Sudan protesters hope for 'revolution'

AFP, Friday 29 Jun 2012

The numbers of protesters against the government in Sudan have not been massive but their persistence could draw in more citizens aching from an economic meltdown

Police officers patrolled the streets of Khartoum on Sunday. About 1,000 demonstrators gathered on Al-Qasr Street in the city’s downtown. (Photo: Reuters)

When pro-government civilian thugs armed with knives and stun guns captured a group of Sudanese protesters last week, help came from a surprising source.

Police arrived to take over the case -- and set the demonstrators free, a veteran activist said.

"We are with you," he says they told the protesters in a gesture symbolising widespread dissatisfaction under the Islamist regime of President Omar al-Bashir, ahead of major protests planned for Friday and Saturday.

June 30 will mark the 23rd anniversary of Bashir's coup, and the third week of unprecedented demonstrations under his rule.

But whether the protests gather momentum or die out like previous unrest under Bashir remains to be seen.

"I think the few coming days will show us, will these protests succeed to make some change or not ?" says the activist, a lawyer who asked not to be named for his own protection.

Human rights groups say scores of people have been arrested since the protests against high food prices began on June 16 at the University of Khartoum.

After Bashir announced austerity measures, including tax hikes and an end to cheap fuel, the protests spread to include a cross-section of people in numerous locations throughout the capital and other parts of Sudan.

Demonstrators in groups of 100 or 200 have burned tyres, thrown stones and blocked roads in a call for regime change which has almost universally been met by police tear gas.

Activists estimated that at least 10,000 people protested in the Khartoum area during the first 10 days of demonstrations.

"We have seen protests before but I think most people would say this is the most significant of them," a diplomatic source said.

While this weekend could indicate "if this is taking a new turn or not", the source doubts that Sudan is the latest country to experience an Arab Spring, the series of uprisings against regional strongmen over the past year.

"My answer would be: 'No'," he said. "It's not really organised in any fashion."

Bashir, suggesting that someone was behind the disturbances, called them small-scale and not comparable to the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. He maintains that he himself is popular.

The country's poor have joined students on the streets but opposition political parties have been relatively quiet, realising "there is no quick fix" to Sudan's problems, the diplomatic source said.

If the government can ease the burden on those most affected by higher prices for sugar and other essentials, it could take the edge off the protests, he said.

Inflation has risen each month, hitting 30.4 percent in May, before Finance Minister Ali Mahmud al-Rasul on June 20 announced the scrapping of fuel subsidies, causing an immediate jump of about 50 percent in the price of petrol.

Bankrupt Sudan has lost billions of dollars in oil receipts since South Sudan gained independence last July leaving the north struggling for revenue, plagued by inflation, and with a severe shortage of dollars to pay for imports.

Sudan's poverty rate is 46.5 percent, the United Nations says.

"The majority of the people are suffering," said a church worker with the minority Christian community. "Most of the people, they want the government to go."

But the political opposition is weak and still afraid of what the regime can do, he said, asking for anonymity because of the situation.

The lawyer, however, said fear is no longer a factor as people now openly voice dislike of Bashir.

While many of the protesters are youth activists, a broader section of the population is also involved.

On Thursday, more than 100 Sudanese lawyers in black gowns protested that "demonstration is a constitutional right," an AFP coorespondent reported.

Riot police looked on in a rare show of restraint.

Unlike the more highly-paid state security service also used against protesters, police earn less than 300 pounds ($68) a month and are suffering along with the rest of the population, the activist lawyer said.

He added that an army officer also told him that he would not shoot on his own people.

"I don't think you will face some scenes like Syria" in Sudan, the lawyer said.

"They have guns but they are afraid of using them, because then you have victims, and just one victim can change the situation."

In 1964, the death of student activist Ahmed al-Qureshi sparked the "October Revolution" which ended the military regime then in power after tens of thousands protested.

During an economic crisis in 1985, similar-sized crowds marched in an uprising which led to the bloodless overthrow of president Gaafar al-Nimeiry.

"We were the first people in the Arab world to make revolution," the lawyer said. "I hope to tell our kids and our new generation: We did this also."

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