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Sudan's Arab Spring, or another failed attempt?

Activists have still not been able to create a large-scale movement. But what happens on Friday may give an indication of whether they can succeed.
Last modified: 27 Jun 2012 23:25

It wasn't easy gaining access to Khartoum University, which authorities consider to be a sensitive site. The campus has long been the cradle of Sudan's uprisings, and where the latest wave of political and social unrest started. Students have long played a decisive role in protest movements in Sudan. They toppled the governments in 1964 and 1985.

Its guards are under the authority of the interior ministry. They are edgy, and have no love for anyone holding a camera.

On the surface it may seem like any other university in the world ... young men and women lounging around. But after a few minutes, the tension sets in. Clearly the government has supporters among the students here. They, along with the security forces, confronted those who demonstrated against the government austerity measures which led to a rise in prices.

Just like the government, they dismiss the protests as the work of a few agitators who failed to get the support of the majority.

Then a young man signaled at me to come over. He wanted to speak his mind. "This is a revolution against a government which is corrupt," said Odai Diab, a student. "We want to change this system and government."

There are a growing number of Sudanese who no longer believe in the leadership, and are not afraid to speak their mind.

"People are really fed up with the regime," said Faysal Mohammed Saleh, a journalist. "And this time around, it is different. We are used to student-led protests, but now it is not just students. It spread to different locations in the capital and in different cities."

This is not just about the struggling economy, even though the worsening conditions brought people to the streets. "We are under a lot of economic pressure, and if it continues, people will explode," said Walid Hamid, a student.

'Make or break situation'

The demonstrations - which have been relatively small - haven't been confined to the university campus. The authorities have been cracking down on protesters and arresting activists to stop the movement from threatening the state.

Social media activists are preparing for what they hope will be a mass protest on Friday. I say "hope" because the activists aren't too sure they can pull it off.

"It will be a make or break situation," said an online activist who, for security reasons, doesn't want me to reveal his identity. "We are trying to mobilise as many people as possible. We are hoping for a large turnout, but this is not going to be easy. Protests have been spontaneous and we have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the security forces to avoid arrest."

It was a cat-and-mouse game before I managed to meet the activist in person in the Sudanese capital.

Our initial contact was via email. I then sent him an SMS: "where and when, please?" He didn't answer. Moments later I saw my SMS message posted on Twitter by activists, who alleged it was a message sent by the intelligence to lure an activist.

They later apologized for their paranoia, which is explainable, I guess.

Friday's protest action, dubbed "Licking Elbows", is in response to President Bashir's repeated proclamation that those that weren't happy with their rule could "lick their elbows", according to a press release that is being sent by #SudanRevolts - a Twitter hashtag. If you follow the updates posted by online activists, it would seem that a full-scale uprising is taking place. But that is not the reality. At least for the time being.

Online activists - many of them live abroad - haven't been able to reach the masses. The poor, who have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, don't have internet connections. "We are using word of mouth to spread plans for Friday's protests," the activist told me. "The new austerity measures have not hit home yet. It may take some time, but it is important for us to keep up the momentum."

But that momentum cannot just be on social media. The street needs to move. Opposition parties need to throw their full weight behind the movement. "The parties are watching to see whether the masses will respond before they officially participate. We want them to take part now and not hijack the movement at the end," the activist said.

The government was able to stop an attempt to bring the Arab Spring to Sudan in January of last year. What hasn’t gone away, however, is people’s discontent. But activists have still not been able to use this to create a wider Arab Spring-style movement. What happens on Friday may give an indication of whether they can succeed.