This article titled “‘Change in people’s hearts’: Sudan at a crossroads as Bashir protests rumble on” was written by Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum and Peter Beaumont, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th January 2019 18.28 Asia/Kolkata
Surrounded by brown hills close to the Ethiopian border, the town of El-Gadarif is an unremarkable place. A centre for the trade in sorghum and sesame, it is dominated by its huge Russian-built grain silos.
Four weeks ago, however, the eastern Sudanese town was thrust into the spotlight when it became a centre for protests against the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
Locals say those initial protests comprised largely of secondary school pupils who converged on one of the town’s main markets to voice their anger over a sharp cut to the subsidy for bread. “Hungry people!” they chanted, and “You dancer!”– a mocking reference to Bashir, who often dances at public occasions.
The hubbub of voices was soon drowned out by the crack of gunfire as security forces gunned down 10 protesters, three of them children.
What followed would be significant not only for El-Gadarif, but for the entire country. The next day, townspeople inflamed by the regime’s vicious response turned their fury on offices of the ruling National Congress party and the intelligence services.
In less than a week, the protests had spread from rural centres like El-Gadarif to Sudan’s major cities, exposing a widespread desire for an end to 75-year-old Bashir’s harsh rule.
“The murder of innocent people and children turned the anger against the government,” said Jaafar Khidir, a long-time member of the Sudanese opposition in El-Gadarif. “People came out to protest spontaneously.”
“There was change in people’s hearts,” added Khidir, who has been arrested four times since the beginning of the protests. “Now I expect to be taken into custody at any time.”
Since those initial protests in December, more than 40 demonstrators have been killed nationwide, right groups say, some reportedly shot by the Rapid Support Forces, a government militia. Hundreds more have been injured.
Activists have also been detained in towns and cities across this vast country, often by the intelligence and security services, notorious for their documented abuses and use of torture.
On Thursday, security forces deployed in numbers in the capital, Khartoum, as demonstrators threatened to march on Bashir’s palace. Simultaneous protests were called in 11 other towns and cities, including Atbara, another cradle of the current movement.
The protests may appear to have come from nowhere, but in reality Sudan’s instability has long been prefigured.
Bashir, who took power after leading a military coup in 1989, has survived conflict, protests, years of US-led sanctions and even pursuit by the international criminal court for alleged genocide in Darfur. What is different this time is that the constellation of problems facing the country is having an impact even on the elites who have long supported him.
Two million people are internally displaced, corruption is widespread and mismanagement rife. The country is in the grip of a long-running economic crisis that has its roots in the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and the loss of oil reserves to the new and troubled southern state. Spiralling inflation has hit Sudan’s embattled middle-classes. A cut in the subsidy for bread – the proximate cause of protests in place like El-Gadarif – was merely the spark that ignited deep-seated anger and desperation.
Cracks have appeared on the political front. Bashir faces mounting discontent within his ruling party as well as dissatisfaction in areas in the country’s riverine north, once considered his stronghold.
Another feature is the use of social media. Activists have actively documented confrontations and flooded social media with footage that they claim is “exposing” Bashir’s government.
Observers say the protests have united people from different tribes and ethnicities. Women have joined in, even as the protests escalated into bloody confrontations. Dressed in headscarves, they can be seen in nearly all the footage shared on social media, which in turn has helped to convince even more women to take to the streets.
All of which has led some, including Hafiz Ismail, an analyst at Justice Africa Sudan, to argue that the demonstrations are likely to have sustained momentum.
“The protests won’t stop,” Ismail said, “because the regime doesn’t have any solution for the problem, which is as much political as economic”.
Ismail expects the regime to offer concessions – as happened after protests in 2013 – but said they may not go far enough for Bashir’s opponents.
Particularly problematic for the regime has been the involvement of the Sudanese Professionals Association, a new and broad movement, representing middle-class professions, that has spearheaded the protests, stepping into the vacuum created by the arrest of many opposition leaders.
Mohammed Yousif al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the association and professor at Khartoum University, and a relative of the president, described the moment he realised that the burgeoning protest movement had created a new reality.
“We can’t be behind the people,” he said. “People would laugh at us if we stuck to our position of handing a memorandum to the parliament and asking for a raise in the minimum wage. Our position is opposing the regime and its policies.”
Which raises the question: what next?
“The longer the protests go on, the more violence and abuses we might see the Sudanese government use,” said Jehanne Henry, of Human Rights Watch. “The government uses the same sorts of tactics every time there are protests. The risk is that it will get bloodier.”
Experts are divided about likely outcomes. The International Crisis Group suggested three potential scenarios in a recent briefing paper.
“One is that the president survives, though without funds to offer protesters significant reforms, he will likely have to subdue them by force,” said the group. “A second scenario could see protests gathering pace and prompting the president’s ousting by elements within his party or security elites … A third scenario would see Bashir resign. This would allow for a leadership change that could mollify protesters.”
For Henry, the outcome hinges on the regime’s response. “The key question is how much the government feels it is facing an existential threat, and that is hard to predict.”
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