Transitions

Sandstorm Friday

The demonstrations began in Khartoum on June 16, and have since spread not only to the rest of the city, but to other parts of Sudan as well. They began with a small peaceful group of students at the University of Khartoum, near the office where I work for an international organization. A few hours ...

Courtesy of Azaz Shami
Courtesy of Azaz Shami

The demonstrations began in Khartoum on June 16, and have since spread not only to the rest of the city, but to other parts of Sudan as well. They began with a small peaceful group of students at the University of Khartoum, near the office where I work for an international organization. A few hours later the demonstration had developed into a crowd of 100 students. I could not see the demonstration, but through the open window the teargas stung my eyes, and I could hear the crowd of students shouting slogans and the sirens of the riot police approaching the scene. Now, ten days later, demonstrations are taking place daily but everyday life caries on surprisingly normal with the sound of shouting and sirens in the background.

Friday is the first day of the weekend here in Sudan, and once it became clear that the protests weren’t going to stop by themselves, we began to hear of preparations for a big day of demonstrations on the 22nd. On Twitter people quickly began to refer to the day as #SandstormFriday, a reference to the frequent sandstorms at this time of year. But when the day finally arrived, there was more than sand in the air over Khartoum. Black smoke from burning tires rose all over the city, and the sirens of the riot police echoed through the streets along with the sharp reports of gunshots. I was constantly receiving security warnings from international embassies via text message, reporting on the location of the demonstrations. All of the warnings reported violent clashes between riot police and protesters.

The demonstrations began when newspapers announced that the price of gasoline would more than double two days later, causing bus fares to rise sharply and raising the overall cost of living. Sudan lost most of its export income when South Sudan seceded in July of 2011; more than 70 percent of the country’s oil fields are located in the South. The previously oil-rich country, no longer able to subsidize oil to its domestic market, was thus forced to raise prices. The ensuing protests have been called the beginning of a Sudanese Arab Spring.

As a political scientist I always enjoy political discussion. Here in Sudan, though, with its totalitarian regime, I’ve never discussed politics with a Sudanese. I fear the secret police, and people don’t want to talk. But on Sandstorm Friday, something had changed. Taxi drivers, colleagues, and others openly spoke against the regime. A Sudanese friend remarked while driving past a truck of riot police: "They only earn 400 Sudanese pounds ($70) a month, and still they are beating up young countrymen and students. I don’t understand." I was surprised by his opennesss, but understood that something was fundamentally different only when I saw cars driving past bearing flags of the opposition. Several times friends told me: "I grew up with this president, but now is the time for change." The first demonstrations were mainly protests against the rise in fuel prices. By Sandstorm Friday, however, the demonstrators were directing their slogans more broadly against the regime. Many were demanding no less than the overthrow of the president.

Now a few days have passed since Sandstorm Friday and the situation has quieted down to a certain degree — at least here in Khartoum. Still, though, at least one or two demonstrations have taken place every day. I have met people who just escaped violent clashes between stone-throwing demonstrators and police with teargas and clubs. Demonstrators and journalists have been arrested and imprisoned, and the riot police are deployed all over the city, especially around the University of Khartoum, where there have been demonstrations every day since June 16.

The sandstorm of June 22 was clubbed down by the Sudanese riot police. However, word on the street (and Twitter) is that major demonstrations are planned for June 30, the anniversary of the seizure of power by Bashir’s regime 23 years ago. The big question is whether people will dare to take to the streets. Many key people have already been arrested, and the demonstrations have been violently crushed. It is hard to imagine, though, that many Sudanese will see the date as a cause for celebration. This is the peak season for sandstorms in Khartoum. More are bound to come sweeping through.

Sigurd Moskvil Thorsen is an intern with an international organization in Khartoum, Sudan.

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