In the Face of Authoritarianism, a New Opposition Grows in Sudan
The last year has seen a number of protests against authoritarian regimes on the African continent, and in many cases the anger of the masses has become impossible for dictators to ignore. The current protests taking place in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, started from a frustration with austerity measures such as raising bread prices almost 300 percent. Similar to what happened in 2013, the ongoing protests have now become a concern to the presidency of Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese president, considered by many as a dictator, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Since the end of the conflict with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/A) in 2005, the human rights situation has not improved in Sudan. Freedom of expression remains extremely limited, as the ongoing protests make apparent. Newspapers such as Al-Tayar, Al-Mustagilla, Al-Karar, Al-Midan, Al-Assayha and Akhbar Al-Watan that report about the protests or are critical of the regime have been confiscated and several journalists have been detained. Along with local journalists, international reporters from Reuters and AFP have also been arrested. The arbitrary arrests of protesters, journalists, activists, and civilians only galvanized public anger.
Zahul Werner, a young Sudanese engineer I spoke to, says this is a common story in Sudan. Her father, Ismail Adam Hamid, was arrested in one of the January protests and has not been released. Detained in an unknown location, Ismail is not allowed to contact his close ones and Zahul is worried about her father’s condition because the “NISS [National Intelligence and Secret Services] is known for brutal methods and violence against civilians in protests…they have used tear gas and batons to disperse the protesters against price hikes. They have beaten and tortured others and it is not a secret that they have murdered others for expressing their opinions,” she said. This type of violence is not new. The 2013 protests resulted in the death of almost 170 people and the arbitrary arrests of nearly 800 protesters.
Zahul believes that despite risks of being arrested and the impunity enjoyed by the NISS, protests will continue. “People might be afraid to express their opinions openly, but it is not as great as their fear to lose their voices.”
It is not only growing frustration that’s making these protests stronger, but also the rising role of social media. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, grassroots opposition movements and parties are not only given a platform on which they can spread information, they can also communicate and organize, as the January 31 mass protests exemplified. According to Ahmed, another student I interviewed, social media is giving them a democratic space that does not exist in the “real world.” News that would otherwise be silenced by the regime can now be spread, thereby increasing awareness of the situation in Sudan and abroad, including in the diaspora. The platform is accessible to anyone who has access to a smartphone or computer—even marginalized groups now have a possibility to speak about the injustices they face.
The current state of politics has resulted in new, creative and non-traditional modes of demands for change, wherein previously unseen and unheard groups are given a pivotal role. Indeed the new opposition movements at the forefront of the latest protests consist to a large degree of women and youth. Even without al-Bashir’s crack down on protesters, these marginalized groups would be unlikely to participate in politics due to the social structure of the country that severely limits the capacity of young people and women in particular to be politically active. Despite laws that demand gender equality and a minimum of 25 percent women in parliament, equality is not a reality. For example, the Sudanese constitution includes a much-debated family law that states that women need permission from their husband to work outside of the home. Discriminatory laws like these are often hidden behind Sharia law, a law that is virtually impossible to criticize without facing consequences.
The nepotistic selection of ministers has also resulted in a leadership largely consisting of older men. Most of the time, however, women and youth are the ones who suffer most from policies such as austerity measures. As a result, the demonstrations have grown beyond protests against the government’s austerity measures. Women and youth want to renegotiate their space by demanding more freedom and respect for basic human rights.
A concern voiced by Ahmed and other youth participating in the protest is the risk of stagnation. Should protesters be successful in forcing al-Bashir out—we just need to look at Ethiopia and Zimbabwe to know that this is a possibility—the Arab Spring showed the limits of protests and social media once the time has come to set up a proper government and agree on policies. Similarly, the world unanimously celebrated when Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe stepped down after 37 years in power yet the old guard remains in place and we have yet to see will to bring drastic change in the country. As the Arab Spring showed, the vacuum left by ousted leaders was filled by new dictators or weak governments that have not transformed the hope of the protesters into realities. The question is therefore how these new opposition movements can be included in politics, should the government fall.