Protests in Sudan: A primer on the ongoing unrest, two months on

As demonstrations hit the two-month mark, we look at why they differ from those that came before, the reaction from the international community, and the resolutions being proposed.

By: /
February 19, 2019
Sudanese protests
Sudanese demonstrators participate in anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan, on January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Babiker Abdelhamid was inside a makeshift clinic in Khartoum, where he had been treating injured protestors, the day he was shot. It was January 17, during the fifth week of ongoing mass anti-government protests in Sudan.

By the Sudanese government’s count, Abdelhamid was, as of early February, one of 31 protestors who have been killed by security forces. Activists and doctors say that number is well over 50.

Sudan is no stranger to popular uprisings — the country saw waves of protests recently, in 2011, 2012 and 2013. However, observers say these current protests are different. Not only have they swept the entire country, they have also spread across class, religious and ethnic lines, with women and minorities being notably visible in the demonstrations.

The spark

The protests initially began on December 19 in the city of Atbara, north east of the capital, triggered by rising prices in bread.

By December 25, they had escalated into anti-regime protests, with demonstrators borrowing a familiar chant from the Arab Spring: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

In Atbara, “secondary school students went to school and discovered that the prices of bread had tripled over night,” Nisrin Elamin, a PhD student at Stanford University, explained in an interview with OpenCanada. “Very quickly, it became clear that [the protests were] not about bread or even the economic crisis that has been unfolding over the last…several years, but that it was about regime change, and people were demanding that from the very beginning.”

The protests have now reached 15 out of 18 of Sudan’s states, according to Elamin, and analysts are saying they pose the biggest threat the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, and his National Congress Party have seen in his 30-year rule.

Since coming into power in 1989, al-Bashir worked to systemically consolidate power by banning political parties, dissolving parliament and actively muzzling political dissent, through arrests, torture and executions, as recent events demonstrate. His government also worked to systematically ban trade unions, which played a key role in two successful popular uprisings in Sudan — one in 1964 and another in 1985.

This points to why it was significant that these particular protests started in Atbara.

Atbara is known for a strong labour movement and organizing abilities because of its railroad worker base, Elamin explained.

“The big protest in Atbara was extremely symbolic. When people burned the [National Congress Party’s] headquarters, it was a big message [to] the rest of the country that it’s possible to send a signal in that way,” said Yousra Elbagir, a correspondent for the UK’s Channel 4 who has been covering the protests in Khartoum, in an interview with OpenCanada.

The December 25 protests were organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a group of banned unions that includes doctors, engineers and university professors. On January 24, there were more than 30 active protests country-wide. The SPA continues to be the primary force that is organizing protests and reporting on the government reaction.

A swift response

The government’s reaction to the protests since the beginning has been swift and brutal. Amnesty International reported that there were 37 casualties in the first seven days of the protests. The government’s security forces have also arrested over 800 protestors, according to some reports. Arrests have included journalists, lawyers and opposition party leaders. Tear gas has also been regularly used against protestors. The BBC recently conducted an investigation by analyzing videos and images online that found that security forces were committing human rights abuses, including torturing captured protestors.

Doctors and medical professionals in particular have been uniquely targeted, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate.

“Doctors are at the forefront of the protests,” said Elbagir.

“Not only are they treating protestors, they are protesting themselves, so there is a solidarity between medical professionals and people that they’re treating. That’s something that [the security forces] want to dismantle. One doctor said to me, “‘When you cripple the doctors, you cripple the protestors.’”

Al-Bashir has repeatedly rejected accusations that security forces have killed protestors. He specifically denied that they had been responsible for Elamin’s death on January 17, instead claiming that infiltrators in the protests had killed the doctor.

Al-Bashir’s government also tried to blame Darfurians for the unrest, arresting 32 students and allegedly torturing them, according to a report by Radio Dabanga.

“They’ve been targeted and detained in a more disproportional way, and in response people have been chanting in the streets ‘Arrogant racist, we are all Darfur,’” Elamin said.

Elamin said this also speaks to a larger issue regarding the kind of violence and marginalization that communities in Darfur, Blue Nile, Kordofan, which she describes as being in the periphery of Sudan, have been subjected to for decades. The fact that protestors have purposefully included this issue in their list of grievances against the government signals how the conversation around how these communities have been treated in Sudan has come to the forefront.

Al-Bashir and several members of his government were indicted in 2009 and 2010 by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the conflict in Darfur in 2003, but have so far evaded arrest.

Mixed global reaction

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the government for its violent crackdown on protestors. In a statement released on January 17, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern regarding the government’s reaction to the protests.

“I am very concerned about reports of excessive use of force, including live ammunition, by Sudanese State Security Forces during large-scale demonstrations in various parts of the country since 19 December. The government needs to ensure that security forces handle protests in line with the country’s international human rights obligations,” Bachelet said in the statement.

A statement from Canada, the UK, the US and Norway was released in early January, urging the government to release protestors and implement political reform, but beyond the condemnations of the government by human rights organizations, the international community has been fairly quiet on the situation.

Elamin says there may be a reason why some international parties have been quiet — the European Union in particular, she says, has an interest in keeping the current regime in power.

“[The EU has] been funding militias on the northern border with Libya and Egypt to stem migration from Africa. That [money] has just been basically funnelled into the security forces that are now killing protestors,” she said.

“Sudan’s budget has disproportionately been spent on the military, whether it’s to continue these violent, vicious attacks against civilians in Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile areas or to prop up security forces. Part of what people are protesting against is the fact that the national budget has gone to killing rather than educating people or healing them.”

As the protests have continued, al-Bashir has been paying visits to several allies in the region, beginning with Qatar on January 22, where the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani expressed support for Sudan’s “unity and stability.” Al-Bashir also paid a visit to Egypt a few days later, where he said that the current protests in Sudan were trying to emulate those of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman also expressed solidarity, saying, “[Sudan’s] security and stability is the Kingdom’s security and stability.” Sudan has been supporting Saudi’s ongoing war in Yemen with as many as 14,000 militiamen, many of them child soldiers from Darfur, according to The New York Times.

In Canada, the Sudanese community is paying close attention, especially those with family back at home. In early January, Mazin Salih, a man based in Calgary, received news that his brother, Salih Salih, was killed in the protests in Sudan. According to Salih, his brother was shot three times and died a half hour after doctors had got the bullets out from his body.

But despite the crackdown and the increasing death toll, protests continue in Sudan. Last week, several opposition parties held a press conference calling for al-Bahir to step down and make way for a four-year transitional government that would ultimately lead to elections. Yet what happens next, how long the protests will continue and whether support for an alternative leader will only grow remains to be seen.

“For a long time, the justification for the regime was [that] there is no alternative to al-Bashir,” Elbagir said. “A lot of people have said to me an alternative will come to light if the right environment is created for free elections and for democracy.”