Signs that the pace of the protests in Sudan is slowing down became apparent this week when a call for mass demonstrations on Monday went virtually unheeded. This has prompted Sudan’s security forces to lower the threat level from code red to code blue, a move which reduces the number of officers deployed to counter-demonstrations. This also signals a collective sigh of relief for supporters of President Omar Al-Bashir’s government.
In truth, the Sudanese resistance is not ready to disappear, but this week the focus shifted to the death in custody of teacher and political activist Ahmed Al-Khair. His muddied body was delivered to his family with his trousers around his knees. According to relatives there were visible signs of torture all over his body. In a video circulating on social media, the dead man’s cousin, Abdul-Rahim Hasan Ahmed, raised his right hand and swore that the security forces had prevented him from taking pictures of the corpse. He testified that he had seen injuries to the head, stomach, back and anus where, according to unsubstantiated but written claims by protesters, Al-Khair is said to have been impaled by a blunt object.
The outrage at his death prompted a largely unheeded call for a national general strike in schools. Nevertheless, primary education in the town of Khashim Al-Qirba where Al-Khair taught was suspended completely while photographs of friends and colleagues demonstrating with makeshift banners that “killing a teacher is tantamount to killing a nation” were posted on social media.
Amnesty International has expressed outrage over Al-Khair’s killing and called for an immediate independent investigation. This coincides with an investigation by Sudan’s prosecutor general in the eastern town of Kassala where the killing took place; witnesses have been called upon to give their testimony.
During the recent protests, teachers and doctors representing the Sudan Professionals’ Association appear to have been targeted disproportionately by the security forces. The high-profile death of Dr Babiker Abdelhamid, for example, also provoked outrage, particularly because confirmed reports say that he was shot twice in the chest after identifying himself as a doctor treating a wounded patient. Eyewitness alleged that a security officer shot him in cold blood leaving 14 shotgun pellet wounds in his body. The incident prompted Al-Bashir to claim, without supporting evidence, that the weapon used was not available in Sudan or in the possession of police and security forces.
Throughout the 46 days of protests, the President has continued to be defiant. In front of crowds in Kassala last week he made international headlines when he said that changes of government happen through the ballot box not social media sites like Facebook and WhatsApp. This was a clear swipe at the Arab Spring protests that used social media as a catalyst to stage demonstrations.
However, days later, Prime Minister Motazz Moussa softened the government’s position by acknowledging that the protesters’ economic demands are legitimate. “There are problems and we are working on solving them,” he told reporters, referring to Sudan’s economic difficulties and lack of essential services. “There is a voice that must be heard and must be respected, despite the presence of political parties. There are legitimate demands and demands that must be expressed.”
His message was echoed by Defence Secretary Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf who, like the Prime Minister, recognised the validity of the protests and said that the situation in the country showed a divide between young and old. “This requires intergenerational communication and fair solutions to youth problems and realisation of their reasonable ambition,” he explained at a briefing of army officers. “Recent events show the need to reshape political entities, parties and armed movements of the political scene with a different mindset than before.”
The two men appear to be capturing a new mood in government which has driven some parliamentarians to propose scrapping the law that allows Al-Bashir to stand for another term. In tabling the motion, the 2020 election coalition group point to the political crisis. The amendment is an indicator that Sudan is a different country since the start of the protests on 19 December, and that attitudes are changing. The motion, although unlikely to be passed, will be a test of the internal desire for change and the willingness of lawmakers to listen to the genuine grievances of those who have taken to the streets asking for Sudan’s President to step down.
Nevertheless, there were clear signs this week of electioneering by President Omar Al-Bashir. Statements promising the regeneration of rural areas appear to be an effort to court favour outside the big cities where he has clearly lost support. Rallies in Niyala, South Kordofan and Kassala in the east were well attended, suggesting that the cultivation of a base in rural areas may be his only chance to hold on to power if he is allowed to run again in 2020.
Whatever the outcome of the attempt to prevent this, the demonstrations in Sudan have brought clear changes in attitudes and dispelled the prevailing notion among politicians that the Sudanese people are inherently patient. It remains to be seen how long the protests will continue but, clearly, attitudes have changed in government with an awareness that such patience can no longer be taken for granted.