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Quick Thoughts: Khalid Albaih on Sudan on the Eve of 2017

[Illustration by Khalid Albaih] [Illustration by Khalid Albaih]

[This past year a growing number of strikes have been held across Sudan, which in late November developed into several rounds of civil disobedience, the most recent of which was held on 19 December. These events have received virtually no coverage in the regional or international media. To learn more about them Jadaliyya turned to Sudanese activist Khalid Albaih, one of the region’s leading political cartoonists currently based in Qatar. Albaih’s artistic output can be viewed via his Facebook and Twitter (@khalidalbaih) accounts.]

Jadaliyya (J): What is the background to the current wave of civil unrest in Sudan?

Khalid Albaih (KA): The ongoing failure of the Sudanese state to provide for its people during the twenty-seven years of Omar al-Bashir’s tenure in office forms the background to the current wave of civil unrest. 

This failure began from the moment al-Bashir seized power in a 1989 military coup, and immediately launched a decades-long “Jihad” against Sudanese in the country’s south, which in 2011 resulted in it’s separation and independence as the Republic of South Sudan, and with it the departure of most of the country’s wealth. It continued with the failed economic, education and health care systems that Sudanese citizens suffer from. And it has of course also included the constant abuse, arrests and human rights violations by the Sudanese military, secret police and party members who enjoy impunity in their dealings with Sudan’s citizens, with no accountability for their actions on account of protection by the highest powers in the land.  

When hundreds were killed in an extreme show of power by the government during the last round of protests in 2013, activists started using strikes and civil disobedience as a comparatively safer weapon to demand change. This year there have been strikes by doctors, pharmacists and lawyers, until finally Sudan’s youth joined in after a social media appeal for three-days of civil disobedience from 27 to 29 November. This was, for at least the first day, highly successful even as the government resorted to its usual forceful measures and arrest of activists of all ages.

The latest appeal called for a new round of mass civil disobedience on 19 December. The government used every trick it has learned during its twenty-seven years in power to sabotage the mobilization and claim it has failed. This ranged from the usual media crackdowns to the arrest of activists and transmission of messages to public and private sector employees threating them with termination if they did not report for work on the appointed date.  

J: How has the government responded to these various campaigns?

KA: The government responded with arrests targeting activists of all ages (including a sixty-year old woman who supported the disobedience via a WhatsApp message), jailing of journalists, confiscation of newspapers, closure of television stations and the dissemination of false propaganda. With respect to the latter tactic, the government’s electronic jihadists—nicknamed e-chickens—distributed fake news and images via WhatsApp and other social media.

Yet calls for a further round of civil disobedience persisted and found an even greater response. This time al-Bashir conducted a series of twentieth-century public appearances, replete with school kids waving flags and over-sized posters bearing his poorly-photoshopped image in various military outfits. In his speeches he repeatedly referred to himself as the choice of the people, and at one point literally said that anyone who rejects him should “meet him outside”. His message is that no one can force him from power, least of all “those hiding behind keyboards”. The man is obviously in denial about the changes sweeping the Arab world.

I also received a tweet, from what appears to be a government account that has since been deleted. It repeats statements al-Bashir made in his speeches, insists al-Bashir is the choice of the people, and threatens that “the people” have been waiting for this day so they can meet opponents “in the streets” and cleanse Sudan of agents of the West like myself.

J: Do you think these events pose a serious challenge to the rule of Omar al-Bashir?

KA: He takes them very seriously, so they must be serious. 

The violent over-reaction of al-Bashir, his regime and his e-chickens demonstrates the existence of a serious fear of people uniting, particularly in the context of the current austerity measures and economic crisis. Government measures have included arrests of political leaders and human rights activists, the confiscations of daily newspapers by government forces, as well as the various methods they have used to track down decentralized social media groups that include local and diaspora activists.

The use of the Facebook Live feature is extremely visible this time. Activists use it to talk to the public and initiate discussions in real time. At least fifteen such videos went viral, with activists sharing their accounts of developments, their views and opinions on how to move forward, and sometimes even advising al-Bashir’s e-chickens on how to script their propaganda videos.

In one such video, posted on 27 November, an activist walking near his own home, broadcasting live footage of empty streets on Facebook to demonstrate popular participation in the strike, was chased and arrested by a security officer in civilian dress. He was later released because he holds a British passport. Chickens denounced him as a coward, though of course Sudanese with only Sudanese citizenship would be treated very differently.

Several days ago another video was widely shared of the same Sudanese-British activist being dragged to a police vehicle after distributing leaflets outside a busy mosque after Friday prayers, promoting the 19 December disobedience. This time the crowd went to the vehicle and extracted him from the hands of the police. The video ends with cheers and praises to Allah as the police drive away in shock.

J: What is your prognosis for the coming period in Sudan?

KA: I think people are fed up after twenty-seven years of going backwards. Sudan’s youth has proven its capacity for civil resistance and effective strikes, and also its ability to defy government propaganda that presents these disobedience campaigns as conspiracies against Islam, and plays on people’s fears of Sudan becoming another Syria or Libya in order to prevent change.

I can only hope these campaigns will act as a uniting factor and lead to more peaceful protests. This would be helped by more international media attention than Sudan normally receives, as people continue to confront a brainwashed military that fights primarily to protect those in power from those the government is supposed to serve.

I have in fact just returned from a trip to Sudan, and the continuing civil disobedience campaign is the main topic of discussion there. Whether people are for it or against, it is dominating conversation and debate. My prognosis is that it will continue and continue to grow. It deserves greater recognition and coverage.

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