Sudan's protests triggered by long-term economic, political frustrations

The protests in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, were against politics as usual, not only the government of President Omar al-Bashir.

Heavily armed police patrol Khartoum's main streets Jan. 30. Police beat and arrested students in central Khartoum, witnesses said on Sunday, as demonstrations broke out throughout the city demanding the government resign.

Tunis and Cairo-inspired revolutionary fervor spread to Sudan on Sunday, as anti-government demonstrators rallied across major cities, protesting high prices, corruption, unemployment, and the political status quo. This latest challenge to the ruling National Congress Party’s grip on power – headed by President Omar al-Bashir – was met with beatings, tear gas, and arrests by security forces, reportedly resulting in one death.

According to news sources, “several thousand” demonstrators rallied in Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman while hundreds protested in major cities El-Obeid and Wad Medani, to the west and east.

The protests were organized by a number of youth groups and students through social networking sites and cell phones. One Facebook page publicizing the protests gave this call to action:

“It is about time we use our god given voice to demonstrate against an injustice government that is willing to sacrifice its people and its land to remain on the higher power.”

Seventy people were reportedly arrested and one demonstrator, Mohamed Abdelrahman, reportedly died from injuries inflicted by security forces.

By Monday, the Sudanese government appeared to have the situation under lockdown. According to Reuters, “hundreds of heavily armed police” had surrounded several universities while two papers were shut down. Youth groups reportedly issued a statement saying demonstrations would resume February 3.

Economic and political frustrations have long been mounting. In mid-January, similar protests broke out in response to the government’s decision to cut subsidies for petroleum and sugar – austerity measures taken to mitigate the economic impact of losing the oil-rich South. Southern secession has also inspired political opportunism by northern opposition groups, many of whom have been threatening to overthrow the regime if new elections and a constitutional review were not held.

Notably, Sunday’s protests appeared disconnected from – even hostile to – opposition efforts in the North, in a sign that discontent was aimed at politics as usual, as much as the regime itself. One press release explicitly excluded leaders of “traditional opposition parties who are not willing to confront the Islamic military regime” from the demonstrations.

The Jan. 30 protesters are “equally frustrated by the inadequacies of the oppositional political parties, a concern that found its expression in the slogan shabab la ahzab (youth, no [political] parties),” noted Sudanese commentator Magdi El Gizouli.

Given the scale of Sudan’s protests and the outstanding CPA and post-referendum issues that depend on Khartoum’s cooperation, both the US and South Sudanese governments are unlikely to speak out on Sunday’s events. Whether the protests continue and gain momentum will depend on a range of factors including the extent to which main opposition groups mobilize their support base to join the protests and whether Khartoum’s security forces maintains control over the situation – and they seem to be.

International community, stay tuned.

Amanda Hsiao blogs on Sudan for The Enough Project at Enough Said.

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