As in other areas in the world, the east African nation of Sudan is facing government shortfalls in a depressed economy. Sudan has endured nearly forty years of perpetual war between an Islamic majority in the north and an indigenous and Christianized minority in the south. Last summer the Republic of South Sudan seceded, taking with it much of the wealth from oil and mineral reserves. The economic aftershocks continue to rock the country.
Citizens in northern Sudan used to enjoy generous government subsidies, including assistance with food and fuel costs. But with the loss of wealth from the oil fields, such subsidies have been cut off in recent months. The nation has always struggled economically, but trends appear to be worsening. Sudan is now denying social services and government assistance to university students and citizens who have been reliant on state aid.
As a result, the first wave of widespread protests in twenty years are erupting. The Sudanese are increasingly voicing opposition to the militarization and corruption of their government. Ideals and strategies from the Arab Spring are being adapted to the circumstances of this relatively impoverished and war-ravaged population.
For instance, one recent protest campaign has taken to the streets with the proverbial injunction to “lick your elbow,” or to achieve an impossible task. The campaign alludes to defiant comments by Nafi Ali Nafi, the vice-president of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP): “If anyone dares to hit the streets and attempt to remove the regime, the day they lick their elbows is the day they will topple the regime.”
On June 29 protesters participated in large public marches and “licked their elbows” to demonstrate their resolve to achieve the supposedly impossible. Protesters are demanding changes in the direction of their country’s leadership and a more democratic future.
There are historical reasons to think their actions may lead to change. Sudan’s 1964 and 1985 revolutions were both precipitated by citizen protests. In 1963 20-year-old student activist Ahmad al-Qurashi was shot by security forces, sparking widespread public unrest and eventually the overthrow of the government, led by General El Ferik Ibrahim Abboud. In 1985, after widespread pubic unrest, then-President Jafer Numeri was deposed.
Online activism has played a key role in organizing the recent student-led anti-austerity protests which have spread throughout the nation.
In a statement to Ahram Online via email, Dalia Al-Haj Omar, a spokeswoman for the Girifna opposition movement, announced:
“We’re calling on the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to step down.”
Girifna, an opposition youth group, published a story on its website in tribute to their activists: “Khartoum University: Heartbeat of the Sudanese Revolution.” One Sudanese student, Usamah Mohd (Twitter handle @simsimt), posted advice about how to organize activists and engage security forces. After Al-Jazeera aired an interview with Mohd, in which he detailed the use of social networking to garner sympathy and support for protesters, he was arrested. He has been detained since June 22.
Current demands call for representative government reorganization, progressive civil liberties including women’s rights, the release of political prisoners, the reform of religious extremism, freedom of the press, and inflation control.
Many young organizers have decried the lavishness of Sudan’s military spending in light of the discontinuation of student aid and essential social services including food subsidies. They blame Sudan’s financial problems and isolation on the brutal and relentless military campaigns against the southern region. Despite the separation of the regions into two countries, fighting continues over border disputes and how to share oil revenues.
Many Sudanese believe that the brutality of the al-Bashir government contributed to the nation splitting in two. Bashir has been in power for the past 23 years. His regime purports to be a democratic republic but is ultimately authoritarian, with the NCP in control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government.
Bashir has also been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. He has never been arrested or placed in custody in The Hague to answer the charges for facilitating a race-based and oil-driven genocide.
On June 30, on the 23rd anniversary of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party, students and political organizers led a general strike in protest against the military regime. Since then, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread arrests, the beating of protestors, and indiscriminate use of rubber bullets and occasionally live ammunition.
No deaths have yet been reported. Thus far, government forces have responded to the student-led demonstrations with a measure of restraint. Whether they will continue to do so remains to be seen. In the meantime, students and activists continue to fight against austerity.
For more information, see:
Protesters Reject Cutbacks – NYTimes.com
Sudan’s Protests – The Middle East Channel
Sudan protesters aim to elbow out Bashir – Features – Al Jazeera English