Following the Sudanese government’s decision last year to cut subsidies and raise fuel costs, protesters took to the streets in various cities across the country.
The strength of these demonstrations subsided during the months that followed, but renewed austerity measures and the lifting of fuel subsidies last month have pushed people back onto the streets in even larger numbers, across a variety of community sectors, for many more reasons.
Since 23 September, Sudan has become a scene of violence against peaceful protesters demanding change and basic rights. The government and police have responded with tear gas and live bullets and, according to Amnesty International, have in the last two weeks killed more than 200 people and arrested over 1,000.
Considering the government’s long history of abusing and killing its citizens – in the terrifying South Sudan war, in Kgabar, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, Niyala and Abyay, not to mention the ongoing genocide throughout the western region – this behaviour is nothing new. The joke, though, is how governmental representatives have responded to media enquiries about the situation: with contradictory, nonsensical stories.
Rabee Abdel Ati, a consultant for the Ministry of Information and government spokesperson, has been at the helm of this silly speech game. During an interview with the Arabia channel about the situation in Sudan, he told off the presenter for interrupting him and then accused her and her guest of being like ‘an elephant in labour of a rat’ (whatever that may mean).
Then came Ahmed Balal Osman, Minister of the Interior, who, in a press conference, forgot his manners while replying to a journalist’s question about demonstrators who had been shot, telling him that he needed a bit of ‘school discipline’. All of this is not surprising, considering that the big boss, Omar al-Bashir, is leading the show with a speech where he announced that there are no crises as the government has introduced hot dogs and pizza to the nation. This pizza and hot dog speech was used to justify the current economic crisis and future government strategies at a press conference last month.
Compared with past demonstrations, however, it’s quite promising to see how the current movement has triggered a strong reaction, not only among the middle class, social media activists and university students, but also at the grassroots level: across neighbourhoods, markets and public areas. Citizens of various age groups and professions have joined together in calling for the toppling of the government and demanding justice for their loved ones who have been shot dead by government forces.
These protests are also helping on an institutional level, reactivating and linking professional unions that have been paralyzed since the current regime took power in 1989. Lawyers, doctors, teachers and journalists have all signed a statement supporting the demonstrations and condemning the violence used by the government against peaceful protest.
Diaspora communities have shown support, holding fundraising events in many countries, primarily in Europe. London alone hosted three large events in the last few weeks.
While looking at the current situation in Sudan with cautious optimism, I do wonder what might happen if reform takes longer than expected or hoped. The continued violence against protesters and citizens might lead groups to take up weapons in self-defence or join groups already armed. As a result, civil war could be a possible scenario, washing away dreams of peace any time soon.
I am also thinking about possible challenges after the political battle against the ruling National Congress Party is won. It is worrying to observe some protesters trying to impose their personal beliefs on others – telling women what to wear, expressing anger through derogatory, homophobic and sexist remarks, and adopting a hardline Islamized attitude and speech in media and on the streets. Strong personal judgments still influence how the Sudanese community treats ‘others’, especially vulnerable groups and minority sectors, including LGBTI people, women and non-Muslims.
Much work is needed in terms of challenging social and cultural discriminatory norms long taken for granted. This will pave the way for real civil values to emerge. Political and economic changes are, without a doubt, the major priorities in Sudan right now, but they should be coupled with a parallel social and cultural shift, or an ‘enlightenment’ campaign – as I like to call it – to help create the civil society we all hope for.