Sudan: Will riots bring down President Omar al-Bashir?


Sudan President Omar al-Bashir addresses troops during his visit to Sudan's main petroleum center of Heglig on April 23, 2012 after the South Sudan withdrew. Bashir said there will be no more talks with South Sudan and called the South Sudanese "insects".


Ashraf Shazly

NAIROBI, Kenya — For the second week running anti-government demonstrators in Sudan are preparing for a showdown with security forces as popular protests gather momentum offering the hope that the country might yet enjoy its own “Arab Spring.”

But this is no copycat revolution: Sudanese people have taken to the streets to overthrow unpopular regimes in 1964 and 1985. Today’s protesters are hoping to do the same.

“After 23 years of endurance, the Sudanese people have decided to say enough is enough,” activist group Sudan Change Now said in a statement.

“These protests although initially triggered by the economic crisis in the country, are more than that; they are protests against a dictatorship, an oppressive, corrupt, incompetent government that has lied to us for two decades and must be stopped,” said the group’s statement, posted via Twitter.

As in the Arab Spring revolutions, social media are being used as tools for organizing protests either on Facebook or using the #SudanRevolts hashtag on Twitter.

Last week’s demonstrations were dubbed “Sandstorm Friday,” this week’s are being named “The Friday of Elbow-Licking” after a Sudanese term meaning to do the impossible. They will fall on the eve of the anniversary of President Omar al-Bashir’s 23rd year in power and will look all too familiar to a man who himself took charge after street protests paved the way for his military coup.

Gathering in small groups of 100 to 200 at different locations around the capital, protesters have blocked roads and burned tires. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and arrests but the crackdown has not prevented the protests from spreading to other towns.

In recent days protests have been reported in the eastern town of Kassala and the Nile river town of Atbara.

More from GlobalPost: Sudan and South Sudan: What were they thinking?

The demonstrations began at the University of Khartoum on June 16 when students found the price of food at the canteen had doubled overnight. The protests soon spread to other universities and colleges in the capital.

The immediate trigger for the demonstrations is Sudan’s ailing economy which has been faltering for the last year since South Sudan won its independence taking with it three-quarters of the country’s oil.

Disputes over the sharing of oil revenues led the South to stop oil production altogether in January, strangling both economies and depriving Khartoum of a key foreign exchange earner. At the same time, Bashir is waging expensive wars against rebels in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. In April, it fought a brief border war with South Sudan.

With inflation reaching 30 percent last month and the Sudanese pound losing value, the government this month stopped fuel subsidies in a bid to save an estimated $2 billion a year. The next day fuel and food prices rose by 50 percent.

The demonstrations may have begun as protests against the government’s austerity measures but they have quickly transformed into broader calls for the end of Bashir’s rule.

A student activist group called Girifna (meaning, “We’re fed up”) has issued a set of demands the first of which is “the resignation of the National Congress Party government.”

Girifna, some of whose members have been locked-up and not heard from for a week, also called for national elections within two years, the abolition of hated public order laws, release of political prisoners and an end to the wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Scores of protesters have been arrested. Some have not been heard from for days, and others have been beaten by police with batons or tear-gassed into submission.

Journalists have also been silenced. Bloomberg’s correspondent was deported this week, days after being arrested while covering the demonstrations, and an Agence France-Presse correspondent was detained for 14 hours last week.

Bashir’s actions have drawn criticism.

"Instead of the dialogue with the opposition and ensuring the citizens rights in expressing their views and to demonstrate safely, the Sudanese authorities chose to arrest and use force in dispersing peaceful gathering,” said the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Human Rights Watch called on Khartoum to rein in its police force, the feared National Security and Intelligence Service and pro-government militias. “Sudan is using these protests as an excuse to use violence and intimidation to silence dissenters,” charged Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director.

The US also condemned what it called the “crackdown on demonstrators” in Sudan.

More from GlobalPost: Austerity riots spread in Sudan

“There have been reports of protesters being beaten, imprisoned, and severely mistreated while in government custody,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. “The heavy-handed approach adopted by Sudanese security forces is disproportionate and deeply concerning.”

Khartoum’s foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Meruh, dismissed the US complaints saying Washington had no right to interfere in internal Sudanese affairs, “because it continues bombing civilians in different parts of the world and it cracked down on demonstrators on Wall Street.”

As the civilian protesters gather in numbers and gain in confidence, armed rebel leaders have begun to lend their support, too.

In an interview with the Sudan Tribune newspaper Malik Agar, a commander of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), whose forces are battling the Sudanese army in Blue Nile, said: “I do not doubt the capabilities of the Sudanese people to depose Bashir. They have demonstrated these capabilities in the past. They refused similar government and removed them.”

More from GlobalPost: Economic growth pulls Rwandans from poverty

In Politics.

Tagged: Africa.