The First Hints of Violence Set Back Sudan's Beleaguered Protest Movement

After months of scattered but peaceful demonstrations, Sudanese security forces have attacked protesters for the first time, killing at least six.

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Protestors burn tires in Khartoum. (Activist, via AP)

The six-week-old movement sometimes called the "Sudan Revolts," a series of ongoing protests against President Omar al-Bashir's government, experienced their first lethal incident on July 31. According to an A.P. report, the violence began when over 1000 students and transportation workers marched through Nyala, the largest city in the troubled western region of Darfur. They were protesting the nearly bankrupt government's suspension of fuel subsidies, which had doubled the price of gasoline. Radio Dabanga, a citizen journalism project covering events in Darfur, reported that the protestors threw rocks, marched on government media offices, and burned police and gas stations. In response, the police attacked them with tear gas and live ammunition. The A.P. reported the same from Cairo, citing sources in the area.

Representatives of the activist groups Girifna and Sudan Change Now claimed that 12 people were killed, including six primary school students and a 17-year-old girl; the A.P.'s version of events has seven killed, according to its sources; Reuters, citing local officials, has six. Although there are conflicting accounts of the incident, activists say that some of the victims had gunshot wounds in the head and upper body. "For six weeks in Khartoum they were using live ammunition, but they never targeted it at the heads and chests of protestors," says U.S.-based Girfna activist Azaz Shami. In Nyala, she suggests, "they were just trying to kill them. They were not just trying to diffuse the demonstration. They were actually trying to kill them." A Sudan-based activist who goes by the alias Mighty Mo echoed Shami in an email. "The shots were direct shots, i.e. not riot control. This was more cold-blooded," he told me.

The Sudanese government's response to this new activist movement, a decentralized and leaderless effort that has orchestrated persistent but so far ineffective protests in and around Khartoum (and in more distant parts of the country, such as Niyala and Port Sudan), has in general been tactical and restrained. Bashir's regime is dealing with protracted ethnic warfare in its polyglot southern and western frontiers. The Bashir government's brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in the regions of Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile have earned widespread international condemnation. But its policy towards unarmed protestors has been decidedly less severe, and some analysts suspect that the government, which is comprised of and largely serves the ethnically Arab elites that live around the Nile River, fears an eruption in the capital of Khartoum.

"The government has made it a specific policy and order to the police and to intelligence not to kill a single protester," claimed Ahmed Kodouda, a Sudan analyst who I spoke to a few days before the incident in Nyala. "They do not want a martyr around whom people can rally." There have been other signs of caution as well: in mid-July, the government released 12 prominent anti-regime activists who had faced potential death sentences.

Still, the crackdown against activists has been brutal, as evidenced by Yousif al-Mahdi's searing account of his experiences while a prisoner of the government's intelligence services. And Girifina has been hard-hit. "We're rebuilding our reporting network, because so many of us have been detained," says Shami. The government has refrained from escalating their confrontation with the disorganized and seemingly contained protest movement. It is unclear whether the government ordered the killings in Nyala. If it did, the Nyala incident could reflect an increased sense of urgency in suppressing the protests.

Nyala is in the south of Darfur, a region whose conflicts seem very distant from Khartoum. This distance between Sudan's center and its periphery -- and the previously violent tensions between them -- may have been a significant factor in the development of the protest movement. So far, the protests have focused on the government's austerity measures, says Kodouda. "The number one thing that's resonating with people has been austerity," he said he's found in his research. "There has been a failure of the messaging of the protestors to link it beyond people's pocketbooks. The broader question of the war in Darfur or the conflicts in the south, those are as foreign to your average middle-class Sudanese in Khartoum as the war in Afghanistan [is to Americans]." Sudan's problems aren't solely economic in nature. Sudan is internationally sanctioned and diplomatically isolated, and the country is riven with ethnic and regional divisions that Bashir's government has exploited since seizing power in a 1989 coup.

In a way, the protest movement reflects a larger split in the Sudanese polity: protesters seem to come from the urban middle class, students, and other groups most likely to be pinched by Sudan's economic crisis, according to Kodouda. Sudan is mired in a deep economic trough, partly thanks to a (possibly resolved) dispute over oil revenues with neighboring South Sudan, which culminated with the South's decision to shut down its oil infrastructure last February. And Bashir was recently in Qatar, asking for an extension in repaying a $2 billion loan.

But the movement seems to have so far failed to engage the more dispossessed sectors of society that are less directly affected by austerity. "Most of the people living in Khartoum are marginalized," says Shami. "Most of them won't go to demonstrations because they don't have the ability to organize themselves and I think they would be afraid to do so."

Mohammed Nur, a Khartoum-based doctor and civil society activist who has worked in western Sudan, told me he suspects that the regime and its supporters dread an organized or credible movement among people from the country's peripheral regions, such as Nyala. "The people of Khartoum and generally of the riverine areas ... are always afraid that the substitute of the regime will be the new political forces of the marginalized regions," he wrote in an email.

The Nyala incident is a case in point: the protestors were urbanites and students, people who, despite the regime's claims to contrary, were almost certainly unrelated to the militant movement that is fighting the government elsewhere in Darfur. But they were also Darfurians, potentially making them both dangerous and disposable from the regime's perspective.

Back in Khartoum, protests are still limited in scope, organization, and ambition. The government could still be in trouble, though: austerity measures have hit civil service salaries, tripled the price of electricity, and doubled the price of gas, although this is bound to change after the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments' recent agreement on oil revenues re-open their energy trade. Before the deal with the South, Bashir's government was frantically building its gold reserves in the hope of finding something other than oil to anchor the struggling Sudanese pound. And the oil deal hardly rescues the Khartoum government. It could reportedly take up to a year for South Sudan's oil production to reach its pre-shutoff rates, while the agreement entitles Khartoum to only about a third of the $30-a-barrel transit fees it sought after the South seceded in mid-2011.

Although protests continue, prospects for the regime's near-term collapse are slim. The Sudanese regime is comprised of three main interest groups, Kodouda wrote in a column for Al Jazeera: Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP), the Islamists, and the military. "If the military were to topple the government, it would be kicking the two other entities out from power," he elaborated to me. "That will never happen unless the protests escalate and we see masses and masses of people on the streets. I don't think the protest movement as it's constituted can do that."

And even if it could, the Nyala massacre is a violent reminder that the regime, whose president and defense minister have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, would go quietly. "The NCP is a party grounded on ethnic and religious ideology," Nur wrote in an email. "It will never, ever go on a cheap cost."