Events of the Last Month: June-July 2012
The June 16 protests at the University of Khartoum led to similar events at the University’s various colleges and at other universities nationwide. Because of the protests’ unprecedented success, other (non-student) members of society joined the demonstrations. On “Sandstorm Friday”, June 22, 2012, citizens were called upon to congregate in mosques and take to the streets after Friday prayers. The mobilization efforts were successful, and a long day of mass protests ensued lasting well into the night across Khartoum and other cities throughout Sudan, such as El-Obeid and Port Sudan.
In the ensuing two weeks, the momentum continued with several other themed protests (‘Elbow Licking Friday’ on June 29th and ‘Outcast Friday’ on July 6th). On the international level, the Sudanese diaspora in many countries organized solidarity demonstrations. Worldwide protests were scheduled for June 30th, marking the 23rd anniversary of the NCP’s coup d’état and challenging the usual celebrations held by the Party. The most notable of these global protests took place in London, attended by an estimated 1000 people.
The last of the large protests during the first month came on July 16th when hundreds of lawyers from the Khartoum Criminal Court marched to the presidential palace to submit a memorandum urging President al-Bashir to order an end to violence against the protesters and an immediate release of detainees. The lawyers displayed placards denouncing violations of law and human rights by police and security services and chanted slogans calling for the restoration of democracy and regime change. Lawyers in the western region of Darfur held a similar protest outside the house of South Darfur state’s governor.
Far from the scale of Tahrir Square, the protests in Sudan have been relatively small in size, leading to frustrations that the revolution may be stillborn. The government response to the protests has been swift, involving tactics ranging in brutality in order to quickly dissipate the formation of a large, coordinated movement. Demonstrators have responded with a concerted effort to evade and wear out the disproportionate security response in the hopes of gradually building momentum. The struggle for traction has, however, been an uphill battle.
Challenges Facing the Movement
The security response has played a pivotal role in stifling the protests’ momentum. The government has deployed several containment measures ranging from the use of riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and, in a few cases, live ammunition. Retaliation by security forces has been indiscriminate and unrestrained, with attacks on mosques and homes, particularly in the Wad Nubawi district where protests have been the strongest.
Over the past month, the NISS has tracked down and arrested scores of activists, individuals involved in mobilizing the protests, and political figures. While exact numbers are difficult to verify, the Sudanese Commission for the Protection of Rights and Freedoms estimates that approximately 2000 people have been detained. The vast majority of those arrested are being held without charge and due process.
Lack of judicial oversight over the NISS’s activities is particularly concerning. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a joint call for urgent action demanding the unconditional release of Sudanese activists, including citizen journalist and blogger Usamah Mohamed, GIRIFNA member Rashida Shams al-Din, and now released student activist Mohammed Salah, all of whom were being held incommunicado.
Testimony given by released detainees confirms the use of multiple torture methods, including electrocution. Anonymous testimony from one ex-detainee details his abduction by plain-clothed officers “on suspicion” of participating in protests. Although he was, in fact, attending a wedding ceremony with friends, he was transferred to a NISS building where he was beaten to the point of vomiting and loss of consciousness. His torture was so severe (he was at one point threatened at gunpoint) that he was released by the NISS for fear he would “die on their hands”. Following release, he sought medical treatment but was turned away from hospitals under a standing directive from the NISS forbidding hospitals to attend to protestors. As confirmed by the Sudanese Committee of Doctors and Vice Specialists, the NISS prevented the provision of medical aid to protestors and intercepted ambulances carrying the injured to hospitals.
Several of those detained in cities throughout Sudan, including in Gedarif, Atbara, and Medani, have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their detention and demand their right to due process. In some cases, the NISS has fabricated charges against activists, referring them to court. These cases include that of Magdi Akasha and GIRIFNA activist Rudwan Dawod. Akasha was released on July 2 but charged with attempted murder. Dawod, whose eight-month pregnant wife was recently interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulous, was arrested along with his father and now PTSD-stricken 18 year old brother on July 3. Faced with charges of terrorism that, if proven, could have led to the death penalty, Dawod’s case was dismissed as “ridiculous” by the presiding judge on August 13, 2012. Flouting the rule of law, the NISS immediately rearrested Dawod outside the courtroom.
Arguably, the lack of coordination and absence of a centralized leadership body have been the greatest constraints on the Sudanese demonstrations. The heavy security crackdown has severely hindered efforts to form a centralized youth leadership to manage the movement. While this lack of centralization has allowed activists to operate under the NISS’s radar, questions remain as to how successful the current, uncoordinated revolt can be. Centralized leadership may be the only viable way of credibly challenging the NCP’s stronghold.
Sudan’s Opposition Parties
Sudanese opposition parties have further complicated matters. While traditionally these parties should have played an instrumental role in organizing mobilization, Sudan’s opposition groups are weak and fragmented.
On July 4, 2012, these groups signed the Democratic Alternative Charter (DAC), a document that unequivocally supports regime change and outlines how the country should be governed after the government’s ouster. The actions of these opposition groups, however, tell a different story. Unsure of the prospects for success, these parties have not taken a definitive stance on the revolt and have instead opted to remain on the fence until the outcome of these events become clear. Understandably, this approach has angered protestors.
Two opposition parties that have historically enjoyed the largest support, the National Umma (NUP) and Democratic Unionist (DUP) parties, fear the political landscape has changed and lack confidence that their followings are sufficiently unified to rally behind the protest movement. In addition, both groups have developed beneficial ties to the regime they seem unwilling to risk. The DUP is a minority member of the current government. Chairman of the Umma Party, Sadiq Al Mahdi, whose eldest son is an assistant to President al-Bashir, has been openly critical of the regime but has called for reform rather than confrontation, fearing the likelihood of Syrian-like bloodshed and instability.
The oppositions’ apparent ineffectiveness is in no small part due to regime efforts to divide these parties and other organized groups perceived as political threats. As a result, the Sudanese opposition is characterized by archaic parties and youth groups with little to no political inclination or experience. With the aid of the regime’s propaganda machine, many have come to question the credibility of the opposition.
Internal dissent against these parties and their decades-long dominance by older generations has long festered and may have now risen to the surface. Large swaths of opposition party members, especially among the youth, have chosen to align themselves with the current revolt while rebuking their parties’ lack of support.
The oppositions’ disengagement might eventually prove to benefit the movement, given the public’s lack of confidence and mistrust of its polarized leaders. While most people are hesitant to take to the streets for reasons of safety, with these leaders in mind, many have justified their reluctance to join the movement with one question: ‘who is the alternative?’
In Sudan, it is not “who” but “what” alternative is possible. Democratic change is not simply a matter of exchanging one dictator for another, but rather requires changing the entire system of governance. It is not Omar al-Bashir who brought Sudan to where it is now, but rather a sequence of failures and fraudulent policies from a government ill-equipped to run the country. It is this system that has brought Sudan 3 new wars, a bankrupt economy, a dismal education and health system, political detainees, internally displaced people, and tense relations with its neighbors.
The alternatives to this broken system should not be feared as they could not possibly bring worse consequences to the country. The Sudanese people must think outside the box and understand that, just as the current movement for change has been ignited by the people, so to can the solution.
Sudan is blessed with a high caliber of politically neutral professionals with the skills to create an alternative system during a transitional government. During this period, a caretaker government serves the needs of the country and helps lay the foundation for the nation’s democratic future. As Sudanese history has shown, transitional periods are a consistent feature of revolutions.