How Sudan used the Internet to crush protest movement

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2011 

WORLD NEWS SUDAN-PROTESTS MCT

25-year-old Mohammed Adil says he was arrested on Jan. 30 by Sudanese security forces after participating in anti-government protests.

ALAN BOSWELL — Alan Boswell/MCT

KHARTOUM, Sudan — It was the night of March 20, and Ahmad spoke with the anxious urgency of a man on the run.

In February, the young Sudanese hip-hop artist, who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons, had fled Khartoum, the capital, after a 12-day detention that included beatings by police.

Now he was back, arriving discreetly by bus from the nation's hinterlands, and waiting furtively for his contact to find out the details of a planned protest, which he'd then pass to his cell of activists.

Before, these instructions would have been sent by text message or email. Not anymore.

"We don't talk over phones much now," he explained.

In Sudan, the "Arab spring" that's shaken most other Arab countries feels like a grim wintry chill. Protests have been dispersed quickly under the heavy hand of security forces. Scores of demonstrators and suspected ringleaders have been imprisoned. The movement has failed to garner broad popular support.

Faced with a clear opening-round defeat, the movement is doing something that questions the assumptions about the role of social media in enabling the Arab revolts: It's going old school, revolutionary-style, and shunning many of the technologies that are credited with mobilizing the other uprisings.

Through a network of carefully vetted small cell groups — each knowing only what it has to — activists now pass messages face to face in secure locations. The identities of members of the core leadership team are carefully guarded, kept secret even from most of the movement's members.

They're settling in for the long haul, an acknowledgement that revolutions are rarely as spontaneous as they may appear on TV.

The young people here have learned that technology can be a dangerous, double-edged sword.

Facebook and text messages? Compromised. Promoting a protest online? A good way to get everyone arrested.

Cellphones are treated warily now, as are regular email and Internet forums. If activists chat online, they do it in camouflaged forums designed to fly under the radar. Facebook sites are still used to share pictures and video, but with much greater caution.

Sudan's government is led by a dictator who rose to power 22 years ago in an Islamist-led military coup, gave Osama bin Laden a haven, escalated a deadly conflict in the south by declaring it a jihad and countered an insurgency in western Darfur with a bloody, racially tinged crackdown that many have described as genocide. The International Criminal Court has indicted President Omar al Bashir on war crimes charges, and Western diplomats shun him. But his government learned faster than its brother authoritarians elsewhere how to deal with an Internet-based protest movement.

Instead of simply shutting off access to the Internet or cutting off cellphone texting, as other regimes did, the Sudanese security services embraced those tools. They even declared "cyber-jihad" against anti-regime organizers.

Pro-government agents infiltrated anti-government sites, spreading disinformation and looking to triangulate the identities of the chief organizers. They'd barrage Facebook pages with pornography, then report the pages to Facebook for violating the rules.

Protesters abandoned a website they'd launched to gather reports from the ground and map demonstrations online after they realized government agents were using the information.

"Do not use SMS, and do not use the 'Submit a Report' link as these are currently not safe," the site now cautions.

Combined with clever suppression tactics, the crackdown was highly effective.

One popular method of outsmarting the protesters, according to the accounts of multiple eyewitnesses, was to send teams of plain-clothed young security men to the sites of planned protests. These agents would initiate anti-government chants, luring in youths who were waiting nearby for the demonstration to start. Once a small group formed, the unwitting protesters would be led down the street to a trap of police officers.

Once protesters were arrested, the Sudanese security apparatus did its best to scare them away from going back on to the streets.

"It was just basically torture," Ahmad recalled. "None of us could sleep on our backs" because of the beatings. He and other detainees also faced electrocution, lengthy verbal abuse and humiliation, he said. His short, stubby haircut is all that remains of the Afro he once proudly wore — until the police shaved it down the middle.

Always, the security forces remained conscious of the online battlefield.

One young protester, who was detained for 18 days on suspicion of organizing demonstrations, said that security police refused to release him until he gave them access to his Facebook page and email, where they scoured his recent activity and communications. He asked not to be identified for security reasons.

The crackdown was so thorough that it's taken weeks for the movement to regroup, and it's still struggling to get back on its feet.

The protests March 21, which Ahmad had scurried back to Khartoum for, were a bust. The tactic of relaying the details by person, cell to cell, rather than promoting them online seemed to confuse more than it helped. A bitterly disappointed Ahmad was one of fewer than 30 youths who made it to the final meet-up spot for a brief demonstration before scattering.

For the movement, it was back to the drawing board.

On March 31, it announced a new, but old, tactic: the launch of an anti-government shortwave radio program, now on the airwaves, to try to build support for the movement in the rural areas.

They haven't given up on the protests or the power of the Internet for publicity. On Monday, students staged a brief demonstration at the University of Khartoum, then posted the video online.

But Ahmad knows that what the revolution lacks most is numbers.

"It's so sad. I know many people want change, and they need it. But they aren't willing to go out with us," Ahmad said.

The young artist — who raps under a stage pseudonym _hasn't given up on the cause. He and other young musicians have released a politically charged compilation album — a rarity in Sudan's tightly controlled society — and his live performances are filled with not-so-subtle anti-regime rhetoric.

Watching nearby tyrants teeter and fall, he said he was still confident that the tsunami of popular anger would hit Sudan's shores eventually.

"The movement needs to organize itself first, and prepare for that day. Because that day is coming, certainly, and it has to come," he said.

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

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