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Sudan: Northern regime tightens grip as protests flare

Heavily armed police patrolled Khartoum's main streets on January 30, as demonstrations broke out throughout the city demanding the government resign.

[See also "Sudan: Why the people of the south voted for independence".]

By Kerryn Williams

February 10, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- “The situation in Egypt is different than the situation of Sudan”, government spokesperson Rabie A. Atti insisted to reporters following January 30 anti-government protests. “We don’t have one small group that controls everything. Wealth is distributed equally. We’ve given power to the states.”

This statement proves one similarity between Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and that of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir: both make ludicrous public statements that have little connection with reality and show no understanding of the consciousness of their populations.

Students protested in several cities including Khartoum and Medani on January 12-13 in response to fuel and sugar price increases, facing police batons, tear gas and arrests.

The largest protests to date were on January 30, involving thousands of students buoyed by events in Egypt. Facebook and other websites were used extensively to build support. According to el Fadl, five radical and democratic youth organisations were behind the protests — Hope and Change, Resistance in the Neighbourhood, Youth for Change, Girifna and First Change.

Thousands of students braved the notoriously brutal Sudanese police and security forces. Rallies took place at three universities and other sites across the capital, as well as in east and west Sudan. Students called for Bashir’s government to resign and condemned recent austerity measures and ongoing attacks of democratic rights.

Police and security forces responded harshly, surrounding university campuses and beating students who tried to leave to join protests. Tear gas was used in student dormitories and plain-clothed police. Militias attacked protesters.

Al Ahlia University student Mohamed Abdelrahman died after severe police beatings, SudaneseTribune.com said. At least 70 people were arrested and more than 100 injured as clashes continued into the evening. Dozens of protesters remain in detention and there have been further arrests. According to Sudaneseonline.com, detainees have suffered electric shock and other torture. Ill protesters have been prevented from taking their medicine. Families have maintained protest vigils outside internal security offices and a major demonstration to demand the protesters’ release is being planned for February 15.

Elite rule

Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup orchestrated by the National Islamic Front (which later became the now ruling National Congress Party). Contrary to claims by Atti, the regime has maintained a tight monopoly on power and has neither shared the country’s wealth nor allowed any genuine local control across Sudan’s vast and diverse territory.

Economic development and political power have been concentrated in Khartoum, to the detriment of all other parts of the country, since the days of British colonial rule. The British rulers facilitated the rise of the Arabic-speaking, Muslim elite from the groups living where the Blue and While Niles converge (“the people of the river”, or awlad al bahar in Arabic) who assumed power after independence.

While maintaining an iron grip on the military, economy and government, Khartoum's ruling elite has deprived the rest of the country — in particular the populations of the south, west and east — of development and basic services. While their natural resources are pillaged, these regions are subjected to Khartoum's “Arab chauvinism”, which has forced Islamic law and the Arabic language on the various ethnic, religious and linguistic groups throughout Sudan. The regime has responded to a series of rebellions in the marginalised areas with violent repression.

Meanwhile, even the vast majority of people in the privileged centre, while benefiting from greater infrastructure, resources and services, have long suffered under several post-colonial dictators.

The NCP government has been compliant in implementing International Monetary Fund/World Bank anti-people economic policies. In addition, the deeply corrupt regime syphons the country’s wealth into its own coffers and the massive military budget required to suppress continued dissent. Clientelism is rife, and the government has made use of substantial oil income to buy support.

The regime has decimated public services. The education system — once considered Africa's finest — is poorly resourced and curriculum has been Islamised. Health and medical services are in decline. Last year public hospital doctors took strike action demanding better pay and working conditions after the government failed to pay their meagre wages for several months.

The NCP’s method of rule ensured a near unanimous vote in favour of separation by south Sudan in the January 9-15, 2011, referendum. The absurdity of Atta’s claims is also evident in the regime's genocidal war in Darfur, in western Sudan, which began in 2003 after locals began to rise up against their treatment by Khartoum. More than 300,000 people have died in the war so far. The NCP has been accused of intensifying its attacks in Darfur during the past two months while attention has been focused on the southern referendum.

Following the establishment of the Republic of South Sudan, expected in July, the regime in the north is set to lose around a third of the land and a quarter of the population it once controlled, along with a majority of oil production. While promising to allow the referendum result to be implemented, Khartoum is seeking to resolve outstanding issues in its favour, such as division of oil revenue and border demarcation — including which side of the border Abyei and its oil reserves will end up — and to extract concessions from US imperialism in return for accepting the referendum results.

Relations with Washington

The NCP hopes the US will remove Sudan from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terror, relieve Sudan’s debt (estimated at around US$38 billion, a majority of which is interest and late payment fees) and provide aid and investment in the north. Al Bashir has also put in an ambit claim for his indictment in the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur to be overturned. US President Barack Obama has suggested Sudan could be taken off the terrorism list by July.

Sudan’s foreign minister Ali Karti met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on January 26 to discuss future collaboration and Clinton congratulated the Sudanese government for its conduct during the referendum. AFP reported that Karti thanked the US “for all they have done (throughout) the history of Sudan”.

While Bashir has attempted to portray himself as an anti-imperialist leader who defiantly stands up to the West, particularly following his ICC charges, in reality he has enjoyed a working relationship with the US since it sought his assistance in providing intelligence for Washington’s post 9/11 “war on terror”.

Likewise, the US has retained Sudan on the list of countries allegedly supporting terrorism and made some stern statements about Darfur — in an attempt to appease widespread public concern in the US over the ongoing genocide — yet the Obama administration, like the previous Bush government, views Bashir’s regime as its preferred option in Khartoum.

The US has long been eager to advance US oil interests in Sudan, which it hopes will be possible after separation of the south, where the bulk of oilfields lie, and once sanctions are lifted on the north, which possesses the infrastructure for exporting the oil.

Repression and intolerance

Last year, the NCP used sham elections to legitimise its deeply unpopular rule and there is concern that the situation in the north will worsen after separation. Bashir told a rally of supporters on December 19 that if the south seceded, he would create a new constitution based on sharia law, consolidating Islam as the official religion and Arabic as the official language, Al Arabiya reported.

Bashir also defended police caught on camera lashing a woman, which was viewed across the world on YouTube, claiming, “If she is lashed according to sharia law there is no investigation. Why are some people ashamed? This is sharia.” Sudan’s “public order regime” enables special police to enforce a conservative dress and behavioural code on women and dish out punishments including lashings for alleged crimes such as “intent to commit adultery” or wearing trousers.
The major northern opposition parties have called for constitutional reform to allow a new democratic government in the north. The NCP has rejected the calls, insisting the government will see out its “elected” term until 2015.

Sudanese Communist Party

After the government cut subsidies to fuel and increased sugar prices in January, the National Consensus Forces — a coalition of more than 20 opposition parties, including the Umma National Party, the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) — declared on January 16 that it would mobilise people on the streets. “The Tunisians took to the street and died and they were able to free their country. That’s what we must also do”, NCF spokesperson Farooq Abu Issa told media in Khartoum on January 16. The price rises follow constant increases in the cost of living that have been putting household budgets under extreme strain.

The regime declared that the opposition’s call was in violation of the constitution. According to the January 16 Sudan Tribune, NCP deputy president Nafi Ali Nafi told the opposition that any attempt at “sedition for which you lack the courage and the numbers” would be met with further crackdowns on freedoms.

The opposition parties are politically diverse. The Umma Party is a moderate Islamic organisation whose leader, Saddiq al Mahdi, has served two short stints as the country’s prime minister. The leader of the PCP, Hassan al Turabi, led the 1989 National Islamic Front coup that brought the current regime to power. He later fell out with Khartoum and has been arrested by the regime several times, most recently on January 17.

The SCP has been Sudan's major left force since its formation in the 1940s. For most of its existence it has been forced to operate underground, but after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the north-south civil war, some extensions in democratic space allowed the party to begin to organise openly. However it still faces constant repression by the regime including regular arrests of it activists and censorship of its newspaper, Al Midan.

SCP international department’s Fathi el Fadl said in a January 31 report to the British Communist Party’s website that the SCP had “raised the issue of toppling the regime through all legal means including civil uprising and political disobedience. Since last August its branches are working to mobilise the masses in the different sections of the population.” He added that “a big struggle is being waged to win the battle for a new democratic leadership for the Sudanese trade union movement”.

On January 26, the African Centre for Justice and Peace reported a series of attacks on the opposition in the first month of 2011, including arrests of activists for holding meetings and distributing material criticising the government’s price rises. Newspapers continue to be at the mercy of government censors and security forces have prevented distribution of papers covering the protests. Nine staff from Al Midan were arrested on February 2.

Reuters reported on February 5 that Bashir told a rally of supporters: “We open the door for freedom. We have nothing to fear from freedom ... Freedom is guaranteed by the constitution.” However in a thinly veiled message to protesters, he added that, “Anybody who wants to make chaos, we will deal with him according to the law.”

Protests

It has been youth and students who have bravely led the way onto the streets.

Twice since independence — in 1965 and 1984 — dictatorships in Sudan were kicked out by popular mass movements. Bashir may believe he can continue to use brute force to suppress opposition, however hatred of the current regime runs deep and there are clearly people — particularly youth — who are ready and willing to do something about it.

[Kerryn Williams is a member of the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]

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