Is Sudan having its own 'Arab Spring?'

Prompted by rising prices for food, housing, and fuel, student protests have spread to cities across the country. Will the government's harsh crackdown backfire and fuel the movement?

AP
This June 22 citizen journalism photo provided by the group Grifina, purports to show tires burning during a protest in Khartoum, Sudan.

More than a week of student protests across Sudan has many Sudanese citizens asking themselves: Is Sudan the next country to have an Arab Spring?

Sparked by a host of austerity measures from a government that lost 75 percent of its oil revenues when the southern part of the country seceded last July, Sudan’s protests have been widespread, from the crucial Red Sea city of Port Sudan, to the capital of Khartoum to outlying regional towns such as El-Obeid. The numbers of protesters are nowhere near the size of the crowds that brought down the regimes of dictators Zine El-abiddine Ben Ali of Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, but the persistence of the protests in the face of harsh police crackdowns, the widespread economic discontent, and the very fact that Sudan’s current President Omar Al-Bashir rode to power through street protests and a military coup make this round of protests hard to ignore.

In a speech quoted by Al Jazeera on Sunday, President Bashir dismissed the protesters, saying, "They said the economic measures were a chance for the Arab Spring, but we've already had the Arab Spring a number of times. When the Sudanese people revolt, they all come out. The people who are burning tires are a few agitators."

Like many authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world and in sub-Saharan Africa – Sudan sits on the cultural frontier of these two worlds – Sudan watched the Arab uprisings of January and February 2011 with increasing alarm. In an attempt to nip any nascent protest movement in the bud, Sudan clamped down hard on opposition figures and independent journalists and bloggers. But as economic discomfort began to grow – rising food and fuel prices, planned cuts in civil service jobs, lack of growth to absorb large numbers of well-educated unemployed youths – Sudan’s government has struggled to maintain control.   

Related: Five reasons to care about the Sudan - South Sudan conflict

While the protesters thus far have been entirely unarmed, Sudanese police have reportedly responded with great force. Human Rights Watch, the New York based rights group, says that eyewitnesses and participants reported beatings, arrests, and attacks with tear gas, truncheons, and rubber bullets.

“Sudan is using these protests as an excuse to use violence and intimidation to silence dissenters,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch in an emailed statement. “Authorities should call off their security forces and vigilantes, end the violence immediately, and respect the right of the people to protest peacefully.”

Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the US State Department, condemned the Sudanese government’s crackdown, Reuters reported. “The heavy-handed approach adopted by Sudanese security forces is disproportionate and deeply concerning,” she said.

The Bashir government’s tactics may seem harsh, but they are not paranoid. Supporters of the protest movement say their goal is every bit as ambitious as that of the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan protesters: the downfall of the regime.

“People are adamant to bring this regime down and are for the first time getting united over this [even with the south],” says Omar Yahia Elfadli, an opposition activist who now supports the protest movement from exile in Paris.

“We also urge the international community [to] stand by us and support us to make our peaceful change,” he adds. “A quarter of a [century] of the rule of ... Bashir has now incurred too much damage ... and we are now back to square one and worse.”

Wael, an opposition activist in Khartoum who declines to have his surname published to protect his family, tells the Monitor that students started protesting more than a week ago because of higher prices and what he calls “deteriorating economic conditions.” Opposition activists joined the students later, using University of Khartoum’s campus as a base, but Wael says the security services responded with extreme force.

“The police used excessive violence,” says Wael, referring to protests held over the weekend. “The police used tear gas, sticks, and gangs of people close to the regime to beat up the students.” The students are not intimidated, Wael says, but in fact have become more angered by the police tactics. “There will be ongoing protests,” he says, spreading beyond Khartoum to Kosti, Gedaref, Kassala, Wad Medani, as well as continuing protests in El-Obeid and Port Sudan.

“There are protests happening now,” he says. “We go out at night to protest for fear of the police and the gang government.”

“The goal of the ruling party is to sabotage the work of civil servants and to stay in the wheel of power,” Wael says. “But the idea of the struggle of civil disobedience over the long term is that we must demonstrate and protest until the regime falls.”

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