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Why protests in Sudan are nothing like the Arab Spring

The damaged Qurtoba conference hall is seen after demonstrations by Sudanese university students and citizens yesterday in the capital Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, June 24, 2012.

Abd Raouf/AP

The stench of burning tires and tear gas is wafting through the streets of another Arab-African country. Police are beating protesters, rubber bullets are flying, and arrests are rising. Demonstrations have erupted in many of Sudan's cities for the past two weeks, triggering brutal repression by riot police and pro-government thugs.

Democracy activists are calling it a harbinger of another Egypt-style revolution – but the reality is much more complicated.

For the past 18 months, Sudan seemed to have some kind of rare immunity from Arab Spring fever, even though its conditions were the same: a dictatorial regime, widespread corruption, a declining economy and growing unhappiness among its people.

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In fact, sporadic protests had begun in Khartoum long before the Arab Spring, and have sputtered on for years. Small bands of brave activists have often defied the police, demanding freedom and democracy.

But each protest, even now, has seldom numbered more than 100 or 200 people, and they have lacked the unity and sheer size of the Egypt and Tunisia protests that toppled their regimes last year. It's still very unclear whether the current protests can gain enough strength to challenge the battle-hardened government.

Another difference is Sudan's long history of popular uprisings, which is very different from the North African countries where the Arab Spring began.

Previous governments in Khartoum were overthrown by uprisings in 1964 and 1985 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets. That makes the current regime of President Omar al-Bashir more wary and more repressive – and perhaps more vulnerable too.

It's been 23 years since Mr. al-Bashir seized power in an army coup, and popular anger is growing. The mood for change is heightened by the country's economic crisis. The government lost 75 per cent of its oil revenue when South Sudan became an independent country last year. Since then, its attempts at austerity have triggered more anger.

There is also discontent at the heavy cost of Khartoum's military operations near the border of South Sudan, where its tanks and warplanes have been attacking civilians and rebels.

The latest demonstrations have spread beyond the students and young activists who previously led the protests. A growing cross-section of the population is involved, and their geographic reach has expanded, although the numbers at each rally have remained relatively small. Some analysts suggest there are also widening rifts in Mr. al-Bashir's government and increasing dissent by business groups, although the evidence is unclear.

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The latest mutiny began on June 16 when students gathered outside the University of Khartoum to protest the rise in food and fuel prices under the austerity measures. The demonstrations soon spread to other neighbourhoods of Khartoum and other cities across Sudan.

Inflation has already been rising steadily this year, hitting 30 per cent in May. But the latest cuts in fuel subsidies have sparked a 50 per cent hike in petrol prices this month, while the price of basic food staples has risen by up to 50 per cent.

Now the democracy activists are organizing an international day of protests on Saturday, the 23 rd anniversary of the military coup that brought Mr. al-Bashir to power. As the price hikes begin to bite, some analysts are predicting bigger protests on Friday and Saturday, perhaps leading to a more violent crackdown.

The government seems increasingly nervous. In Khartoum this week, it detained two journalists from foreign news agencies and deported one of them. Scores of protesters and opposition members have been arrested since the protests began, and dozens have been hospitalized with injuries caused by police or pro-government militias. Police have even used live ammunition against the demonstrators, according to a report this week by Human Rights Watch.

"There has been a severe and calculated crackdown on youth activists," said a statement today by Girifna, the student-led group that has played a key role in the latest protests. "The list of detainees has reached the hundreds. Many are released only to face trials."

As they did in the Arab Spring, the protesters are making heavy use of social media, with the Twitter hashtag #SudanRevolts becoming the gathering place for online protest.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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