Uprising in Sudan: What we know now (October 1, 2013)

By Eric Reeves

[A continuation of the overviews:

October 1, 2013 (SSNA) — Events of the past three days may not have been as spectacular in size or scale of violence compared with what we witnessed last week through Friday prayers and into Saturday; however, the significance of what we have learned in this period warrants some consolidation.  I think it especially important to understand the specific implications of current developments within historical context, fortuitously provided in brief by distinguished historian Douglas Johnson in an interview with Voice of America.  Johnson says Sudan hasn’t seen such protests since two previous governments were toppled in the 1960s and 1980s, and emphasized the fact that the protests have spread beyond Khartoum:

"I don’t know if [the demonstrations are] being coordinated, but that is an indication of a rising sea of discontent. What you’ve got to have in Sudan for this to be successful is, one, you have to have a public that has nothing left to fear—and I think we’re beginning to see that—and, two, you’ve got to see a loss of morale in security services. I don’t know if you’ve seen that yet, but those two combined are what brought down the two previous military governments in 1964 and 1985." (Voice of America [Nairobi], October 1, 2013)

Nesrine Malik writing in The Guardian on-line today (October 1) declares that,

While the numbers remain small, two things stand out: the anger has crossed the class divide and, most distressingly, the number of protesters shot and killed by government security forces has been unprecedentedThere have been too many deaths too close to home.

What is the evidence that we have reached the tipping point Johnson points to and that Malik intimates?  I attempt here to consolidate such evidence as we have from the past three days under the following headings:

[1]  International failure. There has been to date a conspicuous failure of the international community to respond with remotely adequate condemnation of the regime for its bloody tactics, or to offer even moral support for those attempting to liberalize political conditions in Sudan.  Karim Lahidji, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (French acronym, FIDH), put the matter bluntly and with appropriate historical recollection:

"The international community has too often provided inadequate responses to serious violations of human rights in Sudan. The African Union must take the lead and respond to the current crisis with the gravity it  requires, by urgently sending a commission of inquiry." (Public statement, with the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, October 1, 2013)

At the same time, an Agence France-Presse dispatch from Washington has been given this grimly revealing title by a number of news outlets: "Kerry avoids criticizing crackdown in talks with Sudanese foreign minister" (September 30).  And indeed the AFP dispatch reveals that, "US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday met with his Sudanese counterpart Ali Karti in Washington but failed to repeat strong U.S. criticism of the deadly crackdown on protestors."

The refusal to engage on such an occasion suggests yet again that the Obama administration has no coherent foreign policy or ability to anticipate changes in various parts of the world.  Time after time, U.S. action or inaction has contributed to crises, particularly in the Arab world and Africa. The African Union has, all too predictably, been silent and appears confused.  Even more dismayingly, Russia is reported to have "discouraged debate" at the UN Security Council on the uprising in Sudan.  This would appear to forestall Security Council involvement for the foreseeable future, despite the urgency of the situation on the ground in Sudan.  Russia has sold huge quantities of expensive armaments to Khartoum, including MiG-29 advanced fighter aircraft, deadly helicopter gunships, and maintenance and piloting contracts.

The signal now being sent to the regime in Khartoum is that it can expect forceful condemnation by human rights groups (fully expected), tepid criticism from the U.S. and EU (a point of concern in the regime’s calculations), ambiguous commentary from the Arab League countries—but nothing of significance from international actors with the power to bring pressure to bear on Khartoum to halt its bloody repression, and to address the underlying causes of the uprising.

[2]  Mortality: we simply can’t know how many have died, but the most compelling reports suggest a figure of almost 1,000 killed or wounded, with more than 1,000 arrested—the latter a number that continues to grow rapidly (see excellent dispatch from Asharq Al-Awsat [Khartoum and London], September 30).

In the absence of any authoritative figure, I am guided in my own estimate by the following:

The head of the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate, Dr Ahmed Al Sheikh, said that an estimated number of 210 people were killed during the demonstrations of last week. Al Sheikh noted that this number exceeds the numbers of dead during the popular revolts of October 1964 and March-April 1985. He stated, in an interview with news site al-Hurriyaat, that most injuries caused by bullets were found in the head and chest. Al Sheikh also reported that security forces forced most of the relatives of the protesters killed to agree on the death certificate mentioning "natural causes," instead of live ammunition. The relatives were then forced to sign the forged death certificate. 

Al Sheikh confirmed that the security forces have arrested and threatened a number of doctors with the aim to conceal what happened to the protesters killed and injured by live bullets.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Health of Khartoum state, Dr Muiz Hassan Bakhit, reported that the number of people killed during the demonstrations has reached 34 and more than 500 were injured. [There would have been tremendous regime pressure on Minister Bakhit to lower the figure for those injured—strongly suggesting that it is in fact much higher than 500—ER]  (Radio Dabanga, September 29)

This obscene pressure on relatives to sign forged death certificates in order to reclaim the bodies of family and friends is a measure of how intent the regime is on minimizing reports of the number of casualties.  And reporting on casualties may get worse; one reliable source indicates that:

"During yesterday and today [September 28] the government changed the system in all hospitals [so that] doctors in most departments belong to the security apparatus. [There they are able to] prevent writing reports about the number of dead and wounded, as well as the lack of criminal record data about the victims."

(See also the ominous report of denial of hospital services to the wounded, from the human right organization Arryhttp://arry.org/?p=823.)

[3]  Cracks and dissention the regime.  Within the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, there are growing signs of large-scale flight of families of senior officials and some officials themselves.  Ali Karti, with whom Secretary of State Kerry met, has been reported by two independent sources as having moved his family to Dubai.  But perhaps the most blatant effort to sequester money and family is suggested by this widely circulated posting in the social media (which grow stronger and more organized by the day):

One prominent opposition leader announced during an interview with SkyNews Arabic Channel (based in London) that Dubai airport authorities had seized a huge sum of U.S. dollars in cash, along with one of the sons of a highly ranked minister in the Government of Sudan. Later in the social media it was reported that the son of Oil Minister Awad al-Jaz was stopped in Dubai Airport with bags of $10 million in cash.

Dubai seems to be a destination of choice among members of the regime, so authorities are not likely to allow us to receive independent journalistic confirmation.  But events of this sort are undoubtedly continuing, indeed accelerating.  There could hardly be a more powerful vote of "no confidence" in the future of the regime.  Those rumored to have moved their families out of Sudan in recent days include: Foreign Minister Ali Karti, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, Awad al-Jaz (see above), powerful long-time regime stalwart Nafie Ali Nafie, and even al-Bashir himself.

The reason for this may be that the regime is cracking internally.  In an extraordinary development, 31 members and supporters of the NIF/NCP, including former party heavyweight Ghazi Saleh el-Din Attabani, wrote a highly critical letter to al-Bashir, chastising the president both for economic mismanagement and for excessive violence (there are credible rumors that Ghazi, having been stripped of power and position within the party, will soon be expelled).

Associated Press reports from Khartoum (September 30):

One senior official in the ruling party, Mohammed al-Amin Ahmed, said discontent with al-Bashir’s leadership is growing in the party. But the core is pressing him to take a tough line because otherwise "it means their end." As a result, he said, al-Bashir is "hesitant" over whether to run or not. Diaa Eddin Bilal, chief editor of the Al-Sudani newspaper, said the government itself must bring some reforms or else the army could intervene, which he fears could open up new violence.

Even Sudan Vision, entirely a propaganda tool of the regime, wondered aloud today whether the decision to lift subsidies was made with proper consideration of the consequences—an extraordinary challenge from a regime-controlled media organ.

Clearly, despite al-Bashir’s repeated declarations, and those of his Interior Minister, there is still a great deal of pressure to reverse the decision to lift fuel subsidies. But should al-Bashir and the Interior Minister reverse themselves now—having dug in their heels so deeply on the matter—their authority would be deeply compromised.

[ For an excellent, extended, and highly informed dispatch from Khartoum by Associated Press (Maggie Michael), see "Sudan Leader Digs in Against Protests."  ]

[4]  Censorship and the control of information:

The regime has outdone its repressive self in a desperate effort to control the steady flow of grim news.  Besides the closing of many newspapers, and demanding of those that do publish that they present only the regime’s accounts of the violence, there was a one-day shutdown of Sudan’s access to the Internet (September 25).  In the place of reporting with any integrity, there is wholesale nonsense being offered as serious explanation.  Agence France-Press reports from Khartoum:

[R]eporters [are] complaining of stepped-up censorship, [as] numerous videos and photographs purporting to show bloodied victims have circulated on YouTube, Facebook and other social media since the demonstrations began eight days ago, sparked by a rise in fuel prices. "Most of the pictures on social media websites are from Egypt," Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamed told a news conference where he and other officials were confronted by a Sudanese reporter.

"Why are you always telling lies? The people are killed by NCP militia," said Bahram Abdelmoneim when he got up to ask a question. Abdelmoneim, of Al Youm Al Taly newspaper, referring to the [explanation offered by the] National Congress Party. He was unreachable by telephone later after colleagues said he had gone to a meeting with state security agents.

"Foreign journalists have also experienced unexplained mobile phone disruptions. Khartoum governor Abdel Rahman Al-Khidir told the news conference alongside Hamed that police only opened fire to defend their stations. Hamed said "criminal" attacks—separate from the peaceful protests—had been launched on police facilities and petrol stations. "We know that overseas foundations are supporting these criminal activities," he said, adding that about 700 people have now been arrested. "They used the same tactics that the Darfur rebels are using in Darfur."

In short, the same "foundations"—by which Hamid evidently means international relief organizations—responsible for what has occurred in Darfur are now responsible for what is occurring in Khartoum.  These are lies beyond shame, beyond the remotest credibility, falling short even of respectable propaganda—they are perfectly representative of the NIF/NCP at this moment of crisis.

[5]  The economy: between a rock and a hard place.  It bears repeating: There is simply no economic "exit strategy" from the disaster that has been in the making under the current regime for many years.  Brute economic realities ensured that there was in fact no way to continue subsidizing fuel—certainly not within the already highly tenuous budgetary parameters confronting those in charge of determining where an increasingly limited amount of money is spent.  And this, of course, is only what is available after the 50 – 70 percent that is spent on the army and security services, as well as in the form of profligate military purchases.  Such grossly distorted priorities are one of the reasons that the agricultural sector has fallen into such bad shape. 

But with the loss of oil revenues (paid in hard currency) from concessions in South Sudan, and the failure of the "gold mining alternative" (exacerbated by the declining value of gold), the country simply does not have any foreign exchange currency (Forex).  Only such currency can be used at this point for purchases abroad; the Sudanese Pound has rapidly declined in value over the past two years and more, leaving a painfully low exchange rate (8.3 – 8.5 Sudanese Pounds to the U.S. dollar this week on the black market—an all-time low, and still continuing in decline).

Unable to purchase from abroad, the regime has no way to provide the wheat that is critical in the Sudanese diet and has been purchased abroad for years.  There is no way to import parts and services, even for the most critical sectors of the economy.  This in turn only accelerates the drive to acquire hard currency, and further deflates the value of the Pound—this in turn produces more inflation, already running at 50 percent or more.  And if the regime should, as it may yet do, simply turn on the printing presses to create more Sudanese Pounds, the effect will be purely inflationary—there will be no stimulus effect, no additional money of value in the pockets of ordinary Sudanese, just much higher prices.  Hyper-inflation will collapse the economy altogether.  Since over half "ordinary Sudanese" now live below the international poverty line, declining purchasing power becomes a matter of life and death.  Even so, these people were for the regime a mere afterthought, commanding only a callous response to the violence and murders concentrated among those at the center of the uprising.  The regime’s response was to "offer cash payments"—as if the murder of innocents can be somehow bought off (Asharq Al-Awsat [Khartoum and London], September 30).

Perhaps the regime still dreams of foreign investment and the cash it will yield; but all of value, including arable land, has already been mortgaged to Arab or Asian interests.  And no one is likely to extend credit of any kind to a regime that last year ranked among the very lowest of the 176 countries assessed in Transparency International’s index of perceived private sector corruption (Agence France-Presse [Khartoum], October 1, 2013).  Certainly getting out from underneath the crushing burden of US$42 billion in external debt is now a distant memory.  If nothing else, the murderous response to the uprising makes it impossible for the IMF to act in ways that might be seen to be throwing a rescue line to the regime.

[6]  The future.  The question many are asking, of course, is whether this uprising will die down, as the uprising of summer 2012 did.  Many of the issues discussed above will bear on any answer: more death will create more martyrs, more anger, and greater support for the uprising.  When the full force of the lifted subsidies is felt in any return to "normalcy," the full pain of this highly inflationary spurt will be felt—and felt most by those who have played the largest role in the uprising to date, which has been remarkable in part because it has crossed normal economic and social barriers in Khartoum and its environs.

There are several reasons for believing that the Sudanese have had enough of the al-Bashir regime, and that the regime simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to resuscitate a moribund economy, wage war against internal enemies on several fronts—and address the grievances of those most affected by the decision on subsidies.

• Reports of demonstrations have continued to come, today and yesterday, from not only Khartoum and Omdurman, where police tear-gassed students at el-Ahfad University for Women, but in Port Sudan, Atbara, and elsewhere. Reports on Port Sudan are especially consistent. But even in Khartoum the protests persist; Agence France-Presse reports from Khartoum (September 30):

About 200 called for freedom Monday night as they marched through streets of Khartoum’s Burri area for a third day to express support for the "martyr" Salah Sanhouri, 28, a pharmacist. He was shot dead during a protest on Friday, they said. In Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman witnesses said about 300 people demonstrated at the main bus station until police tear gassed them…. In the town of Atbara north of the capital, police dispersed about 400 demonstrators, witnesses said.

[Reliable source, September 30]: Demonstrations resume in Khartoum North, Sahafa in Khartoum, and Umbaddah in Omdurman where one person was reported killed.

• There have been several reports of desertions by army units; to date, no larger units are reported to have gone over to the side of the uprising, but what we have seen so far may be only the "thin edge of the wedge."  The resignation of a SAF major in Was Medani may well be the first of many: the middle officer ranks in the SAF have long been deeply dismayed by the decisions of the political and military leadership.  The loss of such officers would largely paralyze the SAF.  Associated Press reports from Khartoum (September 30):

Grumbling within the military has raised the possibility that the country could see yet another coup, as it did in 1964 and 1985. Former Army General Salah Eddin Karar said some in the officer corps feel al-Bashir has been monopolizing power, saying he failed to consult on major issues like the negotiations that led to the south’s separation or the conduct of the war in Darfur, the western region where rebels have been waging an insurgency since 2003. [Karar was among the 31 figures from within the NIF/NCP calling for "reform"—ER]

• The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) made a statement of solidarity with those in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan, and promised not to act in ways that would endanger peaceful protestors.  But under the leadership of Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North, any weaknesses in SAF positions will be skillfully exploited, bring further pressure to bear on the regime.  And in the event of all-out war on civilians—something the NIF/NCP is quite capable of—and continued international inaction, the SRF may in fact become actively involved within Khartoum and its environs.  The key point articulated in the September 30 statement was that the SRF joint military command will "develop a military to enhance the peaceful uprising and accelerate the process of change."

• The uprising already has a character much different from that of summer 2012.  There are already "martyrs," highly regarded young people with widely extending families.  The most prominent to date, and already for some a symbol of the uprising, is Salah Sanhouri (photograph here):

The shouts of demonstrators carry the name of Salah Sanhouri through the Khartoum night, as they mourn a slain comrade who has become a symbol of a deadly government crackdown. "With our souls and our blood, we are ready to die for you, Salah," a crowd chanted outside the home of the young pharmacist who was killed during a protest on Friday. Most of the dozens killed last week during protests sparked by fuel price increases  have died in obscurity. But the name of Sanhouri, who comes from a prominent business family, has resonated. Ordinary Sudanese know him as the "doctor" who lost his life. (Agence France-Presse [Khartoum, October 1, 2013)

Notably, Nafie Ali Nafie was caught on tape being kicked out of the funeral service for Salah Sanhouri—a measure of the regard for the young man and the anger directed at such a powerful member of the regime.

To return to Johnson’s point about a "public with nothing left to fear," Islam al-Tayeb, a Sudanese analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Bahrain), worries that,

…the lack of credible opposition parties offering a political alternative to Bashir could dampen the revolutionary spirit. She also says that after being ruled by one man for 25 years, many Sudanese people are wary of joining protests, and believe that they won’t receive outside help for a "Sudan spring" by regional or international players that have either abandoned or alienated Khartoum. But the death toll has shocked many into action.

"The risk is high, and the mobilization is serious. And the problem this time also is the crackdown has led to the deaths of many Sudanese and right now many of the demands that people were calling for have changed, from economic to political demands, and calling for the removal of the regime, which many consider [to] have their hands covered in blood," said Al-Tayeb. Al-Tayeb says that the government would sacrifice President Bashir to maintain control of the country, but only if risks and demands grow significantly, and if more boots take to the streets. (Voice of America [Nairobi], October 1, 2013)

Equally telling is an assessment reported by Al Jazeera from Khartoum (September 30):

Reporting from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Hamid said activists told her the next 10 days leading up to the Eid holiday are "crucial," as they fear the holiday could break the momentum of the protests.

Let there be no mistake: the uprising in Sudan is in the hands of the Sudanese.  But they deserve all the help the international community can provide—and certainly more than we have seen from the Obama administration or the EU or the UN:

On Friday [September 27], the United States described the crackdown as "brutal" and said excessive force had been used. The European Union also expressed concern about the deaths, and a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged security forces to exercise "utmost restraint." (Middle East On-Line [Khartoum], September 30)

Easy words, wholly inadequate and with no entailments—just what the regime wishes for.  The Arab League must speak with a strong voice; the African Union must find the nerve to confront the Khartoum regime, something it has not previously shown any stomach for.

Again, in the end the people of Sudan will define their destiny…but it is still being charted, and too little assistance is being offered to these victims of 24 years of oppression, violence, gratuitous military actions, and the grossest economic mismanagement.

APPENDIX: Partial list of human rights organizations, "social media," and on-line sources of reporting about current events in Sudan:

Sudan Tribunewww.sudantribune.com
Radio Dabanga: www.RadioDabanga.org
Human Rights Watch: www.hrw.org
Amnesty International: www.amnesty.org
African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies: http://www.acjps.org/  

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, French acronym:

Sudan Democracy First Group: http://democracygroup.blogspot.com
Arry Organization for Human Rights: www.arry.org
Girifna: Non-violent Resistance Movement: http://www.girifna.com/
eimanld: https://twitter.com/eimanId (primarily Arabic language posts)
Eric Reeves: www.SudanReeves.org

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.

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