In the last week, thousands of Sudanese have taken to the streets to call for a fundamental change in the way their country is governed. Many organized themselves around the #SudanRevolts and #Abena (We Refuse) hashtags on Twitter, and have used social media to share graphic evidence of the state security forces’ brutal crackdown on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. Here’s what you need to know:
Why are the Sudanese people protesting?
The Sudanese government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies has been identified as the driving force behind the latest protests, but Sudanese activists disagree with that description. Instead, they argue that while the specter of rising prices sparked action, as in many other Arab Spring countries, the demonstrations have been sustained by consensus about the pressing need for much more fundamental political and economic reform. Amjed Farid of Sudan Change Now explains: “it was about the economic crisis but after our blood was shed in the streets we are saying, this government should go, this regime has to go, and it should go now because it killed us. […] We demand a responsible government that can lead us out of these hardships.”
What has the government done in response?
In addition to arresting at least 700 protesters, the Sudanese government has reportedly deployed its notorious paramilitary forces against the protesters. Credible reports from multiple sources confirm that security forces have been using live ammunition on crowds. Doctors report that at least 210 protesters were killed last week, noting that in most cases bullets found in their heads and chests were the cause of death. The regime has even moved trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, usually reserved for use in Darfur, onto the streets of its capital city. Schools, which were shut down after students began to march against the regime, will remain closed until at least October 20. Last week, drawing on the Egyptian example, the Sudanese government shut down the internet for almost 24 hours. Since then, it has threatened more communications blackouts, forced international television channels and local print publications to close their operations, and engaged in an insidious disinformation campaign against the protesters. Relatives have been forced to sign forged death certificates that identify “natural causes” as the cause of protesters’ deaths.
Sounds familiar, didn’t something very similar happen a few months ago? And also a few months before that?
Yes, Sudan has a rich political protest culture. Over the summer, as a part of their 100 days campaign against the regime the National Consensus Forces mobilized at least 10,000 people for a protest in Omdurman, Khartoum’s sister city, for one the biggest protest rallies in years, In December 2012, a wave of protests broke out after four students were killed in Wad Medani. In the summer of 2012, youth led #SudanRevolts protests rocked the country for weeks and many activists were jailed. Although anti-regime demonstrations had gripped the capital in January and December 2011,the Enough Project’s Omer Ismail predicted that the summer protests might be a “prelude” to an end of the NCP’s reign.
So is this time different?
A lot of people think so. The Sudanese political scene has been stifled by dictatorship for almost a quarter century, but this might finally be the moment for real change. Very similar activism led by students and unions led to the demise of two previous Sudanese dictatorships in 1964 and 1985. But this time the government’s response has been even more brutal and deadly. The anger in Sudan is palpable, as illustrated by this video of President Bashir’s close adviser Nafie Ali Nafie getting jeered from a funeral where he was ostensibly paying his respects to one of the slain protesters. The protests have already deepened existing fissures in the ruling party. In a public memorandum to President Bashir, 31 members of the Sudanese Islamist movement and the ruling National Congress Party called for the subsidies to be reinstated and warned the ICC indictee who has survived multiple coup attempts that “the legitimacy of your rule has never been at stake like it is today.”
Do the protesters have clear demands for a way forward?
Protesters are rallying around chants about freedom, peace and the fall of the regime, not just anti-austerity measures. While efforts to form an inclusive umbrella group are still ongoing, a new coalition, calling itself Sudan Change Forces issued a public communique on September 28 with four political demands. Claiming to represent Sudanese youth movements, professional unions, civil society organizations and the opposition parties’ National Consensus Forces, the statement asks for (1) the regime to step down, (2) the formation of a transitional government, (3) accountability and punishment for crimes, (4) and an immediate end of wars on the periphery through a comprehensive peace process addressing roots of problem. Others are working in parallel, and cite the New Dawn Charter, a joint platform signed by civil society, opposition parties, and the rebels in January 2013, as a way forward.
What is the Sudanese government’s official reaction?
Interviewed in New York, where he is leading the Sudanese delegation to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Ali Karti dismissed the demonstrations as a creation of the media in an Arabic-language interview. When asked if the government would reverse its decision on subsidies in response to public pressure, Sudan’s Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman replied that while the government knows that bearing higher prices will be “a bit heavy for the people,” it has to “carry on” with the planned austerity budget. Analysts note that the International Monetary Fund has told the Sudanese government, which is in dire economic straits, that removal of these subsidies is a condition on further lending. Today, at a press conference in Khartoum, the Minister of Interior suggested that the revolution was being manufactured for political purposes and that photographs were being recycled from the Egyptian revolution.
Has the international community spoken out?
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council, United Nations Security Council and League of Arab States have all been silent. However, others have voiced their concern. Regionally, the UAE’s foreign minister Anwar Mohammad Gargash called the government’s response to the protests “violent and unjustified.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power labelled the reports as “disturbing” on Twitter. The U.S. State Department formally condemned Sudan for its “brutal crackdown” while newly appointed Special Envoy Don Booth called the use of live ammunition an excessive use of force on Radio France International. The UN’s human rights office expressed deep concern at security forces excessive use of force and called for restraint. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also spoken out.
Akshaya Kumar is the Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst for the Enough Project.