Young Sudanese Start Protest Movement
NAIROBI, Kenya — The messages started going up on Facebook about two weeks ago, to any Sudanese who cared.
“The people of Sudan will not remain silent anymore,” said a Facebook group called Youth for Change. “It is about time we demand our rights and take what’s ours in a peaceful demonstration that will not involve any acts of sabotage.”
“It is about time we show what we’re really made of,” the group said. “Our brothers in Tunisia did it and so did our brothers in Egypt. It is about time for us.”
In the past week, in an unusual show of boldness, thousands of young Sudanese, many responding to the Facebook call, have braved beatings and arrests to protest against their government. The parallels to Egypt and Tunisia are obvious — Sudan is a notoriously repressive Arab country, ruled by the same strongman for more than 21 years, historically and culturally close to its big brother just down the Nile, Egypt. And it was already seething with economic and political discontent even before demonstrators started taking to the streets of Cairo.
Though the protests are often small — a few dozen to a few hundred young people — they seem to be well organized and widespread across northern Sudan, from Khartoum, the capital, to Omdurman and El Obeid to Kosti, a relatively quiet city on the banks of the Nile.
The grievances tend to be focused on Sudan’s wounded economy and practical things, like the rapidly rising prices of sugar and fuel, though protesters have also shouted out against political repression. The police have cracked down hard, arresting dozens and beating countless others with batons and sticks. One student died this week from injuries that other protesters said had been caused by the police.
Still, many Sudanese students seem fired up, even if the masses have yet to fall in line behind them.
“There is a rising conscience in the region,” said Issraa el-Kogali, 29, an amateur filmmaker who joined a recent protest in Khartoum. “So why not go for it?”
Despite its reputation as a tightly controlled police state, Sudan actually has a history of successful protests. Street-level uprisings brought down the government in 1964 and 1985. Those moments unfolded similarly to what is happening in Egypt, with people taking to the streets with specific economic and political complaints, the government initially trying to crack down and then the security services joining the masses and the government eventually acquiescing to their demands.
But most seasoned analysts doubt that this Sudanese government will buckle anytime soon. The military is not simply loyal to the government — it is the government. Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, took power in a military coup in 1989 and has ruled ever since. The upper ranks of the military are said to be firmly behind him.
On top of that, the political opposition is weak, divided and widely discredited.
“There is certainly discontent with the regime, but it’s unclear if enough of the right factors are present to complete the equation in Khartoum,” said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Years of subjugation at the hands of the N.C.P.,” or the National Congress Party, as the ruling party is called, “have yielded both political apathy and a weak opposition. Likewise, the heavy and willing hand of security services and corresponding fears among the population act to inhibit such an uprising.”
In sum, Mr. Vertin said, “Protests undertaken thus far have not taken root with a broad section of the population, but given what we’ve seen in Egypt, nothing can be ruled out.”
Sudan is about to wade into a whirlpool of problems. The oil-producing southern third of the country, which has been the economic engine for the somewhat impressive growth in Khartoum, is preparing to split off. Last month southern Sudanese voters opted for secession by more than 99 percent in a long-awaited independence referendum, and some northern Sudanese blame the government for this.
The economy is already beginning to reflect the strains and worries of the coming split, scheduled for July. The value of the Sudanese pound has plunged. The government recently started cutting back on food and fuel subsides, which set the first protests in motion. But the government is trying to project confidence.
“The situation in Egypt is different than the situation of Sudan,” said Rabie A. Atti, a government spokesman. “We don’t have one small group that controls everything. Wealth is distributed equally. We’ve given power to the states.”
Many Sudanese, especially those in the war-torn and marginalized Darfur region, would probably argue with that. But few want to tangle with the police, who sometimes wear ski masks and commando-style uniforms and often smash civilians in the face with impunity.
“The Sudanese street is not yet prepared,” said Mouysar Hassan, 22, a student who took part in a recent protest. “Many are scared.”