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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Parties! (but not the fun kind)

There’s been a lot of politicking and political squabbling in Sudan these days. It all began after the crackdown, with Attabani and others in the NCP formally asking Bashir to reinstate the lifted fuel subsidies. This squabbling eventually led to the new split in the NCP, which Magdi al Gizouli talks about in greater detail.

More recently, however, there’s been even more action. The Democratic Unionist Party (led by Mirghani and closely associated with the Khatmiyya, a traditional religious sect) formally left the NCP governing coalition. They’ve been threatening for some time, but this marks an end to whatever coalitions the NCP forged during the period the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and the elimination of any pretence that the regime is seeking out consensus.

Most likely, it’s a further symptom of the crackdown. As we’ve already seen, internal dissent is tolerated even less now than it has been in the past. What are the long term implications of this? It’s not really clear. After all, the Umma party (another political party with a sectarian support-base and a large following) has been in the opposition for quite some time, but has avoided taking a strong stance against the regime.

Meanwhile, crazy stuff seems to be happening in South Sudanese politics. On Friday, Salva Kiir announced that he was dissolving all the governing structures of his party, the SPLM. Then, two days ago, Michael Lueth, the South Sudan Information Minister came forward to explain that Salva Kiir was misunderstood—that these structures need to be dissolved and changed, but that they would continue until they were replaced. I am less confident assessing South Sudanese politics, but it seems like Kiir’s backers (at least the influential ones) may have stepped in to reign in his statement. Most South Sudan observers have noted that the SPLM has been marked by a lack of structure, with personalities taking the lead, and this sort of incident seems in some ways like an example of such personalized rule.

Are the Northern parties much different? There is certainly an aspect of personalized rule to them, as evidenced by the current standoff with the NCP and the longstanding leadership of Mirghani in the DUP and Sadiq al Mahdi in the Umma Party. What seems most different is that these parties have been around for a lot longer and that many of them draw upon already existing power structures (the Khatmiyya in the case of the DUP and the Ansar in the case of the Umma party)

In both countries, it doesn’t seem like the parties are particularly welcoming of dissent or new ideas. South Sudan’s political wrangling include Salva Kiir’s removal of Riek Machar as vice president in July. In the North, the parties are quite old and they don’t really reach out to young leaders. In a great piece discussing Sudanese opposition groups, Akshaya Kumar argues against Alex De Waal’s assessment of the protest movements in Sudan by pointing to the New Dawn Charter and the Sudan Change Forces statement as examples of opposition groups creating precise plans for what can happen should the current regime be ousted. This point is definitely true, but what’s striking is that the opposition groups that signed on to these agreements were largely the traditional opposition groups—none of which are led by the younger generation that Kumar focuses on throughout the rest of her piece.

Khalid Medani, writing at MERIP, points out that these groups largely view themselves as mediators or “coordinating mechanisms” between the younger generation and the traditional political parties. This view seems pretty persuasive—they have been quite active, as both Medani and Kumar note, in mobilizing youth of a certain economic class with international connections and technological skills. At the same time, they don’t really work with any of the political parties, and they haven’t even been acknowledged by them to a large extent. If they are going to play a role in the future, it will be important for them to be acknowledged by more traditional power structures in some fashion, or they will need to bypass traditional power structures entirely—something they do not yet have the mobilizing power to do.

Clearly it’s a time of political shuffling. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s at time of actual political change, even of the more gradual sort. This is a shame—both countries face enough problems that new ideas would be great.


Social Movements and Ideological Innovation

Everywhere I went this week, I ended up thinking about Sudanese youth movements and political debates.

Dr Haidar Ibrahim Ali (whose book السودان …الوطن المضيع I’m enjoying right now) has a piece translated on al Monitor in which he argues that Islamists, after ruling for such a long time in Sudan, have created a governing structure that rejects all debate. Because of this, they have fractured over and over again, and these fractures will ultimately lead to the fall of the regime.

Around the same time, al Monitor published a piece by Zenobia Azeem in which she argues that the Sudanese government’s restrictive policies, including a restrictive education system and heavy censorship, have led to a “lost generation” of Sudanese youth. Showcasing a young man who reached out to extremist Islam only to become disenchanted with the intellectual and political prospects within Sudan, Azeem’s piece underscores the possibility of change through education and youth involvement—activities that Nabeel Mohamed, the young man Azeem interviews, is only able to reach through activities outside of Sudan.

The need to go outside Sudan in order to learn and be involved with activities within Sudan is something that has been present historically—after all, many of the early Sudanese leaders were educated outside of Sudan. Still, I think the phenomenon that Muniness points to on Muftah of Sudanese youth in diaspora being involved in a “neoopposition” movement against the Sudanese government is a new one, facilitated by ICT technology. The question remains: to what end? What goals other than regime change are these youth groups pushing for?

Dr. Ali’s analysis of the current regime’s ideological prospects carries quite a lot of weight. He points to the fact that many Islamists who used to sympathize from the regime no longer are able to support it due to its rigidity (although he also argues that such rigidity is inherent in a religious ideological framework—something I’m no entirely convinced of). Even this week, we see a further fracturing of the regime, with the defection of Attabani from the NCP.

At the same time, neither he nor Azeem addresses the way that the NCP, with its “Islamic civilization” project and overhaul of the education system, has changed the frame of debate for Sudanese youth today. What ideas are Sudanese youth exposed to? What is now ‘mainstream’ and what is ‘radical?’ How do the ideas of Sudanese youth with access to Western education (and I use the term broadly) differ from those of Sudanese youth without that access?

Muzan speaks to some of these issues, arguing that groups such as Change Now and Girifna must develop their own political and intellectual frameworks in order to advance causes that are not just oppositional, but also put forward visions of how Sudan should be. In doing so, these groups will able to better make alliances and attract members.

I think that’s starting to happen—and that it’s quite needed. Right now, it seems important to get a sense of the spectrum of opinions that youth hold today; no one set of ideas has mobilized them yet, but that might change soon. This “lost generation” will create ideas distinct from its predecessors; the conditions for debate have shifted, and activities that were once normal are no longer present in society. This will change ideas of what is possible and what is preferable. As youth organizations move beyond the polarizing political debates of the past, it will be exciting to see what they create–whatever happens next will require a constructive vision of what can be. I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like.