Hibiscus with Ginger


Digital Divides

Over the past few weeks, Sudanese activists, both in Sudan and abroad, have launched a campaign to lift US digital sanctions on Sudan. Beginning a few weeks ago, their facebook page states that they hope to:

“introduce the impact of the US sanctions that started in 1997 on the Sudanese society and to start an open conversation with those who are interested in the issue around the world specially from Sudan and US.”

The issue of access to technology in Sudan has been a big one for some time. Helena Puig Larrauri, who works with ICT technology and peacebuilding in Sudan among other places wrote last year on how sanctions have limited civil society in Sudan even as the number of groups using technology has grown. One example of this dynamic playing out is Nafeer, a youth initiative that organized to deliver aid to families affected by the flooding in August. While Nafeer used technology in innovative ways, mapping areas affected, they were also hindered by the sanctions, which prevented them from receiving donations from Sudanese living abroad via their paypal account.

A report from the New America Foundation discusses digital sanctions in greater detail, comparing the ones in place for Sudan to those for other countries and commenting that while in some ways the regulations are more “basic” they are also less defined. This means that often, it’s unclear what is permitted or not permitted, making it difficult for companies and websites to decide what users in Sudan should be able to access. For example, one can use and access standard google products, including gmail, in Sudan, but google apps are blocked. The only attempt to reform these restrictions happened in 2010, and implementation has been quite slow.

All of this, of course, has a huge effect on those studying technology in Sudan. As the campaign notes, sanctions interfere with students’ abilities to enroll in online classes, register for international conferences, and train on software used in the rest of the world.  For a sense of the extent of this issue, check out this video:

Some activists have voiced concern that these restrictions provide valuable limitations and that loosening the sanctions will lead to increased abilities on the part of the government, particularly regarding surveillance and mapping software. This concern is merited—it is important to limit knowledge and power in the hands of the government. At the same time, the policy in place is vague and difficult to enforce. If, as many have noted, Sudanese activists have been able to work around sanctions to a certain extent, one can assume that the Sudanese government, with greater monetary resources and roughly the same skill sets, has also been able to bypass the sanctions in certain respects.

One thing I have been struck by, watching this discussion play out, is how we are talking about the opportunities of a very limited segment of society. Digital sanctions very clearly limit the abilities and prospects of educated Sudanese youth who are training on outdated software and seeking to compete globally. They also limit the prospects of activist groups who attempt to use technology in new ways to address problems society faces on a daily basis or who seek funding from the Sudanese diaspora.

It’s less apparent but just as important to note that sanctions limit access to knowledge for those with only very limited use of the internet. The skills that the technologically literate use to bypass digital restrictions are not apparent to the casual user, and many in Sudan use the internet (or specific programs) on a more limited basis than they would otherwise because of restrictions.

I remember going into work the day after google changed its policy regarding apps being accessible in Sudan. For the first few hours, we were unable to access our work email accounts; however, but mid-afternoon, we had all learned how to use VPNs and the day continued as normal. In contrast, plenty of internet cafes that I’ve sat in have an outdated version of Skype, or (more frustratingly) an icon of skype followed by a dialogue box stating that it could not install properly on the computer.

For someone whose access to the internet comes less regularly—whether because he or she does not own a computer, because the computer is shared, or because he or she accesses the internet primarily on a smart phone, smaller difficulties become more imposing. This means that the casual internet user will be less likely to reach out or gain new skills, relegating the internet to the role of entertainment exclusively. While more and more Sudanese people are using the internet, it is not clear that they can do as much as they’d like on it. How many people attempt to communicate in a certain way or seek out a certain type of information only to give up?

There has to be a way to acknowledge restrictions while making it easier for students, activists, and the average Sudanese citizen to get information. Otherwise the policy will hinder the government in the short term but will leave the power balance between the state and society the same in the long term, with society falling behind globally in the meanwhile.

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We don’t really know what’s going on in Sudan right now. Well, we sort of do, but not really. Our biggest difficulty is getting a sense of perspective as the days pass. Have protests gotten larger? Have they stayed the same? Will they endure?

Abena has a map that compiles reports of where protests are taking place in Khartoum. Sudan Tribune, Radio Dabanga, basically all other news outlets, and reports from friends all agree that demonstrations are indeed still happening and that the response has been brutal. Too many people I’ve talked to seem to know someone who was killed or injured. The Sudanese Doctors Union reports 110 dead bodies in Khartoum hospitals, and that number is likely conservative.

We should be very conscious of how limited a picture we can get from abroad. Sudanese media has been heavily restricted. In addition to the difficulties that Safira mentioned, the Sudanese Journalists Network is organizing a strike to protest government censorship. With over 600 people arrested since Wednesday, there are bound to be journalists in there as well as protesters and activists. Everything is dramatic on twitter, but the medium is limited by who’s active and who they’re targeting. Ultimately, activists are using twitter to organize, and thus, have an incentive to play up the numbers and their level of support. It’s hard, then,  to get a sense of whether there’s momentum with these protests and whether they will endure.

Magdi Al Gizouli argues that, taking place primarily in middle to lower class neighborhoods on the edges of Khartoum, these demonstrations represent a revolt from the NCP’s base of support. I’m not entirely convinced. The NCP (and other parties) seem to work via patronage networks, with party membership giving access to jobs, opportunities, and other benefits. By lifting fuel subsidies, it’s clear that they’ve made life much harder for the whole population, but they could theoretically compensate their network in some other way.

The question is whether now, after outright violence against the crowds, this is possible. Yes, the government has begun to offer excuses, but I doubt that anyone takes them seriously. With every death, it becomes more difficult for protesters to back down. It’s clear that for some sections of Sudanese society, these protests are about removing the regime. For others, I wonder whether they are more about pushing the regime to provide economic benefits. It remains to be seen whether the crowds will unite around a single goal, or whether the government will appease some portion of society enough to disable the protests. There’s already some dissent from within the NCP.

If the crowds do unite, what will happen? There has been a little evidence of fractures within the military, but so far, that has been quite limited. Any regime change will require the help of the military, but at the same time, this is not the military of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has been active in the military since the 1980s, and the institution is highly sympathetic to the regime in power. It would require a lot for them to remove their support, and it seems unlikely that they would back a leader from a different political persuasion or back free and fair elections. This piece from last year gives a good outline of how Bashir has held power for so long.

None of this will be clear for a while. For now, we do what we’ve done so far: wait and worry for our friends.

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There are protests happening all over Sudan right now. This is in response to the rise in fuel prices that occurred on Sunday, with the lifting of fuel subsidies. As Magdi Al Gizouli explained quite well in his discussion of the subsidies, the government likely removed them in order to better comply with IMF conditions for seeking debt relief. Such a decision was on some level a gamble—that domestic opposition would be manageable, and that the long term economic benefits for those in power would outweigh the short and medium term pain that all sectors of Sudanese society would feel as a result of such economic policies.

Last year’s “#SudanRevolts,”* began due to fears of fuel subsidies being lifted, so comparing the level of protests then and now seems apt. Last year, the protests initially seemed quite strong, with small protests throughout Khartoum as well as some in Omdurman and Bahri (parts of the Khartoum metropolitan area, separated by the Nile). After several days, however, the number of protests seemed to decrease, even as international media began focusing on them. While there were reports of protests at universities outside of Khartoum, these protests were not particularly significant.

More striking still was the way that the government handled the protests. While they sought to contain them with tear gas and at times were quite violent, the number of those who died was quite small. This was intentional—the regime was quite aware that the death of a student was the cause for the October Revolution in ’64, and that funerals have been a site of mobilization in other countries during the Arab Spring.

I am not currently in Sudan, so I can’t get a sense of the character of these protests. At the same time, they do seem more widespread and popular. Video footage has been making the rounds on facebook in the past day of school girls in Omdurman protesting, and many Sudanese secondary schools have been closed for the upcoming days. The number of neighborhoods where protests are being reported seems wider than last year, and the size of the protests seems larger. There’s an internet campaign called Abena, meaning “we refuse,” but unlike last time, it doesn’t seem to be the internet leading the demonstrators, but rather, following and seeking to reflect the demonstrators.

The protests also seem much stronger outside of Khartoum, in other major cities including Medani, Atbara, Nyala, and Port Sudan. Protests in Medani began early in anticipation of the price rises, and they seem to be the largest, with reports in some articles of tanks being sent to Medani and the roads to there being closed off. For other protests outside of Khartoum, access to journalists is somewhat limited, but there is footage of protests in Atbara floating around on facebook (I haven’t been able to track down all the video links out there, but I’ll try to post some links later if it proves important).

Most frighteningly, the government seems to be responding more violently, with at least 21 deaths so far. It seems clear that at least within the security apparatus, there is no hope that these protests will be avoided or that they will die down on their own—instead, the government seems intent on quashing them unambiguously and brutally.

I’m particularly worried about the fact that the internet was cut off in Sudan today. This was done most likely to curb activists using the internet to organize, but in a country with few international reporters and where all journalists face overwhelming limitations, it also serves to limit outside knowledge of what’s happening there.

The government has bet that it can ride out these protests by responding brutally until they subside. Sudanese society seems to be responding more strongly than last year, but it’s still quite early, so it’s unclear how this will play out.

We’ll just have to wait until Sudan reemerges onto the internet with evidence of what’s happening.

*I don’t care for using hashtags to indicate social movements, since I think their origins are with people, not with a particular web platform. At the same time, it was clear that young protesters used this label themselves and identified with it.