In the summer of 2016, I visited Sudan with my family. I thought it would be a normal trip, doing the regular things one does when visiting their homeland and relatives – however, this particular visit made me see Sudan in a different light. That year, I decided to get involved with the local community and youth groups – to hearing and exchange experiences and stories, but most importantly, to see the way they thought, and how much energy and potential they have. For me, I was interacting with the future of Sudan. A future going to waste.
On the 19th December, protests broke out in the city of Atbara and quickly spread across multiple Sudanese cities, including the capital Khartoum, after President Omar Al-Bashir ended fuel and wheat subsidies. The demonstrations started over the rising costs of bread and fuel but have since widened to call for the overthrow of Al-Bashir. Despite the rallies being peaceful, the government has responded with violence, with security forces shooting demonstrators and firing tear gas. In the past ten days, over 200 people have injured and 37 have been killed; official government reports acknowledges the deaths of only 19.
Having family in a country of unrest is never easy. As soon as the protests broke out, my mother contacted my family to ensure they are safe, as we knew the next day the Sudanese government will shut down Internet access and all social media. One of my cousins, studying in university is partially blind, as soon as he heard the unrest in university, he left. The next day, internet access and social media were indeed blocked in a bid to stop news of atrocities from getting out. Schools and universities were closed for fear that students will start protests in their institutions, with dozens of young people arbitrarily arrested.
30 years too long
Although a rise in food prices proved the last straw, its disingenuous to think these protests are just about bread. The people are protesting 30 years of frustration over austerity and economic mishandling. The people are protesting against an authoritarian state, guilty of corruption and human rights violations. They protest the regime as a whole. Many Sudanese people have long believed that the country is a “ticking time bomb”, waiting to explode at any minute due to political and economic hardships. These protests have become a serious threat to Bashir and are shaking the seat upon which he has been sitting on for the past three decades.
Security forces and riot police deployed tear gas, used batons and live ammunition on protesters. A typical tactic used by authoritarian and corrupt regimes in order to silence calls for justice – but in trying to silence people, the government only created revolutionaries.
As for me, I was left with nothing but refreshing all my social media accounts every few seconds, fearing that I may read news about a relative or a friend’s death, injury or imprisonment. And that was the case. Several people I know were detained or injured in the crackdown. Living in privilege – where I enjoy freedom and the right to protest without the fear of police ever touching me, or even speaking to me, it was hard to understand. My reaction, compared to my mother’s illustrated this very well; as someone who was born, studied and worked in Sudan, and attended many protests, she knew that this was the norm.
The US placed trade sanctions on Sudan, lasting 20 years, and were recently lifted in 2017. Many people hoped that this will allow the economy to improve and flourish, but the economy is worsening. The country lost 75% of its oil output after the split of South Sudan in 2011 and is yet to recover. For many years, the government used the excuse of sanctions to run away from responsibility, but inflation rates are still very high. There are no foreign investments, and people had enough.
“The people want the fall of the regime”
A chant which became very popular amongst Arab countries and beyond is being heard once again in Sudan. A chant which toppled tyrannical regimes during the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia and spreading across Arab nations including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, which took the world by surprise. Such uprisings were motivated by similar political and economic grievances now seen in Sudan.
Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan has often found itself in a state of civil war and instability, exacerbated by ongoing external interference. Current president Al-Bashir seized power in 1989, and is currently wanted by the international court for committing crimes against humanity, including war crimes, genocide and other human right abuses, in his bid to consolidate his rule.
However the fight for dignity and a better life is not new to the people of Sudan. It’s a battle the people have been fighting for decades. The country has a long history of uprisings, two of which brought about a change in government, including the 1964 October Revolution, which saw similar mass protests and strikes. The country also saw major protests in 2011 and 2013 which resulted in some policy changes.
Yet in the post-Arab Spring era, for some, public protests have earned a bad name. The apparent “victory” of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria in particular is often cited as an argument against even peaceful demonstrations, with many considering the cost of the war to outweigh the reasons for starting it. Some have even critiqued those who support such action as “armchair activists”. Yet this argument fails to consider a number of factors.
Firstly, the Arab Spring taught me that it’s difficult to judge the success of an uprising based on another country’s experience. Rather, experience and recent events drew attention to the nuances, differences and complexities of each country’s experience in the region. The situation in Syria is completely different to that of Egypt, which is different to that of Tunisia and so on.
Secondly, the term “armchair activists” is more applicable to those of us live comfortably in the West and whilst claiming to stand for justice, call on those in the Muslim world to be patient with their conditions. We cannot begin to understand what it is like to have no opportunities for work, no means of supporting our families, being unable to afford food, marry, send our children to school, seek treatment at hospitals and all the while having no voice or outlet to complain of it except to Allah (swt). We cannot speak, until we have educated ourselves on this reality.
Thirdly, it is ignorant of us to think that the people of these countries do not know what may await them if they protest. Unlike us, they have lived through this experience before – but if they have decided that they would rather risk these consequences for a chance at dignity, then we should respect that choice.
Lastly, as Muslims we must refer to the Islamic perspective on this issue. Islam, as a holistic system, ordains justice. Where people are not receiving this, it is incumbent upon them to seek it. This is clear in many of our Islamic texts.
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both.” (Quran 4:35)
The Prophet Muhammad (saws) is also recorded to have said:
“The best fighting (jihad) in the path of Allah is to speak a word of justice to an oppressive ruler.” (Sunan Abi Dawud 4344)
“Whoever among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand [by taking action]; and if he cannot, then with his tongue [by speaking out]; and if he cannot, then with his heart [by feeling that it is wrong] – and that is the weakest of faith.” (Muslim)
Whilst this does not mean Islam encourages people to be heedless of the potential risks of their actions, it is clear that it is never acceptable to simply accept injustice, even if all one can do is hate it in their heart. Solutions, whatever they may be, must be sought. But we must also not forget the promise of Allah, to aid those who sincerely seek justice, and be hopeful of His mercy.
Dignity and justice are never just slogans, but a reality that we should be confident Muslims across the world will eventually be served. So as spectators on this issue, we should support our fellow Muslims in Sudan in their call for justice, and pray that if these protests do not bring Bashir down, the next wave of protests will.
Shaima Dallali is an activist and Law graduate from City, University of London. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaimaDallali