Youth protests in Sudan struggle amid state crackdown

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 7, 2011 

JUBA, Sudan — The student activists call themselves Girifna, Arabic for "we are fed up."

As angry Egyptians stormed into Cairo's streets, the wave spilled across Egypt's southern border into Sudan. Loosely organized bands of Sudanese youth are entering their second week of a declared uprising against the strong-arm rule of President Omar al Bashir's National Congress Party.

The methods are familiar. Joining groups on Facebook and communicating through text messages, they launched their protests Jan. 30, chanting anti-ruling party slogans and protesting rising food prices. Their stated aim: the fall of Bashir's regime.

Mostly students and unemployed graduates, they arose in pockets across Sudan's northern capital, Khartoum, and were joined by peers in other towns in the predominantly Arab north. In some cases a few dozen showed up; in other cases, hundreds.

It raised the question: After Tunisia and Egypt, could Sudan be next in the Arab world to oust its longtime authoritarian leader?

So far, there are no strong signs that it will. As Egypt and Tunisia signaled the arrival of a new age of street power, Sudan is a reminder that the old world hasn't altogether crumbled. Not yet, at least.

Although the government has managed to contain the unrest so far, the street revolutions nearby couldn't have come at a worse time for it.

On Monday, Bashir announced that he accepted the results of Southern Sudan's referendum Jan. 9-15, in which 99 percent in the war-torn region voted to split from his rule and form a new country.

On the first day of protests, riot police and security officers dispersed crowds, beat demonstrators with batons, fired tear gas and surrounded universities to prevent students from heading back onto the streets.

Over the next several days, activists tried to build momentum, but they've been unable to mobilize against a massive security machine. Even before the protests began, the state apparatus had begun arresting suspected youth ringleaders. In the days following, it expanded its raids to local journalists and some political opposition leaders.

More protests were called for Monday, but never materialized.

"We know there are more than 170 in detention, but we expect the number is much greater than that," said Osman Hummaida, the London-based head of the Sudan-focused African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies.

Bashir's security men worked in vintage ruthless fashion. In one case Thursday, when youths showed up at a gathering point identified by text message, the police were there waiting to arrest them. Activists suspect that the security service sent the text messages itself to lure the dissidents.

Student leaders still at large are mostly in hiding. Human rights activists fear what lies in wait for those detained.

"The national security apparatus has a long history of ill-treatment and torture of people in detention," said Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch. "We are calling for them to be charged or released immediately, and for the government to provide access to counsel and family."

Student activists have yet to receive the broad popular support that propelled the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

"Sudan is unlikely to be the next regime to fall," said Wolfram Lacher, a Sudan researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Student protests have occurred before in Khartoum and are not a precursor to wider popular unrest."

Yet after Egypt, no one can give a firm prophecy. Henry described the situation as unpredictable. Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said it remained to be seen whether "the right equation is present in Khartoum" to spark an uprising as in Egypt or Tunisia.

Bashir's acceptance of Southern Sudan's referendum results drew praise from world leaders, who'd pressed for the vote under a U.S.-backed 2005 peace deal that ended decades of conflict between the Arab-ruled north and African south.

The U.S. now will fulfill its promise to the Sudanese government to begin the review aimed at removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Sen. John Kerry, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday.

The review's results "will be dictated by Sudanese actions and the requirements of U.S. law, but I am extremely hopeful that just as north and south Sudan have embarked on a new relationship, Khartoum is attempting to redefine its relationship with the United States and the rest of the international community," his statement read.

Even with the potential diplomatic gains, the split is economically painful for the north. Besides one-third of Sudan's land, the seceding south is taking with it 80 percent of Sudan's oil reserves, Khartoum's biggest source of revenue.

Anticipating rough times ahead — compounded by falling foreign currency reserves and a mountain of debt — the government enacted austerity measures in early January, including reduced food and fuel subsidies. Prices soared.

Then Tunisia happened.

Hummaida said the protesters were regrouping and changing their tactics. Realizing that Facebook and text messages are easily infiltrated, they plan on organizing through covert leaflet distribution and surprising the security services with new gathering points.

A website set up to track the protests on Google Maps using reports sent from the ground now asks Sudanese not to send direct text messages or unencrypted e-mails, explaining that they aren't safe.

On Sunday, three main youth activist groups put out a defiant statement vowing that the protests would continue.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues).

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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