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Sudan activists seek change despite security fears

Spurred by Arab uprisings youth call for protests

Spurred by Arab uprisings, Sudan's youth has called for nationwide protests on Monday against President Omar al-Bashir's regime despite security fears and doubts over their impact.

"The reasons for change are there, but the organizational environment is not," Fouad Hikmat, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP.

"The (ruling) National Congress Party will not tolerate any dissent. Once the fire starts, it is very difficult to put it out ... If there is anybody taking to the streets, the security forces will crush them," Hikmat predicted.

"But it is going to build, bit by bit. Maybe in one or two months we might see the protests gathering momentum," he added.

The Youth for Change group calling for Monday's protests has listed a raft of grievances which, in Hikmat's view, are even more serious than those of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who brought down their veteran leaders.

Sudan's activists point to rampant corruption, the secession of the south in July -- which they blame on Khartoum's divisive policies -- rising commodity prices and the eight-year conflict in Darfur.

Endemic poverty and unemployment, as well as human rights abuses by security forces including torture and rape, add to the list.

A government report in late 2010 put youth unemployment levels as high as 40 percent, and economists estimate that almost half the population of northern Sudan live below the poverty line.

In a sign authorities may be starting to respond to popular demands, three fatal car crashes in Khartoum since February sparked protests by hundreds of residents demanding improvements to the roads, which were duly implemented.

But Hikmat said youth activists had yet to form a grassroots organization with networks around the country, while established opposition parties were divided on how to deal with the regime and had failed "to move the street."

Likely to be suppressed

Any demonstrations, however peaceful, are likely to be suppressed. Riot police have used tear gas and batons to disperse crowds and make sweeping arrests in the sporadic protests held in northern Sudan since January.

In addition, the crisis in neighboring Libya has served as a warning of the dangers of civil conflict.

Safwat Fanous, a professor of political science at Khartoum University, argues that Sudan does not have the same sense of nationhood as Tunisia and Egypt, and that youth activists represent only a sector of central Sudan.

"The level of regionalism and tribalism is very high. So if there is a revolution in Khartoum ... we could see a situation as bad as, or even worse than Libya," he said.

Fanous foresees a much higher possibility of change coming from within Khartoum's ruling party or from the Islamists who backed the 1989 military coup which brought President Omar al-Bashir to power.

"Not only do you have the splinter Islamist groups of (Bashir's jailed former mentor) Hassan al-Turabi but even within the NCP there are factions calling for democratization," he said.

"They are against authoritarianism, and the corruption for which the government is criticized."

Bashir, whose country ranked 172nd out of 178 in Transparency International's 2010 index of most corrupt nations, has announced plans to create an anti-corruption commission.

But organizers of Monday's demonstration argue the ruling party has lost its right to govern and that the only way for the Sudanese people to change the system is through protests, with all the danger that entails.

"There is no democracy or freedom in this country," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We know that on March 21 they are going to arrest many people, and they're going to be very harsh. But we are not afraid."

The main factor that analysts agree would bring large crowds out onto the streets would be food shortages or lack of basic services.
Sudan's economic outlook remains gloomy and uncertain, less than four months ahead of independence for the oil-producing south, particularly given the key issues yet to be resolved.

The issues include oil-revenue sharing and what to do about the country's crippling debt.

"The government must provide incentives and open up to dialogue. Otherwise it will not continue," said Hikmat. "I think the deteriorating economy will light the fuse."