Sudan: Anti-austerity protests spark regime crackdown

Students have been at the forefront of the protests against a recent doubling of the price of bread.

A wave of street demonstrations have spread across major cities in Sudan in protest against new austerity measures pushed by the North African country’s government.

At the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the administration of President Omar al-Bashir is removing state subsidies for basic commodities and ending the public importation of wheat. This has caused alarm across a nation where bread is the main food staple.

The government has also devalued the country’s currency, the Sudanese pound. This caused it to lose half its value on the international exchange market.

The protests, with their epicentre in North Khartoum, come in the weeks after similar protests erupted in the North African nation of Tunisia, also against IMF-imposed austerity measures.

The Sudanese protests have been met with fierce state repression. Demonstrators have been beaten and more than 200 people detained.

Many of those detained have been denied access to legal services and their families. Two people have so far died from torture while in custody.

Leading members of opposition parties, as well as journalists, lawyers and student activists have been arrested.

Australian resident Khadir Abdula was arrested in North Khartoum on January 31 by state security. Abdula had been visiting family in Sudan, who have been denied access to him. They fear for his health as Abdula suffers from severe chronic asthma.

As yet, the Australian government has made no public statement on this matter, or the broader repression by Sudanese authorities.

As well as stamping out protests on the streets, the government is seeking to impose a blanket of silence in the media. Even before these latest events, Sudan was listed by Reporters Without Borders as 174th out of 180 countries worldwide for media freedom.

In the past 12 months, six newspapers have had printed editions confiscated by authorities for criticising the government.

A bill in parliament would give state security the legal power to shut down radio and television stations, and print media outlets for up to 15 days, without justification. It would also allow for the indefinite banning of journalists.

With economic problems in Sudan deepening, there is a strong fear the government will become more ruthless in its crackdown against dissent.

Since al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup, Sudan has been involved in near perpetual internal conflict, specifically with what is now-South Sudan and Darfur.

The International Criminal Court retains a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest for war crimes involving the conflict in Darfur.

In 2013, the police opened fire on protesters in several cities, killing 170 people over three days. A further 800 were detained without charge.

Today, opposition parties operate within a legal grey area. They are tolerated by the government, but face arrest and worse if they seek to mobilise against it.

Despite the arrests and media silence, the protest movement appears to be growing. What has begun as protest against economic hardship is inevitably becoming a struggle against the regime itself, as the government increasingly uses force to push through its austerity plans and suppress democratic expression.

One protester, University of Khartoum student Badreldin Salah, told Al Jazeera: “The legal minimum wage in Sudan is 425SP (US$22.50) a month. This is not enough, people are starving. People will continue to fight, because what they are fighting for is their right to life.” 

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