In the past week, international media has finally caught up on reporting the protests in Sudan. We see this all over, and the discussion seems geared towards giving a background to outsiders on what’s going on. The problem with this discussion is that the situation has changed.
Most of the protests seem to have died down, at least for now. One hears of them from time to time, and there were a few on Friday, but they don’t have the presence they had before. People are supporting the families of those killed and offering legal services for those detained, but it no longer appears to be a mass movement or a broader phenomenon. Day to day life goes on, and people are struggling, contending with the challenges one faces in a country with an increasingly poor economy.
This same dynamic played out during last year’s protests. The first few days of protests were large; however, by the time the broader international news media began covering it in greater detail, they had ultimately stopped.
What hasn’t ended, however, is the crackdown. The government responded to protests extremely violently. Reports are now saying that the police shot protesters aiming for the chest and the head—this wasn’t crowd control. Amnesty International now publicly supports the Sudanese Doctors Union, which estimates that over 200 people were killed at demonstrations.
Throughout the protests, activists were also detained, with many mistreated by NISS (Girifna is an opposition activist group popular with Sudanese youth in diaspora, but also with some Sudanese activists inside Sudan). Even as protests have subsided, the detentions have not decreased. Groups have organized outside of NISS to draw attention to the detentions, but they are continuing, with the head of the Sudanese Doctors Union arrested.
The violence, both during the protests and now, has been quite disturbing to those who have lived in Sudan. Historically, central areas of Sudan, particularly Khartoum, have been incredibly peaceful. Outlying areas—South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, have witnessed conflict far worse than what’s happened in Khartoum, but this rarely comes to the center. Alex De Waal (and plenty of others) argues that this paradox is intentional. The central areas, according to this argument, have maintained control of power in order to monopolize resources and in doing so, have prompted resistance from peripheral areas, which they meet with violence as a temporary method of curbing resistance and maintaining the status quo. Because of this, those in the center have been able to differ in terms of opinions, as long as the power structure was preserved.
Many (including but definitely not limited to Douglas Johnson), think that this dynamic has changed with the rise of the National Islamic Front (the National Congress Party’s predecessor) in 1989. When they came to power, they imported many of the government techniques used in the South to Khartoum and the central areas; abductions, torture, and the use of ghost houses, all activities that NISS undertook in other areas before, began happening in Khartoum as well.
At the same time, this dynamic was not apparent in public. Open violence on the street was still unusual, and if you weren’t looking for trouble, you could pretend that it wasn’t happening. This pretence could not be sustained during the protests—and the emotion is reflected in writing on the subject. In particular, I was struck by one Sudanese blogger‘s post:
Extermination. With the police being instructed to shoot to kill, there’s no other word to describe it. In 3 days, an estimated 140 people have been murdered by the authorities. A vast number of casualties died as a result of direct hits to the head and chest. I know of at least two stories of people who were shot in the back, shot in front of their homes., shot at even after they entered their homes. I know of stories of people who were shot at funeral processions for others who have fallen under the same hands. How is this not extermination?
The urgency of this post, the need to change things, hasn’t yet been reflected in street mobilization to the extent that it needs to be. At the same time, the horror she describes is completely true, the sense that these things are actually happening and that it is both believable and terrifying. In some ways, the government has capitalized on this, even arguing at some points arguing that the end of Bashir will be the end of Sudan as a nation.
Nesrine Malik argues that such a jolt is what will eventually change Sudanese politics:
The impact on the public mood of seeing bodies lined up in the morgue and witnessing the burial of victims cannot be underestimated, and this could prove to be the turning point. Despite being the capital of a country beset by civil war and ethnic strife, Khartoum has been relatively isolated from scenes of bloodshed. Denial is giving way to anger and shock at the fatalities. This, coupled with economic despair, is beginning to dissipate the mass political apathy that for so long dominated.
It’s still quite tense in Khartoum. It sounds as if people there are waiting—as if the next event will prompt even more demonstrations. But what event can happen next? Sudan has faced war for some time, and Khartoum in the past few weeks has seen a horrible economy, street protests, and an intrusive, destructive government crackdown. What will transform this into a movement?
So the waiting continues.