Sudanese anti-austerity movement swells its numbers and hopes

Photo courtesy of the author.

I don’t want to start by writing of the terrible and shameful facts about Sudan’s modern history; the atrocities, the marginalization, the poverty, the human rights violations, the systematized racism or the separation of the country. I think we all know about those, albeit mainly in a very limited and simplistic way. Our wars in Darfur and the South have been caricatured as posing Arab against non-Arab; the portrayals of all our conflicts, especially in the mainstream Western media, have been about binary opposites. However, these conflicts in Sudan are much more complex, heavily tied with resource-based strife, power struggles and politics. A major part of the problem all along has been simply the corrupt mismanagement of ruling regimes.

Brutal dictatorships are not new to Sudan, and nor are oppression, marginalization or economic crisis. Omer El Bashir’s first speech after the National Congress Party’s military coup on June 30, 1989, was about many of these same problems — marginalization, racism, the economy, hate speech and the disintegration of our country. Yet the speech is perfectly applicable to Sudan today, after 23 years of NCP rule. The government spends over 80 percent of its national budget on the military, and what remains for social services is badly misused.

The opposing political parties, meanwhile, have been completely dismantled, making them ineffective and increasingly unpopular among Sudanese youth, who are disappointed with the parties’ inability to effect change in over two decades. The unions were also the first to go when the NCP came into power, as unions had historically been the backbone of uprisings in Sudan; there are no longer any independent and functional unions in the country. The media is owned and fully controlled by the state. Censorship and intimidation make the local press, TV and radio simply puppets of the NCP.

Like young people all over the world, Sudanese youth want to build lives for themselves, to dream and hope for a future in which they can live dignified and free lives in their own country. The Sudanese youth movement has come out of desperation for solutions, for alternatives to the legacies of leadership to which participants can no longer relate. These movements are attempts to give birth to realities that are ours, here today; they are not about past stories long gone. The movement in Sudan may be young, and somewhat limited in scope, but it is unique in the opportunities that it is creating for a new Sudanese reality — one that we can all be proud of.

The past two weeks of protests have gained a relative increase in attention within a very stifling environment in Sudan. Under the NCP regime, all forms of resistance in Sudan have been systematically destroyed before gaining any notable momentum. Last month, however, things were different.

It started with a group of less than 100 female students standing outside their dorms in Khartoum protesting against the increase in prices and new austerity measures which were due to be announced by Bashir any day. That protest was small, but the timing was somehow right. With so much pressure on people in Khartoum to bear the brunt of the regime’s economic policies, the daily, sporadic protests grew bigger. (Follow actions on the Crowdmap and Twitter.)

Some say that the movement won’t last and that it won’t approach the scale of the mass uprisings that the country witnessed in the 1960s and 1980s. I’m not so sure. In the past two years, there have been similar attempts to launch protests, but they received almost no recognition from people in the streets. They were seen as random, too small and non-representative of the general public. Today, people are anxiously watching what’s taking place in the streets, even if they’re not fully participating yet. Causes which were once seen as only passing fads online are becoming more popular.

Protest organizers have included university student groups loosely affiliated with opposition political parties, as well as organizations like Girifna, Sudan Change Now and others. The opposition parties have been issuing statements in support of the protests, and the youth bodies within them have been working closely with various protest organizers to maintain the momentum. The protests are also being joined by people from across society who feel they want to be part of them. The increase in arrests and the international media coverage by Arabic satellite channels has also drawn wide attention and support.

Organizers have tried to ensure that the protests of the past two weeks would be nonviolent and in keeping with the legal right to peaceful protest. However, not everyone is following suit. Neighborhood groups that have suffered a great deal from the government are also an integral part of this resistance, and they have been trying to defend themselves by using burning tires and tree trunks to surround their neighborhoods and keep the NCP forces away, as well as throwing bricks and lobbing back the tear gas canisters used against them. Such retaliation has two opposite effects; it gives the neighborhood a sense of being protected, but it also prevents many more people from wanting to take part in the protests.

The protesters are treated with excessive violence through the repeated beatings and disappearances caused by the “Rabata” — an armed, terrifying militia group that the NCP uses to suffocate the protests. When they attack protesters, they don’t seem to care about consequences or legal ramifications for their brutality. These Rabata create an insecure environment that further discourages inexperienced protesters from joining. It is clear that the measures the government is taking to terrorize protesters are working. Yet its aggression also reminds us that while we may seem weak, we are not.

One of the biggest challenges that organizers are facing today is to maintain the momentum, as well as encourage safe and peaceful means of protest. To do this, they’re trying to ensure that the media is watching the protests at all times. Media attention may not end the violence and arrests, but it exposes them.

These past two weeks have showed so many of us that progress can happen and that we are not alone in knowing that this government has already done enough harm to Sudan. Nobody can be sure if these protests will be the trigger for a full-on uprising; but we do know that they are different this time, that they have given many of us hope and determination, and that with time and commitment, we will overcome the barrier of fear and realize our true strength.

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