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Sudan’s Protest Movement

Protests erupted in Sudan’s cities several weeks ago, due to the elimination of fuel subsidies. The Sudanese began calling for the fall of the current regime, which is led by the National Congress Party, who have been in power since 1989. Protesters were met with violent suppression: there have been over 200 deaths, increased control over the media and the Internet, and the arrest of political activists and leaders.  Recently, however, the movement has lost momentum, and the authorities have cooled down in response. While the movement does resemble the Arab Spring to a certain extent, one must also remember the 1964 and 1985 uprisings in Sudan which ousted dictatorial governments.  The revolts of the past are important because they serve as a precedent, and indicate that the Sudanese people could be capable of bringing about the fall of the current regime. The youth of the country are the vigour behind these protests but so far, they do not possess the leadership capabilities or experience to organize the masses. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the political factors behind this current movement in order to better evaluate the prospects for regime change.

The causes of the unrest are primarily economic.  The administration of president Omar al-Bashir lifted fuel subsidies in mid-September, after longstanding plans to do so.  This has led to an increase in the costs of essential food goods and fuel, and has given rise to widespread discord amongst the Sudanese.

Protests erupted in Medani, a city south of Khartoum on September 23rd.  The regime’s forces hastily used violence to suppress protesters. In response, protests spread to Khartoum and other cities the following day, where they became increasingly more violent. There are an estimated  210 people who have died, and this includes school children and teenagers. However, over the final week of protests the deaths had decreased as authorities cooled down their use of force. More specifically, there weren’t many deaths or serious injuries, though the protesters were still being shot at with live and rubber ammunition.

The Composition of Sudan’s Revolution

While the ongoing protests are primarily a reaction to the increase in food and fuel prices, several factors which have stemmed from 24 years of dictatorial governance have contributed to their intensity. After the Arab Spring, short lived protests had erupted in the capital, and these have occurred again as recently as June 2013. However, the significance of the protests lies not only in the numbers but  in the fact that they are not organized or led by any specific groups. Political parties or activist organizations have not called for these protests.

Activists and political figures have been detained over the past few weeks, some targeted and some arrested from protests. The numbers are unknown but they include some important political party opposition leaders as well as youth activists. Their release is currently the rallying point for activists since the end of the protests.

Though this surge of protests can be described as the Arab Spring reaching Sudan, it also follows a political pattern:  in 1964 and 1985, revolts ousted the dictatorial governments in power at the time. Sudan, unlike the rest of the Arab world, had experienced popular revolts, although they did not lead to lasting democracy. There is no doubt that the Arab Spring has impacted the Sudanese outlook, but it is important to note that the Arab Spring was  two years ago. Defining this as an Arab Spring runs the risk of associating it with the instability and failure, as some have argued, of the countries which have experienced revolts. On the other hand, associating it with the past revolts, specifically the October Revolution of 1964, gives hope that the Sudanese will achieve the regime change they desire. However, the challenge that today’s Sudanese face is that of implementing lasting democratic government, and this goal has proven elusive in the past.

As with any popular uprising, public opinion on the protests has been divided. Destruction of property, looting and rioting have been attributed to the protestors, and many sources claim those committing those crimes are actually government-paid thugs. Some observers claim that lifting subsidies is necessary for the survival of the economy, and cite the recommendation of the IMF, which states the majority of those who benefit from the subsidies are the middle class, and the urban poor will not be significantly affected. The government has argued this point several times, and was surely proud that their interests are backed up by a Western-produced economic document. However, a number of members of the government have signed a statement calling for the reversal of the economic policy, and for the government to stop using force against protests. This discord speaks to the significant factions within the ruling party.

Citizen journalism has defined this uprising. As a result of the lack of media attention from mainstream news sources – or inaccurate and biased reporting, as many have deemed Aljazeera Arabic – news has been getting around through the internet and word of mouth. People generally find this to be more reliable than the propaganda of the regime, which claims that the protesters are thugs and rioters. However, it lends itself to the danger of inaccuracy and exaggerated stories.

Youth in Revolt

The online campaigns are not new to politically active Sudanese youths. They have been using social media networks to provide information and gather support for years; it is especially useful in connecting members of the Diaspora to the Sudanese living at home. The hashtags #SudanRevolts and #Abena, which means “We Reject”, and their Arabic counterparts are frequently used on Twitter for news updates. This week a five day hunger strike was organized by a group of Sudanese activists in different parts of the world. Their demands are the release of the political detainees, justice to those who killed peaceful protesters, and the lift of the media ban in the country. They hope to attract media attention to the continuing situation in Sudan though the protests have ended and are using social networking as the platform for spreading their message. This kind of activity represents a continuing attempt at organization, but nonetheless has limited outreach. There are several Facebook pages dedicated to the protests and the memory of the martyrs with thousands of followers which play a strong role as a source of information. The sharing of photos, videos, and news from different parts of the country, as well as the communication between people inside Sudan and the Sudanese living abroad, depends on the internet, which was shut down for an entire day when the protests began.

As African political analyst Alex de Waal points out, the protests do not have nearly the same level of organization as did the 1985 uprising. However, they take an alternative organizational force to those of past uprisings; with youth groups taking a lead rather than political parties. Though the online community of youth activists cooperate and motivate each other, the fact remains that Sudan is a low income country in which the protesters’ anger originates from the hardships of feeding themselves and their families, let alone their access to internet and use of hashtags. As all middle class political activists say, they understand the plight of the poor and they fight on their behalf. To be sure, the middle class has had its own struggle with the regime, but it is the politically conscious youth who will lose their livelihoods under the austerity measures. The repressive nature of the regime is not only expressed in financial terms, and the regime itself is made up of an abundance of policies and measures which make the life of every citizen difficult, be they a journalist, a member of an ethnic minority, a small business owner, a young graduate considering emigrating, or a woman selling tea on a street corner.

A Look to the Future: Implications for the Uprising

The question of potential alternatives to the current regime haunts the Sudanese people, and must also be addressed. With the lack of leadership of the political parties, a fragmented opposition with different visions and priorities, and a Khartoum based youth movement whose outreach is limited, specifying future leadership is difficult. The generational gap is of great significance. Though Sudan has a long history of political parties, with some originating from the pre-independence era, they are rarely seen as representative of the youth. Given the lack of democracy over the years and the political suppression, many of the parties have maintained the same stale leadership for a long time. Many youth have found a greater voice through movement groups such as Girifna or Sudan Change Now, but their scope is limited to a specific group of Khartoum based social activists who contextualize their work within the framework of international human rights. The loss of faith in party leadership must either be overcome, with parties  which work harder to promote and encourage youth, or these youth groups must find an alternative to the political system in which Sudanese governance operates. The Arab Spring has shown that a dismantled youth groups with no party representing them will find no place in the future building of the country but instead will succeed only in tearing it down.

One must question why these protests have happened today, despite the fact that political parties and organisations have been calling for them for years. The recent price hikes are not the first the country has experienced and they certainly were not a surprise. Nevertheless, the most recent hikes were seen as the last straw, the people were collectively fed up with the regime’s failure to provide decent living standards. What is needed today is trust: the Sudanese need to be willing to fight on behalf of their fellow countrymen, because they can no longer complacently place their trust in an unreliable state.

Sudan has experienced 24 years of oppressive Islamist dictatorial governance which was characterized by conflict in different regions, the deaths and displacement of its citizens, and the secession of a part of the country. It is therefore difficult to pin-point exactly why people are speaking out now. Yet this question is fundamental in evaluating the likelihood of the success of the protesters.  If they are to achieve any substantial change, their perspective must come from a foundation of credibility, and they must be motivated by the desire for a true and fair democracy.

The protestors are composed of a generation of young people who have known nothing but the NCP rule, have heard stories about the mystifying uprisings of the past, have sung for the uprising of’ October 1964 even though they weren’t present, and have lived through an Arab Spring which proved their hopes are attainable. Hopefully, they will be able to rise above partisanship, fragmentation, and the many other odds against them in order to foster lasting democracy in their country.

-Khaldah Salih


Photo by Suha Barakat

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