Why Sudanese Are Protesting in the Streets

Protests in Sudan entered their seventh day today, after being sparked on June 17 by female students at the University of Khartoum. The protests spread to other universities, and then from students to wider communities. They came after the government of Omar Al Bashir announced austerity measures that would significantly increase the cost of living, including price hikes for transportation, fuel, and food. The University of Khartoum was also the birthplace of the movement that led to the overthrow of the military government in 1964. (See this very useful background by Simon Martelli at the AFP.)

With international economic sanctions and the severing of the country’s oil lifeline in January by newly independent South Sudan, Khartoum is running out of cash fast. According to the Washington Post, “President Omar al-Bashir has said the measures are necessary to pay for his country’s conflict with South Sudan and to replace Sudan’s oil revenues. He said Sudan no longer exports oil.”

Khartoum is also fighting expensive, devastating, and unpopular wars in Darfur (in the west), Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan, and the Nuba Mountains (on the border with South Sudan); and is managing to hang onto an increasingly precarious peace with political opposition in the eastern part of the country. Late last year, students in the east protested the rising cost of living and what they alleged to be electoral fraud.

The current Khartoum demonstrations gained enormous momentum on the sixth day, June 22, after Friday prayers, and by Saturday the hashtag #SudanRevolts sprang alive on Twitter on an international scale. Outside Khartoum, protests have also been reported in the main cities of Sennar, North Kordofan, and El Gezira states. Crowd-sourced maps of protests can be found here and here.

The police and government response to the demonstrations has been to crack down; reportedly firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators, beating them, and sending intelligence agents after them. A number of sources report mass arrests of protestors, who are then released after being mistreated or even tortured. Sudanese tweeter @dalliasd reported that in El Deim people were being arrested from their own homes. Opposition leader Saata Ahmed al-Haj of the Sudanese Commission for Defense of Freedoms and Rights is under house arrest along with other opposition leaders, surrounded by security forces. In Omdurman, hundreds of opposition Umma Party members gathered and clashed with police.

The tipping point may have been the austerity measures, but protests against the regime have been brewing since the start of the Arab Spring over a year and a half ago. A year ago this week, Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur, warned of trouble in Khartoum.

Criticisms of the current movement include that it lacks cohesion and a clear set of demands (though Girifna — a substantially popular, non-violent, pro-democracy movement formed by students in 2009 — does have a list of demands on its website). Sudanese blogger Yassmin at Redefining the Narrative lays these criticisms out, adding that the destruction of property by demonstrators does not help the cause, but gives police a reason to arrest them.

Girifna activists have been targeted during the protests by security forces but are tweeting consistently (and bilingually) at @girifna.

Simon Jennings at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Nesrine Malik at the Guardian note the critical role that conflicts within the ruling party might play in an eventual regime change, and are somewhat skeptical that people power alone will be sufficient; particularly without a strong, coherent political opposition. Jennings points out that as it stands, people don’t have a lot of faith in the opposition political parties; though “if the economic situation continues to deteriorate and more people take to the streets… opposition parties might realise they need to get behind the demonstrations.”

If you follow the developments on Twitter with the #SudanRevolts hashtag and the great crowd of Sudanese who have been tweeting relentlessly the past few days, it’s unmistakable that people are resolute and determined to make a change. Reports of protests in new towns keep coming in. The role of women is being emphasized (for example with the theme “women do not make sandwiches, women make revolutions”). Commentators are talking about the Arab Spring finally coming to Sudan.

As in Tunisia, recent protests may have been sparked by a deteriorating economy, but that is really only the last of many straws that broke the camel’s back. Sudanese protestors and activists are also demanding justice, accountable government, and political rights for all citizens.

In the meantime, a list of detainees (in Arabic) has been published, and citizen journalist Usamah Mohamad (@simsimt) has been arrested. Usamah has been missing for over 24 hours and concern is growing as to his well-being. #FreeUsamah (and the misspelling #FreeUsama) is appearing more and more in my Twitter timeline as I write this.

While the #SudanRevolts hashtag continues to buzz — with new developments, 140-character editorials, lists of missing and detained, and warnings that the situation may become more violent — we still have a solid week before we see what will happen on June 30 (the date the ruling party came to power in 1989), when the demonstrators are planning to get serious.