NAIROBI — Over the past week, Sudan has seen its most serious protests in almost three decades. Demonstrations over rising prices after the government decided to lift fuel subsidies have mutated into riots, and dozens of people have died. The streets have calmed, but analysts say that this could be a turning point for the ruling party and longtime President Omar al-Bashir.
The protests started a week ago in one town, but quickly spread to others and the capital, Khartoum, where protesters torched vehicles, gas stations, police buildings and hurled stones at security forces.
The protests are seen as the greatest challenge to Bashir’s rule since he came to power in a 1989 military coup.
Sudanese historian and author Douglas Johnson says Sudan hasn’t seen such protests since two governments were toppled in the 1960s and 1980s.
Johnson says the fact that protests have spread beyond Khartoum is important.
“I don’t know if they’re being coordinated, but that is an indication of a rising sea of discontent. What you’ve got to have in Sudan for this to be successful is one, you have to have a public that has nothing left to fear - and I think we’re beginning to see that - and two, you’ve got to see a loss of morale in security services. I don’t know if you’ve seen that yet, but those two combined are what brought down the two previous military governments in ’64 and '85," said Johnson.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, rebel commander Malik Agar, whose forces in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan have allied with rebels in the Darfur region, said the hike in fuel prices was the last straw for a beleaguered people.
“My perception is that these demos are not going to stop. They are going to go ahead, and I think the people of the Sudan are fed up with the misadministration of the system, they are economically tied and they are even at the stage of economic suffocation. Whether they go for demo or whether they don’t, they are going to suffer more and more," said Agar.
A Sudanese woman in Khartoum, who requested confidentiality for fear of reprisals, told VOA that the government had closed schools for a month to punish youths, who make up the bulk of protesters.
Witnesses in Khartoum say security forces have also rounded up and detained an estimated 1,000 people, while press advocate Reporters Without Borders has documented a crackdown on media, says the group's Africa spokesperson, Clea Kahn-Sriber.
“The very noticeable thing is that there’s been a very strong push to censor all types media. So, newspapers have been closed, TV stations have been closed, journalists have been arrested and interrogated, and in all that we can kind of see the fragility of the
Islam Al-Tayeb, a Sudanese analyst for the international Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, says the lack of credible opposition parties offering a political alternative to Bashir could dampen the revolutionary spirit.
She also says that after being ruled by one man for 25 years, many Sudanese people are wary of joining protests, and believe that they won’t receive outside help for a “Sudan spring” by regional or international players that have either abandoned or alienated Khartoum.
But the death toll has shocked many into action.
“The risk is high, and the mobilization is serious. And the problem this time also is the crackdown has led to the deaths of many Sudanese and right now many of the demands that people were calling for have changed, from economic to political demands, and calling for the removal of the regime, which many consider [to] have their hands covered in blood," said Al-Tayeb.
Al-Tayeb says that the government would sacrifice President Bashir to maintain control of the country, but only if risks and demands grow significantly, and if more boots take to the streets.