x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sudanese youth defy old line in Khartoum

Young Sudanese have finally decided to join their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria in making a new reality and leading a new Middle East.

Sudan has been something of a pioneer of revolutions. Since independence from Britain in 1956, the Sudanese have twice risen up: against the military government of General Ibrahim Abboud in 1964, and again in the face of the dictatorship of Gaafar Nimeiry in 1985.

The current protests - which young people in Sudan are already calling the "Third Sudanese Spring" - were started by people frustrated at the government's recent policies, especially its austerity measures. The protests have since escalated into something much more.

As in past uprisings, demonstrations at the University of Khartoum proved to be the precursor to a broader student movement spanning universities across Sudan.

Students have adopted slogans calling for the overthrow of the regime through civil disobedience, and on June 16 were violently confronted by police and riot forces for the first time. That increased tensions at subsequent demonstrations.

In the following days, police broke into the boarding houses of female students and arrested some for inflammatory acts such as using Facebook and Twitter. This provided a spark for more unrest in many universities.

The tone of the protests has also changed. Anti-government rhetoric has gradually escalated, until the Friday two weeks ago was proclaimed "Ketaha Friday" - "ketaha" being a Sudanese term meaning sandstorm. The day lived up to its name: it was a perfect storm pitting protesters against police in a number of neighbourhoods in Khartoum. Around the country, thousands of students took to the streets. By some accounts, half of the student population of Omdurman, the country's commercial capital, demonstrated in the streets.

But the biggest demonstrations were yet to come. A close ally of President Omar Al Bashir and a member of the ruling National Congress Party, Nafi Ali Nafi, warned protesters: "If anyone tries to hit the streets and remove the regime, the day they lick their elbows is the day they will topple the regime."

The protesters considered the statement (which alludes to a Sudanese expression of what is impossible) provocative and dubbed the next Friday "jomaa lahs al kouo", the Friday of elbow licking. Protests that day in the capital were forceful, and police attacked protesters with tear gas.

It is astonishing that the Sudanese media has almost completely ignored these movements. When media outlets do speak about them, they call them "gang sabotage" or use a phrase attributed to Mr Al Bashir: "shuzaz al afag", or vagabonds.

This attitude has pushed young people towards new media, especially Facebook and YouTube. Given that new media has demonstrated its usefulness in other Arab spring protests, it is foolish to underestimate the medium. Sudanese officials apparently share the sentiments of Habib El Adly, Hosni Mubarak's last interior minister, who is said to have told Mr Mubarak: "These are some young children, Mr President, and I swear I will get rid of them."

These social networking sites have become a breath of fresh air, an engine of change and a place to organise. Despite the information blackout attempted by Mr Al Bashir's government, it is clear that young Sudanese have finally decided to join their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria in making a new reality and leading a new Middle East.

* Omer Mahmoud Salih and Mohamed Osman Makki. Mr Salih is a documentary filmmaker based in Khartoum.