Stanford Progressive

Democracy’s Domino Effect: Protests in Sudan

By Shadi Bushra, published January, 2011

If somebody had told me a month ago that there would be a nascent democracy in North Africa, I would have thought they were being rather naive. If somebody had told me a week ago that Egypt would be the closest it’s ever been to democracy, I would have thought them completely mad. Now, with Tunisia looking to hold real elections after 14 years of strongman rule under Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak looking for some way to end the embarrassingly debilitating protests while saving face, I’m more optimistic about the Arab/African worlds’ prospects for political change. Most exciting to me of course are the small protests in Sudan.

Yesterday, while having dinner with my Sudanese friend here at Stanford, Kamil, he mentioned the prospect of Sudan catching the revolution fever (revo-fev for some). I was pessimistic. After the South has voted to secede, common sense indicates that the ruling NCP will do whatever it takes to keep hold of the limited territory it now controls. This includes intensifying the conflict in Darfur as well as squashing domestic agitators such as those who would protest for democracy. I didn’t see much hope of a Tunisia-style month long marathon of protests. Khartoum has anticipated this while preparing for the secession referendum lest some get the idea that if our neighbors to the south can decide their own fate, why shouldn’t citizens in the North get the same luxury?

Police Beating Protesters in Khartoum

With my reservations disclosed though, I am very excited for what is happening in Sudan. Who knows if it will snowball into something real or fizzle and die after a day? Nobody would have predicted Egypt or Tunisia’s protests would have such dramatic effects. After the conversation with Kamil, more developments out of Egypt (such as the military’s seeming ambivalence, greater cooperation along the secular-religious  divide, and a much more coherent opposition platform than a week ago), conversations with my brother and parents today, and finding out that my cousin Nazik was arrested for trying to photograph the protests, I’m much more hopeful. So at the risk of being wrong, I’ve decided to do what can be done from an ocean away to keep Sudan’s protests in people’s news feeds. Honestly, I have nothing to lose but a few hours of my life, while those at home stand to actually lose their lives.

What’s Happening (So Far)?

Here’s what I know so far: There were several protests, one in central Khartoum, three at university campuses in the tri-city area, another at Kordofan University in the west of the country (here’s a video of the protests in El Obeid), and smaller ones throughout the country. The police responded with the heavy-handed measures most have come to associate with them. Armed riot police violently broke up the protests in Khartoum’s center. At Khartoum University and Al Ahlyia University, students were beaten and teargassed. The sizes of the groups are unconfirmed, but estimates are several hundred at each metro location (Central Khartoum, Khartoum University, Al Ahlyia University) and 500 at Kordofan University in El Obeid.

In addition to the police violently attacking those who were peacefully protesting, what happened to those arrested is still largely unknown. Those taken to police stations were held for varying lengths of time but were mostly treated (relatively) civilly . Some were freed, others had to wait for someone to bail them out (as was the case with my cousin), others are still detained.

However, a large number were arrested by plainclothes security officials, taken away in unmarked vehicles, and are now at undisclosed locations. It is quite possible that they are being held at the “ghost houses” that marked the first chapter of Bashir’s rule in the early 1990s. Torture, rape, murder and other atrocities are the norm at these locales. Naturally, both who was taken away by national security/intelligence officials, and how they were treated are as of yet unconfirmed. With that being said, there are reports from fellow protesters that over twenty people were taken to an unmarked building (as is usually the case with the ghost houses) near Nile Street and were held there and tortured from 11:30 am local time onwards.

Here’s a breakdown of the events by location, starting with the demonstrations in central Khartoum. Since they were organized in large part through online social media, which most Sudanese do not have access to, they started small, as this video shows. However, they gathered momentum as passersby joined in on the marching and chanting of anti-Bashir, anti-government and pro-democracy slogans. The demonstrations started on Palace Street and participants marched towards the Presidential Palace. Police waiting at several locations broke up the protests using an inordinate amount of violence and arrested those who failed to flee in time. Some protesters fought back, with unfortunate results. Most ran and, refusing to give up, regrouped at new locations to continue the demonstrations. There is also an unverified report that police distributed food and water to protesters along Palace Street.

At the University of Khartoum, students began the protests in their dormitories and moved about campus. These videos (1, 2, 3) show the protests early on. Police soon surrounded the campus and fired into the crowds with tear gas and tasers, causing some to try to escape. Those who fled were arrested, beaten, or both. Police then tried to break into the university’s School of Medicine, where the students were holed up. Apparently, the students initially successfully repelled the police. Soon though there were clashes between students and police, with reports of faculty of the medical school participating in “heavy fighting.” Reports suggest that the students requested help from others, probably over phone, leading protesters elsewhere in Khartoum to head towards the University and specifically the School of Medicine complex. At least 64 people are believed to have been arrested. President al-Bashir also took it upon himself to fire the University’s director, Mustafa Idris al-Bashir for not doing more to quell the demonstrations.

In Omdurman, the twin city across the river, protests began at Al Ahlya University, which another of my cousins attends. Here, plainclothes police and security officials were more of a problem than the riot police. They moved through the crowd unnoticed, until they began arresting students. Once their presence was revealed the clashes began, with the first casualty of the demonstrations being fatally wounded there. Mohammad Abdelrahman of Al Ahlya University died later in the day at a hospital while being treated for serious injuries sustained at the hands of police.

Protests at Omdurman Islamic University also turned violent, initially without any police provocation. The university apparently had students who were content with the current regime. Soon enough there were clashes between groups of protesters and the students loyal to the regime. Unconfirmed reports have the loyalists attacking the demonstrators with Molotov cocktails and metal bars. These should be taken with a grain of salt though – both because there could have been undercover security officials instigating the intrastudent conflict, and because it is mostly protesters and their supporters making these reports. At both Omdurman campuses, the chronology was roughly the same: protests began, police cordoned off the area, clashes escalated, arrests were made, the universities were closed.

Journalists fared much worse than the average protester. Many were arrested, including a cameraman for the Associated Foreign Press. At least two are confirmed to have been tortured. Numerous foreign journalists were harassed, intimidated and had their footage and photographs confiscated. Sudanese members of the press on the other hand were subject to the full spectrum of abuses.

Those who were believed to have organized the protests online were arrested early in the day, often before they could even begin demonstrating. The government has access to any online information it desires, including the IP addresses of those computers used to organize such events. One high-profile example is the daughter of Hussein Khogaly, the editor-in-chief of the al-Watan newspaper, who was arrested at 8 am under accusations that she had organized the protests on Facebook.

Why now?

I’ve attempted to sketch a rough outline of the day’s events. It is a composite based on first-hand accounts from friends and family, the one or two news reports on the protests, and a large number of reports from protesters and supporters on social media websites. Information is slow to come in, and even more difficult to confirm. I’ve tried to include only those that have been verified through other sources, or that are very plausible in the repressive atmosphere that is Sudan today. I’ve expressed my skepticism at reports that seem particularly skewed or unlikely.

What I have not touched on yet are the reasons behind these protests. Sudan has one of the world’s longest continuous dictatorships, set to celebrate its 22nd birthday this June. Like most countries, there is also tremendous economic hardship in Sudan as it deals with the effects of the US-sparked global economic crisis. In Sudan, this has manifested itself in the form of particularly high inflation due to last year’s devaluation of the Sudanese pound. To cut down on spending, the government cut subsidies on petroleum products and sugar earlier this month, making public transportation and food more expensive. This triggered smaller, less political protests several weeks ago.

But what was undoubtedly a key motivator of most young protesters today were the examples set by Tunisia, and more recently, Egypt. Both countries have long-term dictatorships (or in Tunisia’s case, had a long-term dictatorship). Hope for change was effectively stomped out by decades of repression, but like a phoenix, was reborn from the ashes of a burned Tunisian man. This has reignited hope throughout the region – if Tunisia could do it, why can’t we?

I’ve made it a point to refrain from too much analysis here. I don’t want to taint what are mostly facts with my own opinions. But I will mention a few reasons why I think the government is less likely to topple in Sudan than in its neighbors. First, Sudan is in many ways already an international pariah. The world has tried to pressure the government there with sanctions, legal proceedings, and general isolation. Despite this, Bashir’s National Congress Party persisted. There are few sticks for the international community to wield, and assuming that they would want to is a leap of its own. Second, Sudan’s internal security has always been an obsession of the government, initially because of the North-South civil war, then because of the Darfur conflict. Now, with the South preparing to secede, it is once again an issue. Khartoum is well-versed in the means of repression. Third, Egypt relies heavily on foreign investment, and on US aid. It has to keep the West’s point of view in mind. Sudan’s investment comes largely from China and other less democracy-concerned countries.

With all that being said, I fully believe that a popular revolution is possible in Sudan. There is no such thing as an ideal atmosphere for these sorts of things. There is only the way things are, and the way we want them to be. The grievances are as available there as they were in Tunisia or Egypt. Although the environment may be nominally less friendly, the international community less receptive, and the people slightly more cowed, there is hope. A month ago, Sudan had Africa’s most recent popular revolution, the 1985 ouster of Jafar Nimeiri. Inspired by Tunisia and in the wake of Egypt, it is time to retake that legacy.


  1.  Tweets that mention Democracy’s Domino Effect: Protests in Sudan « The Stanford Progressive --, January 31, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by, Stanford Progressive. Stanford Progressive said: Tunisia's popular revolution has set off a wave of similar protests in the region. Egypt is working towards… [...]

  2.  Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Blog Economic Revolt Domino Effect | Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Blog, January 31, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

    [...] and violence continues to escalate. The repressive Sudanese government will be difficult to topple, says Shadi Bushra at the Stanford Progressive, but “I fully believe that a popular revolution is [...]

  3.  Iman, February 1, 2011 @ 3:12 am

    Many thanks for the well thought article..

  4.  Afrah, February 2, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    Thanks for the great job you did .. though i couldn’t see the videos for technical issues at my side but it’s a real good coverage of the demonstrations in Sudan …
    The Egyptians revolution is great and all the world is keeping silent not to miss a word from what people are saying in Egypt .. we were inspired by Cairo may be but we started few months ago since it came to reality that southern Sudan will secede and we have to fight alone now with no support of the southerners who have been fighting for long and payed alot till they got their freedom ..
    Sudanese people had shown the world how strong their will is in 1964 and 1985 and our next real revolution on all the forms of old Sudan will be soon .

    thanks agin .. the media coverage of what is hapning in Sudan is very pale .. it won’t stay this way for long i doubt .

  5.  Coco, February 2, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    Really superb visual appeal on this site, I’d value it 10 10. -Coco

  6.  Tiesha Parsi, February 4, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    Aw, this was a really nice post. In idea I wish to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and precise effort to make an excellent article… however what can I say… I procrastinate alot and on no account appear to get something done.

  7.  Slow Türk Dinle, May 19, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    thanks for information blog

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