies — the Saudis and the Emiratis — have not followed suit, while Egypt, Sudan’s powerful neighbor to the north, has expressed its support for Sudan’s stability and security, but made no mention of the 74-year-old Sudanese leader.
Egypt’s interest in a stable Sudan is rooted in its aversion to chaos at its doorsteps, much the same way lawlessness in Libya has been a major irritant to Cairo since a 2011 uprising there metamorphosed into civil war and the North African nation turning into a haven for jihadist groups.
Al-Bashir, however, has not been a reliable ally, stoking a largely dormant border dispute, siding with Ethiopia in its dispute with Cairo over sharing the Nile’s waters and offering refuge to Islamists wanted in Egypt.
Al-Bashir, in an apparent bid to secure the goodwill of the oil-rich Saudis and Emiratis, has dispatched troops to Yemen to fight on the side of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite, Iran-aligned rebels there.
But al-Bashir’s flirtations with their rivals — Turkey, Qatar and Iran before that — may have impacted on the financial windfall he expected from Sudan’s participation in the Yemen war.