For the second time in less than a month, the streets of Khartoum and other Sudanese urban areas went largely silent on December 19, 2016.
Images of empty offices, shuttered shops, vacant construction sites and deserted parks circulated on social media. The Sudanese people were standing up to a regime that has held onto power for twenty-seven years but this time, instead of gathering in the streets in protest, they demonstrated their discontent by refusing to leave their homes — and for good reason.
Under the decades-long rule of President Omar al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur — the Sudanese economy has suffered greatly. The government’s latest announcement of austerity measures, which have led to an unbearable increase in the price of many basic goods, including medicine, were a bitter blow to the Sudanese people, half of whom live under the poverty line. After similar measures in September 2013 led to civil unrest and a brutal response from the government’s security forces, which killed as many as 170 protesters, people were understandably weary of engaging in street demonstrations.
Using Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp and organizing under various hashtags including #SudanCivilDisobedience and #Dec19Disobedience, young Sudanese activists, who were mostly unaffiliated with any of the major opposition groups in the country, urged their fellow citizens to stand up to the government without risking their lives.
By the time the first round of three-day civil disruptions began on November 27, authorities had already arrested dozens of activists, who had publicly spoken out against the austerity measures and seized every copy of three opposition newspapers reporting on the events.
While the government used rhetoric aiming to undermine the movement’s success, it had the opposite effect. As political opposition groups, prominent individuals, and even some armed rebel groups in Sudan threw their support behind the grassroots, nonviolent movement, authorities escalated their crackdown, reportedly detaining more than forty opposition figures, civil society actors, and journalists and shutting down two newspaper dailies and a television station in Khartoum.
As the movement continued to gain momentum on social media, President al-Bashir’s seemingly nonchalant attitude began to crack. In a public address before a crowd in the eastern Sudanese city of Kassala on December 12, al-Bashir declared that his government would not be toppled by those hiding behind their keyboards.
“You hear about those who seek to defeat you through the keyboard and the WhatsApp… I won’t hand over the country to them,” he said, as reported by the Sudan Tribune. “And I say to them: If you want to topple the regime, meet us on the streets, however, we are certain that you won’t take to the streets because you are aware of what had occurred in the past.”
Initial reports about the reach and effectiveness of the civil strike on December 19 vary. One thing is clear, however. Al-Bashir’s regime, which has spent its tenure and the majority of its annual budget on war and repressing traditional protest movements, now faces an imaginative movement that is breathing new life into Sudan’s civil society sector and restoring confidence in the power of the majority.
As many Sudanese Twitter users expressed online, this is just the beginning.