Sudan: ?Lick The Elbow? Protests Erupt In Khartoum And On Twitter

ANALYSIS

  @JaceyFortin on June 29 2012 1:00 PM

In Sudan, a big protest is in progress.

Scores of anti-government demonstrations have erupted over the past two weeks, centered in the capital city of Khartoum. Activists have planned a culminating rally on Friday and Saturday, which they hope will lead to the ouster of President Omar Al Bashir, who has ruled the country since 1989.

Word on the Street

Though media reports are still scant, Twitter is chirping with updates.

According to these unconfirmed posts, there are tires burning in the city of Al Khartoum Bahri, which is near the capital. Riot police have lined up in Wad Nubawi, a neighborhood in Khartoum. Nearby, at a local mosque, police have tear-gassed protesters. Demonstrations are said to have erupted in twelve cities so far.

Hammour Ziada, a Cairo-based Sudanese activist, explained the movement to Al Jazeera.

Sudan is on the verge of bankruptcy and lack of freedom and I hold the whole government responsible for this, he said.

Ziada went on to explain that these are not centralized protests, as that might be dangerous for participants. By gathering in huge numbers in open spaces we become an easier target. So we prefer small groups spread all over the city; this creates confusion for the police and it exhausts their resources quicker.

The protests are collectively referred to as Licking Your Elbow Friday. The odd name is meant as a retort to a statement from President Bashir, who once said that any demonstrator who seeks to topple the regime can lick his elbow -- a phrase that, in Arabic slang, is somewhat akin to an English saying: 'When pigs fly.'

It's the Economy, Bashir

Sudan is in the middle of an economic crisis brought on by a variety of factors: military conflicts, a loss of oil revenues, international sanctions, and a woefully undiversified economy that failed to pick up the slack when the oil industry tanked.

The crisis situation in Sudan was partly precipitated by the country's recent split from South Sudan.

Following decades of civil war -- fueled partly by battles over resources but also by religious tensions between the mostly Christian south and Muslim north -- the south officially withdrew in July of 2011, becoming the new nation of South Sudan and setting up its own government in the city of Juba.

This agreement did not facilitate a peaceful co-existence, however. South Sudan seceded with the vast majority of oil fields, but Sudan retains the pipelines to turn the resource into a marketable commodity. Despite plenty of incentive to co-exist, both sides have employed divisive tactics -- all stick and no carrot -- to gain leverage.

Following months of border clashes and escalating brinkmanship, South Sudan stopped pumping crude oil altogether this January. The decision stunned the international community and devastated South Sudan's own economy, cutting off 98 percent of revenue.

Lacking its main source of income, Sudan has suffered in almost equal measure. Inflation reached over 30 percent last month. Unemployment is rising, along with the cost of living. In an effort to save revenue, the Bashir regime has implemented harsh austerity measures: lifting fuel subsidies, increasing taxes and cutting public spending.

On June 16, a group of university students put together a campus demonstration against this austerity, which had resulted in a price hike for student housing and unaffordable transportation costs. The movement has since spread, reaching several other cities and culminating in this weekend's organized protests.

Resisting the Resistance

In a move from the Syria playbook, regime officials have said the protests are illegitimate and partially backed by foreigners. Most Sudanese citizens, Bashir argues, support his presidency.

Activists in urban areas beg to differ, and security forces have responded to their demonstrations over the past two weeks with arrests, violence and intimidation, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Now, activists hope that Friday's protests, along with a general strike planned for Saturday, will lead to revolution. If successful, this would be Sudan's third overthrow since 1964.

But the regime continues its defiance. Some of their tactics involve selective censorship. Amnesty International reports that several newspapers have been shut down, with some journalists arrested. The government has used Facebook to lure protest participants to arrest. On Friday morning, the internet slowed and a major cell phone provider went down momentarily. 

Despite these efforts, organizers have found the internet to be a useful tool for galvanizing the movement. A Facebook page at SudanChangeNow helped organize the protests; now, they're posting videos and photos of Friday's demonstrations.

The same organization has an interactive website mapping out arrests, clashes and demonstrations in real-time across Sudan.

And on Twitter, activists like Yousif Elmahdi and Moez Ali are contributing updates on gatherings, photos of the crowded streets of Khartoum, and suggestions for protesters.

Waiting for the Weekend

At the moment, all reports suggest that the movement is progressing as expected. Demonstrations are widespread, but do not seem to be especially violent, loud or large.

Police have used tear gas, arrests and rubber bullets to disperse crowds -- injuries abound, but there is no word of casualties yet. The protesters themselves remain largely peaceful, but for the occasional throwing of rocks.

As far as revolutionary protests go, this one is low-key so far. Twitter user Alsanosi Ahmed captured the mood at about 6:20 p.m. local time in Sudan: If these protests continue for few more days this way they will [definitely] surrender because they [are] so tired!

Such an outcome would of course be ideal for the demonstrators, but everyone is aware that licking one's elbow could never be that easy.

The question is whether these protests will succeed in overthrowing the Bashir regime, or whether they will fizzle like similar protests did in January. Bashir seems determined to continue with austerity, and anyone who doubts his tenacity should look to his record of maintaining power through years of civil wars, bloody rebellions, Western sanctions, genocide charges from international courts, and even a democratic election that was not entirely illegitimate, despite deep flaws.

That's why Yousif Elmahdi was nervous about the protests' turnout. Need it to be intense! he tweeted, in between worries about low batteries on his mobile.

SudanChangeNow agreed, posting that demonstrators should be bold: No hesitation, support, don't be afraid, go out and protest.

Saturday, which marks the 23rd anniversary of Bashir's rule, will be a day for continued protests and nationwide strikes -- the world will be watching to see whether this movement gathers steam or loses momentum. 

This is definitely the start of a revolution, said Ziada to Al Jazeera before Friday's protests began.

I hope the government will put down their arms and leave before it's too late, because there is no holding the masses back once they explode.

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