Civil disobedience in Sudan: How far will it go?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir watched Moroccan dancers perform while in Marrakech for the climate summit in early November, as his government back in Khartoum decided to float the Sudanese pound and lift subsidies on petroleum products and medication.

Sudanese citizens were shocked to see inflation hit 20-30 percent, particularly given the dire economic situation in the country already, with unemployment and poverty levels rising. Problems have been building in the oil-dependent country since the south seceded in 2011, taking with it a large percentage of the nation’s oil output, Sudan’s main source of foreign currency. The government introduced a second exchange rate of between 16-20 Sudanese Pounds to the dollar, alongside the official pegged rate of around 6.4 Sudanese Pounds, which enabled the state to buy dollars from Sudanese expatriates in an attempt to boost reserves.

Political forces in the capital started to organize rare protests, which were met with heavy repression from security forces, who arrested around 100 people, prompting the need for an alternative form of action. Activists called for three days of civil disobedience on social media sites, setting November 27 as the first day. Two days after it was announced, the call went viral on social media and was widely discussed on the streets.

“Why did the Sudanese call for civil disobedience instead of demonstrations? The answer lies in Sudan’s memory of struggle.”

At first, the Sudanese government disregarded growing tensions and Bashir continued on his trips in Morocco and Guinea, and later to the UAE. As the day approached, a number of sectors announced they would participate in the call for civil disobedience. Several celebrities and known activists also supported the call on their Facebook pages. Sensing growing momentum, the government called a press conference on Friday, one day before the planned civil disobedience. They announced a halt on subsidy removals and promised new prices for medication.

On the evening of Saturday November 26, Khartoum slept with people wondering what the next day would bring.

“The day of disobedience” dawned and was eerily quiet. There was a noticeable absence of traffic and people on the streets, and, unlike a normal Sunday morning, many stores were closed and families kept their children home from schools and universities.

The government made attempts to counter this image: arresting dissidents, closing a satellite television channel, and quickly transmitting scenes on state-owned television stations of busier streets. But, as Sudanese poet Mohamed al-Hassan Salem wrote in one of his poems, the “streets are not capable of betrayal,” and it was security forces who were caught off guard, having been trained to handle protests and demonstrations, not people staying home.

Why civil disobedience not protests?

So, why did the Sudanese call for civil disobedience instead of demonstrations? The answer lies in Sudan’s memory of struggle. Civil disobedience is a weapon Sudanese oppositional forces have successfully used before — when they ousted President Ibrahim Abboud in October 1964, and during the revolution of April 1985, when they overthrew President Jaafar Nimeiri.

But there is also the recent memory of what happened when demonstrations were staged in September 2013 to counter Bashir, and around 100 people, mostly young people, were killed by security forces. People believe the president isn’t likely to hold back again this time, particularly as he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In this context, and given the lack of organizational capacity among a weakened civil society, civil disobedience seemed to oppositional forces the best option to avoid heavy loss of life.

What’s next?

The message was clear. Despite a perception by Bashir’s government that they are in a stronger position today than in the past, amid declining international pressure, particularly from the US, the government and the president understood the threat of unrest, though they denied this to the press.

“Along with heavy inflation and high unemployment, more than three million Sudanese citizens have been displaced.”

In an interview with a Gulf newspaper, the Sudanese government said, “civil disobedience has failed a million percent.” This confidence follows improved relations between Sudan and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There has also been a decline in military operations against armed factions in Darfur and Blue Nile areas, where armed oppositional groups led a war against the government in Khartoum. The government’s relations have also improved with neighboring countries, such as Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, Libya and Eritrea.

But this is not a reality people feel on the ground. Along with heavy inflation and high unemployment, more than three million Sudanese citizens have been displaced as a result of war, financial corruption and the repression of public freedoms.

After the threat of civil disobedience, the government rushed to confiscate a number of newspapers, but they didn’t count on how quickly the call to action would spread online among angry youth, many of who are not affiliated with formal political groups. This force challenged the religious slogans of the state.

The Sudanese government is left with two options: to engage in an inclusive political dialogue that is likely to lead to the dismantling of Sudan’s single-party system and the establishing of a transitional government until elections can be held, or confront large sections of the population who are opposed to the current regime.

For 27 years, the Sudanese state has divided the country and wasted its resources. The nation is still reeling from years of US sanctions, imposed from 1997 against the state. There are fears the government may escalate its reaction to ongoing civil disobedience, continuing to stoke racial and religious differences. With the ready availability of weapons in Sudan, and the legacy of violence, this is a real fear.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib.

Khaled Ahmed 

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