In a country with no nightclubs or bars, strolling along the River Nile or picnicking in Khartoum’s parks used to be the usual form of entertainment for young people in Sudan’s capital. However, since the outbreak of street protests in December the daily routine has changed. Free time now involves checking social media site to locate and join the latest demonstrations or sit-in protests against the government.
On offer is free food and drink, comaraderie and a chance to share experiences, hopes and aspirations for a new Sudan with like-minded peers. Anyone under 35 years old has only known life under the government led by President Omar Al-Bashir. The street protests against that government have become a new way of life, revolutionising Sudan’s youth culture and introducing new perspectives.
In the event of injury, medical care is available for those willing to risk being attacked with tear gas or even live ammunition by the security forces. “These days there’s a new sense of optimism,” explains school teacher Zakia Mohammed. “In staging these protests, in a peaceful way, young peoples’ attitudes towards authority and the awareness of the power of protest are making them more assertive, more demanding of political, economic and social change. They are certain that they will bring real change in Sudan and, more importantly, certain of bringing down the government.”
Behind the political activism is an injection of hard cash that has poured in from abroad to support the revolutionary movement. Sudanese citizens living in the US, Britain and the Gulf States appear to be the largest and most consistent donors to the cause. The financial support has provided adequate funding for the young people to flood the streets and continue the protests. Coupled with videos of demonstrations outside Sudan’s Embassies abroad and protest songs sung in English and Arabic, the external support for the movement is a driving force propelling the young to continue protesting.
The funds also mean that the organisation of the protests has become far more sophisticated. In recent weeks, maps and computer-designed graphics have been posted on social media. The sites clearly indicate times, dates and meeting points for the marches. The anonymity of the sites means that protesters have no idea who is actually directing the movement. However, social media continues to be a weapon of choice to bring about the fall of the government through peaceful means.
Not knowing who is coordinating the protests is a continuing source of frustration for the security forces, which are unable to trace the command and control structure of the demonstrations. However, genuine ignorance about the leadership of the protests is also a means of protection for those who are taken into custody. They really don’t have any useful information to divulge to security officials.
A source who preferred not to be named claims that the recent torture and death in custody of teacher Ahmed Al-Khair happened because of the mistaken belief that he was withholding information about the organisational structure of the protests. The official inquiry into Al-Khair’s death revealed that he had been tortured using a blunt object, contradicting previous assertions by local police that he had been poisoned. “He could not possibly have known who is behind the marches,” said the source. “The protest groups are independent cells with no knowledge about or communication between each other. The orders are predetermined from websites operated inside and outside of Sudan.”
The government is in an invidious position of wanting to shut down the internet to prevent social media sites from operating but it runs the risk of shutting down vital service industries like the banking sector and even its own departments. Attempts to slow down social media sites are circumvented by the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which have become the tool of every protester.
In the past few days, those on the streets have witnessed a change in tone from Sudanese officials who have described their grievances as “genuine and acceptable”. However, the most striking change has been the softened rhetoric of President Al-Bashir himself. He told journalists that the economic situation, excessive intrusion and use of force by the security services had sullied the Islamic message and the government’s good name. Furthermore, it has just been announced that 11 journalists are being released from prison.
The conciliatory words have been seen as proof that the resistance campaign of attrition is working. More importantly, though, the change of tone has been taken as a signal to maintain and intensify the pressure on the government. In addition, rumours of defections in the armed forces loyal to Al-Bashir have started to circulate. The latest reports from family members suggest that 15 army officers have resigned in support of the protesters and have been detained by the security forces as a result; there is no official confirmation or independent corroboration of this.
Clearly, the success of the protests has been their longevity. According to the doctors’ committee, 57 people have been killed, but Zakia Mohammed says that the number could have been a lot higher if not for the fact that the young people have rejected the use of violence. “This has saved lives. In my view, we would have seen far more bloodshed if violence was used against the police and security forces.”
Despite Sudan’s uncertain future and direction, political awareness and social activism have become the new youth culture, giving impetus and direction to daily life. Whether or not the outcome is the removal of the government remains to be seen, but it seems clear that new attitudes and aspirations among Sudan’s young people appear to be here to stay.