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Sudan: 'Arab Spring' protests wane, but activists remain optimistic

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been a 'genius' at cracking down on opposition, activists say. But the government's control may work to its disadvantage, as economic woe continues.

By Staff writer / July 20, 2012

A man sells a toy pistol, knives, chaka sticks and other martial items as Sudanese buffeted by a failing economy experience daily life on the streets of Khartoum, Sudan, on July 15. One month of street protests have challenged the 23-year rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, his strict new austerity measures, and the failing economy.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

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Khartoum, Sudan

The test of strength between Sudan's antigovernment protesters and its security forces came in a scalding, dusty expanse around a Khartoum mosque after Friday prayers, below a soaring, brightly colored minaret.

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Several hundred Sudanese were ready with banners and slogans decrying the 23-year rule of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, his strict new austerity measures, and the failing economy.

But the July 13 protest was over almost before it even began. Riot police drove forward the moment prayers ended, swinging batons and firing teargas that doused the area and sent Sudanese racing for cover.

Within 15 minutes about 100 police formed a line to block a remaining group from leaving. After 20 minutes, scores of undercover policemen – many wearing the long robes of the Islamic faithful to blend in while they had infiltrated the mosque – departed the area, riding in the open backs of Toyota trucks, their job done.

"See? They are wearing exactly the same clothes as those at prayer. They are praying with them!" said one Sudanese witness, as the undercover security agents drove away. "This regime has no rules – their only thought is how to hold on to power."

As the demonstrations began a month ago on university campuses, and spread in Khartoum and to cities beyond, activists began to dream that an Arab Spring-style revolt had finally made its way to Sudan.

After all, the separation of South Sudan from the north a year ago deprived the government of 75 percent of its income; conflict and tension continues on several fronts; and inflation has doubled in the past year to 37 percent. Western sanctions are taking a greater toll, and Mr. Bashir is indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It appeared a perfect storm, that could provoke regime-changing mass protests.

'A few agitators'

But Sudanese officials dismiss the protests as insignificant – none appear to have mustered more than 1,000 people, in a country of 34 million.

"They said the economic measures were a chance for the Arab Spring, but we've already had the Arab Spring a number of times," Bashir said in late June, referring to past popular revolutions. "When the Sudanese people revolt, they all come out. The people who are burning tires are a few agitators."

Indeed, the attempted protest witnessed by the Monitor at the Imam Abdel Rahman mosque in the northwest suburb of Omdurman – in which protesters shouted "the people want to overthrow the regime" – was described as "nothing happening" by a police spokesman, according to Reuters.

Fierce crackdown

That nonchalance has not prevented a fierce reaction from Sudan's ubiquitous security forces. Activists say that 2,000 of their number have so far been detained and even tortured, among them key leaders, which has dampened enthusiasm for action on the street – for now.

"They are geniuses, we must admit this," says an engineering student activist, about the regime's ability to survive political and economic crises. "They manipulate Sudanese minds and know how to do it, to tell people what they want to hear. Now, for example, people are tortured, but you would not know it unless it happened to a relative. But the economic crisis has made people open their eyes more."

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