Critics within Omar al-Bashir’s party add to pressure on Islamist autocratic leader blamed for corruption and rising costs
Two Saturdays ago 15 men from Sudan’s state security rattled the door of Miyada el-Rufaei’s house in Khartoum and asked for five minutes outside with her father. Abdel Fatah el-Rufaei has not been seen since.
“After 24 years,” said Miyada, referring to the length of time since Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup, “we know what five minutes means.” Miyada’s father, Abdel Fatah, a longtime political dissident, is no stranger to arbitrary detention. This is the sixth time in two decades that he has been held incommunicado by Sudan’s feared state security, the National Intelligence and Security Services – known locally as Niss.
What is significant this time is who has joined Abdel Fatah in prison. At least 800 Sudanese were rounded up that week – and over 200 killed in the streets – as demonstrators across the country took to the streets during several days of protests against a cut in fuel subsidies that was the final straw for a population already suffering extreme economic hardship.
The protests were unprecedented for not just their scale and spread, but for the severity of the state’s response. Those involved were not just the usual students and activists like el-Rufaei, but middle-class Sudanese from well-to-do areas, and those from the poorest districts of Khartoum and towns across the country. On Thursday four children and four adults were convicted of vandalism. Estimates suggest fewer than 20,000 were on the streets of greater Khartoum at any one time – a tiny proportion of the city’s 5 million residents – and no more than a few thousand congregated in any one place. But in Sudan, where dissent has long been stifled, this was still significant.
“It’s too dangerous to gather in one place, that’s a suicide job,” said Ahmad Mohamed – a rapper and activist from Girifna, a prominent protest movement – describing the atomised nature of Sudan’s revolt. “This is not a revolution of the square, but of alleys and dusty neighbourhood roads. And it’s significant because it’s reaching neighbourhoods where there’s not really a big history of protests.”
According to Amin Mekki Medani, the president of an umbrella coalition of 30 Sudanese NGOs, “the magnitude and spontaneity of the protests are unprecedented”.
So too was the state’s brutality. Long accused of atrocities in Darfur, Korfodan and the Nuba mountains, Bashir’s men have rarely murdered opponents on the streets of the capital itself. But when crowds first congregated in several neighbourhoods in Khartoum in the days following 25 September, Niss troops often arrived in pick-up trucks within minutes. In some cases they fired teargas, beating and arresting anyone they could find. In others they fired live rounds from their Toyota trucks – nicknamed locally as “Thatchers”, as their tough frames draw comparisons with Britain’s steely former prime minister.
“They shot us like mice,” said Auob, an activist, who counted 19 dead in the run-down district of Mayo – a district populated mainly by Darfurian refugees – on 25 September, the first day of protests. The next day, he said, he saw Niss using mounted machine guns to shoot two men queuing outside a local hospital to see relatives injured the day before.
Locals here largely stayed out Sudan’s last round of major protests in summer 2012. But this time they were out in force, and Auob – whose name has been changed for his safety – claims the state’s particularly brutal crackdown here was fuelled by the Bashir regime’s discrimination towards those from Darfur. “Our people are fighting the government in [Darfur],” he argued , “so it’s a kind of a punishment.”
But Niss was also brutal in its suppression of well-to-do Arabs in more central areas of Khartoum. Salah Sanhouri, a popular 27-year-old pharmacist connected to Sudan’s elites, became a lightning rod for middle-class outrage when he was shot dead while protesting in the upmarket district of Buri. His cousin Elrayah said he was killed by a bullet fired from such short range that it “came out the other side, taking parts of his heart with it”.
Many in the middle classes who were uninterested in last year’s protests identified with Sanhouri, said Usamah Mohamed, a well-known activist imprisoned last year. “They wouldn’t identify with a street vendor. But with Salah Sanhouri, for the first time they felt they were targeted,” said Mohamed, one of many to describe Khartoum’s collective shock at the violence of the state.
But the initial cause of the protests was economic. On Tuesday 24 September Bashir announced a raft of economic reforms aimed at easing the strain on Sudan’s weak government finances – weakened through years of corruption, the spiralling costs of wars on three fronts, international sanctions, and the loss of oil revenues brought about by the recent secession of South Sudan.
The most controversial of the reforms was the removal of a fuel subsidy. Overnight the price of one gallon of fuel jumped from 12.5 Sudanese pounds to 21 (the equivalent of £1.75 to £3). That morning thousands of workers and schoolchildren suddenly could not afford the bus – so either walked miles to work, or stayed at home.
Ibrahim el-Ghandour, a spokesman for Bashir’s party, said the cut was part of a wider package “that took into consideration the poor”. But in reality, the subsidy’s removal had a devastating and far-reaching effect, even on those who had never been able to afford the bus, as the cost of food rose in proportion with the cost of transporting it.
It was the final straw for the many who had long resented how Bashir’s corrupt cronies lived in luxury while costs spiralled for ordinary people.
“Everything is just expensive,” said Betul el-Refaei, Miyada’s sister. “At a public hospital the doctor might be free, but you have to bring your own cotton or injections. The same with education. You have to buy your books. In government schools they gather money from pupils to pay for electricity.”
To add to the insult, many grew furious at patronising comments made by Bashir and other members of his National Congress party. The Sudanese, he said, should be grateful to him because his tenure had brought them the hot-dog. Using a similar argument, his finance minister cited the pizza. By contrast, older citizens remembered what his regime had destroyed – from Sudan’s railway system, to the civil service.
“It’s the drop of water that has made the cup spill over,” said Awad Mohamed Awad, managing director of al-Jareeda, one of Sudan’s most outspoken newspapers. Since protests began al-Jareeda has only been printed once, due to government censors – who also shut down the internet for a day. “The offensive comments were the thing that we could not accept,” Awad said. “It reminded people how there are two different Sudans – one for the government, and one for the rest, who have little access to medicine, transportation, or education.”
The protests have since lulled, with many naturally cowed by the killings. But most expect them to begin again soon. “As an economist, I see the problems becoming even worse in the coming days because the economic measures that have been taken will hike prices even more,” warned Abda Yahia al-Mahdi, a former finance minister turned economics consultant. “People will again come to the streets. The difficult days are yet to come.”
But whether this results in something as seismic as Bashir’s ousting remains to be seen. “We’re working on the assumption that at some point there will be some kind of change,” said a senior western diplomat. “But whether that involves a change of regime – or a change within the regime – is unclear.”
Many Sudanese do not see Sudan’s mainstream opposition parties as a real alternative to Bashir, and popular appetite for wholesale revolution is unclear. A significant proportion of the country benefits from the government’s patronage networks – including the army. While some soldiers mounted a failed coup attempt last year, the army has close ties with Bashir – who was a soldier himself.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Bashir’s government comes from his own party. Thirty of his nominal allies – led by his former adviser, Ghazi Salahuddin Attalah – sent Bashir an open letter last week that criticised both his cuts and the crackdown.
“There’s no doubt that we are the majority [inside the NCP],” Attalah told the Guardian. “There are many people who agree that the party and the country needs a new leadership but some are wary of saying so publicly.”
Observers note Bashir’s previous pragmatism, and speculate that such pressure might prompt him to save his position by rethinking his economic strategy. But al-Mahdi, the minister turned economist, said that though a new strategy was essential, Bashir may lack the political will to implement it.
The cost of reintroducing subsidies would need to be covered by cuts to Sudan’s military expenditure (which may account for more that 70% of the budget) and bloated ministries. But al-Mahdi said splashing money on government employees was a key part of Bashir’s survival strategy, which maintains loyalty through patronage networks that critics say involves party apparatchiks government salaries.
“Any meaningful reduction in spending will need political reforms and this is why the government has not made them,” she said.
For now, the government has regained control of the streets. Niss’s Thatchers stand guard near Salah Sanhouri’s house, ready to stamp out any new hint of dissent. But their presence shows the government is rattled, and few doubt there is more trouble brewing – or that this can be dismissed as merely a few activists grasping at the coat-tails of the Arab spring.
“People are back inside their homes for now,” said Betul el-Refaei, whose father remains incarcerated. “But they’re boiling with anger.”