CAIRO (AP) — “I think my country Sudan has really hit rock bottom.” Those were the last public words uttered by Usamah Mohamad, a 32-year-old Sudanese web developer-turned-citizen journalist, in a video announcing he would join protests against President Omar al-Bashir.
Mohamad, popular under his Twitter handle “simsimt,” was arrested the same day his video was aired. For the next month, his family had no idea where he was. Finally they learned he was in Khartoum’s high security prison and were allowed to visit him last week.
He was skinnier and darker, a sign he had been left to bake in the scorching Khartoum sun, people close to his case say. The family itself is saying nothing.
Mohamad and hundreds of others — no less than 2,000, activists say — have been detained the past month in a campaign unleashed by the Sudanese government. The crackdown aims to crush a new attempt to launch a protest movement calling for the ouster of al-Bashir, inspired by the Middle East’s uprisings that toppled the leaders of Sudan’s neighbors Egypt and Libya as well as Tunisia and Yemen.
Anti-government activists see al-Bashir’s 23-year-old regime as the ripest in the region to fall. He has been weakened by the loss of oil-rich South Sudan, which became independent last year after two decades of Africa’s bloodiest civil war. His regime has had to impose painful economic austerity measures to make up for the loss of revenues from the south’s oil, sending inflation up to nearly 40 percent this month. The years-old rebellion in the western Darfur region continues to bleed the country. Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in that region.
“We have more reasons than any other Arab country for an uprising,” said Siddique Tawer, of an opposition umbrella group. “No other country was split. Sudan was. No other country has a civil war ongoing in Darfur and (fighting along the border with the South).”
“These are enough reasons to topple a regime, aside from the corruption, oppression and the rising cost of living,” he said. “The continuation of this regime is dangerous for the rest of the Sudan.”
But those troubles could also prolong the life of al-Bashir’s regime. Al-Bashir has showed a survivor’s talent for using external threats to keep key parts of the public behind him. He is backed by a brutal security machine and a network of interests built on Islamist ideology, economic ties and tribal politics.
At an inauguration of a factory in central Sudan on July 11, al-Bashir ridiculed prospects for an uprising.
“They talk of an Arab Spring. Let me tell them that in Sudan we have a hot summer, a burning hot summer that burns its enemies,” al-Bashir said, waving his cane threateningly.
So far, his prediction has borne true. Some activists fled the country, others are lying low amid the crackdown after protests by thousands raged for more than a week in June, the biggest since the Arab Spring began in late 2010. Under censorship, newspapers are not reporting on the protests.
Under a blanket of fear instilled by security agencies, several activists spoke to The Associated Press on condition anonymity to avoid detention or refused to talk at all.
“I think a popular uprising to topple the regime is not an attractive option to the Sudanese right now,” said Hassan Haj Ali, a Khartoum University political science professor.
Many are wary of new turmoil after the long civil war and are bracing for a worsening economy. Sudanese also remember how unrest against al-Bashir’s predecessors led to military coups, bringing Sudanese “back to square one,” he said.
Sudanese and the region worry of further fragmentation, with separatist movements not only in Darfur but also in the east and in the south.
“What remains of Sudan may not hold as one bloc and may become so unstable it reflects on neighboring countries,” including South Sudan, said Haj Ali. As a result, regional powers — and the United States, he said — may prefer “to deal with the regime in its current condition and not be embroiled in further crises.”
Khartoum came close to war with South Sudan early this year. With the two sides in torturous negotiations over oil sharing and borders, al-Bashir’s regime can drum up public support with anti-South rhetoric.
Sudan’s crushing economic crisis has given youth groups a tool to galvanize the public behind their protest movement.
After years of a boom fueled by southern oil, Sudan has reeled since the south’s independence. The crisis is threatening to worsen under austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund to deal with shrinking resources.
Inflation is expected to rise further, electricity bills are going up, and consumer groups are urging a boycott of meat and poultry because of rocketing prices. The currency lost nearly half its value the past year, reaching 4.4 pounds to the dollar officially and six on the black market, according to media reports.
The youth groups, some of them working since 2009, put together a movement through social media and university activism, linking with disgruntled communities of Darfuris and others who live in Khartoum.
On June 16, protests erupted. Female students marched in Khartoum University, were joined by male students, and together they moved into the streets of the capital. Over the next six days, protests broke out at universities in Khartoum and other cities. On the Friday of that week, the strongest day of protests, regular citizens in Khartoum joined, coming out from mosques in marches that numbered several thousand.
“The people demand the downfall of the regime,” some chanted, a refrain heard in other Arab uprisings.
Throughout the week, police struck back with tear gas and rubber bullets and — in at least one case — live ammunition, according to the London-based Sudanese rights group the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies. Several students were seriously injured. Student militias helped security agents in seizing protesters, according to ACJPS. Finally, Khartoum University’s vacation was moved up to prevent more protests.
The movement planned nationwide protests on June 30, coinciding with regime celebrations for the anniversary of al-Bashir’s coming to power. Under a security clampdown, protesters managed only a small turnout. But with so many troops in the streets, anniversary parades were not held.
Mohamad, the web developer, was seized at the Friday protest as he tweeted about arrests by agents of the notorious National Security Services in Khartoum’s Burri district.
But friends say he may have been targeted because of his video aired the same day on Al-Jazeera English TV. “After 23 years of oppression and injustice, poverty and crime that are all committed under the current regime, change now is an inevitable must,” he said in the video.
His detention without charge, while others have been freed, shows how the regime sees information about the protests as the biggest threat, said a friend of Mohammed who was held twice in custody, including once for 11 hours without water.
“He is detained for a month, a treatment reserved usually for a ringleader,” the friend said.
Activists report arbitrary arrests of protesters and bloggers and their families in the middle of the night, beatings and humiliation in detention. Two Egyptian female journalists reporting for foreign media amid the unrest were deported.
Some detainees were forced to call fellow activists to arrange meetings that were really sting operations to arrest them. Interrogators threatened to release pictures of women activists wearing revealing clothes to scandalize them in Sudan’s conservative society.
One student told ACJPS that an officer threatened to snap his neck while another scraped off his eyebrows, moustache and hair with a blade. “Now we’ve marked you and if we catch you again protesting we will cut other parts of your body,” they told him.
Two activists face serious criminal charges including inciting violence against the regime. One of them, Rudwan Dawoud, who is married to an American and holds U.S. residency, was labeled a spy and could face the death sentence.
Nagui Moussa — a 26-year old activist from the protest group Girifna, or “We are fed up” — left to Cairo after being detained twice, deciding he was of more use outside spreading information about the protests.
He says protests may have waned — because of both the crackdown and the fasting month of Ramadan — but “people have changed. Why? Because they are seeing the continuous lies of the regime.”
Protests in Khartoum make those in the core of Sudan realize that “the injustice is all over, in the center as in the periphery.”
“People will see that the one who strikes and tortures in the south, or in Darfur, is the same as the one who strikes and tortures in the north,” he said.