Khartoum, Sudan – As the Arab Spring swept leaders from power in neighbouring countries, some Sudanese hoped that anti-government protests earlier this year would be the beginning of the end for long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir. But a combination of heavy-handed tactics by Sudanese security forces, including beatings and arrests, coupled with other factors, meant the demonstrations vanished just as quickly as they arose.
When the anti-Islam video protests erupted in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, some activists hoped the energy could somehow morph into anti-government protests. They didn’t. In fact, they couldn’t. The Friday protests at the embassies were not just sanctioned but orchestrated by the government.
On Thursday night, government representatives met with sheikhs of the main mosques in the capital. They were told to encourage people in the sermon to go out and protest at the embassies. Government representatives emphasised they wanted peaceful protests but were well-aware that some of the more conservative sheikhs were angry and planning to call on people to storm diplomatic missions in the name of the Prophet.
On September 13, government minivans took groups of protesters to the US Embassy, 20km south of Khartoum. Three people were killed after police vehicles ran over demonstrators and government officials said they were not happy about violence undermining what they hoped would be choreographed protests.
Like other leaders in the Muslim world, Bashir had a difficult balancing act – he could not appear unsupportive of protests against a hugely offensive video, nor could he risk violent protests that make the country look ungovernable. The protests also gave Bashir an opportunity to prove his religious credentials, after opponents accused him of abandoning them in recent years.
These protests provided a great opportunity for the politician facing anger over austerity. The anti-Islam film protesters were part of Bashir’s support base. This was never going to turn into an Arab Spring-style uprising.
A week after the initial embassy protests, the government banned protests near the French embassy – a move they were criticised for in Friday mosque sermons. Criticism from religious figures, however, failed to translate into anti-government demonstrations, and anger remained targeted at the Americans and French rather than the government.
While the anti-Islam video protests garnered global headlines, most people in Khartoum haven’t been talking about the film. The main issue consuming the Sudanese right now is the desperate economic situation: rising food prices, unemployment, and inflation. Bashir is pouring the country’s limited resources into ongoing military operations on the borders.
Oil revenue, which accounts for around 20 per cent of the government’s budget, stopped in January when South Sudan halted oil production because the two sides couldn’t agree on how much Juba should pay to export its crude through Sudan’s facilities. Average Sudanese can only watch as the country sinks further into debt.
There is appetite for change, according to activists, but there doesn’t seem to be any room for the opposition to manoeuvre. Official opposition parties are as old as Bashir’s government and are not supportive of change through spontaneous uprisings. “Look at what happened in Egypt,” Hassan El Turabi, one of Sudan’s main opposition leaders, told Al Jazeera recently. “We don’t want that to happen here, nobody knows who is in charge in Egypt,” he laughed. Turabi supports a transition from Bashir’s 23 years of rule to a democratic, federal system of governance.
His plan is for the opposition to unite, write a transitional constitution and form a transitional government in order to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
The opposition, however, is divided. Turabi and Sadiq El Mahdi, another opposition leader, are not even on speaking terms. They don’t appear together at press conferences or events despite the family connections – Turabi is Mahdi’s brother-in-law.
Movements for change
Interviewing Wedad Darwish, from the opposition movement “Girifna” (sick of it), was no easy task. She was happy to talk, but aware that she’s constantly watched by Sudanese intelligence and shouldn’t be seen talking to the media. So we met at an art exhibition, pretending I was doing a story about Sudanese art and interviewing her as someone who had come to see the exhibition. I had to whisper the questions to her about her movement and activities. Her replies were barely audible.
Wedad had only just been released from a month of detention – where she says she received daily beatings by the guards – as a result of her activities.
She admits the summer’s momentum has died, but is adamant to re-ignite nationwide protests to topple Bashir. For Wedad, the key is to learn from the last round of protests and be more organised. She is sure there is enough popular support and anger to lead to regime change. When I asked her how many members the movement has, she said: “I consider anyone who is sick of this regime part of our movement – so we have tens of thousands.”
Internet sites, key tools for organising revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, are often blocked, sometimes temporarily, by the government. So too are sites that call for protests. The more Bashir feels the pressure, the more he cracks down on the voices of dissent, activists say.
The media too has been targeted. Cameraman Omar Fouad and I were arrested and detained for hours for filming on the streets despite having press cards. This time the press office decided we had to have a minder with us everywhere we went.
But the main crackdown is on domestic media. “Police come to our office and demand to approve every headline,” Khaled Ahmed, 29, editor of independent newspaper El Sudaniya, told Al Jazeera. “Now they also call the chief editor and pressure him to run a story or not publish something.”
In recent months, at least two papers have been shut down by Sudanese intelligence leaving dozens of journalists suddenly without a job or means to an income.
Journalist Ali Marghan said he received a phone call from Sudanese intelligence warning him not to go back to work and to shut down his newspaper immediately. They gave no reason for the closure, Marghan told Al Jazeera, nor did officials say when the paper could reopen.
Marghan said “the opposition actually see us a pro-government newspaper; but we describe ourselves as independent”.
Closing the paper, he thinks, has more to do with government paranoia than what he was printing: “Right now they [the government] have serious problems – inflation, protests, conflict in Darfur and other areas. All this makes the government unable to tolerate any criticism.”
Before Bashir took power, the Sudanese overthrew two military regimes within two decades. Change through revolution is not new, but it does seem far away given Bashir’s grip on power. He has carefully cultivated loyalty within the military ranks – guaranteeing they have his back if there should be an uprising.
Given that and the limited resources at the disposal of protest movements, it’s hard to see how there can be sustained popular pressure on Bashir to go, activists say. Many view the current situation in Egypt, where protests have damaged the economy and the state looks weak, with apprehension.
Many Sudanese say they want change, but given what is happening in the region almost two years after Tunisia sparked the uprisings, more and more people are beginning to question whether popular protests are the way to achieve the change they want.