Sudan Needs a Revolution

The protest movement against Omar al-Bashir is growing -- fast -- and it needs the world’s support.

The past decade has been a roller-coaster ride for Sudanese citizens. From the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur to the ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Nuba people to the violent border clashes that accompanied the separation with South Sudan, this nation has witnessed hell. At least 200,000 people have lost their lives and 2 million more have been displaced in Darfur alone, according to conservative U.N. estimates. Hundreds more have died during the recent border clashes between the two Sudans, and thousands have been driven from their homes.

But now there is a glimmer of hope. Daily growing protests against President Omar al-Bashir's regime are spreading demographically and geographically, along with calls for strikes and civil disobedience. The spark was the government's June 18 announcement of a new round of austerity measures, including massively unpopular cuts to fuel subsidies. The most dramatic protests have so far occurred in Khartoum's al-Daim neighborhood, where police used extreme force and obscene amounts of tear gas in an attempt to suppress the demonstrators. In an example of the defiant mood taking over the streets, the protesters responded by burning a police truck.

As the fear barrier crumbles, Sudanese have a chance to topple Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) cronies -- and to build a better future for their country.

It is important to understand why Sudanese would risk their lives to oppose Bashir. The narratives peddled by some commentators about the country's recent conflicts -- that they are between "Arabs versus Africans," or "Muslims versus Christians" -- are not only unhelpful, they are wrong. These characterizations have neither benefited the international community nor the diverse citizens of Sudan -- including the Arabs and Afro-Arabs of the North who felt alienated by it, and who have also been violently oppressed for decades.

John Garang, the late southern Sudanese leader, made a crucial contribution to framing the situation as it actually is: A struggle between Sudan's diverse population and Omar al-Bashir's heinous dictatorship, which uses religion and tribalism to divide and control. "The Northerners are suffering too," Garang said in one speech. "This is the problem of governance in Khartoum."

The truth is that regardless of their background, Sudanese are suffering under Bashir's rule. Just take the case of Safia Ishaq, a member of the nonviolent youth resistance movement Girifna: In 2011, after the small Jan. 30 student-led protests inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, she was arrested for her activism and brutally gang-raped by three officers from Bashir's National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the well-financed and notoriously abusive enforcers responsible for suppressing dissent and protecting the ruling party.

It is no secret that Bashir's Islamist regime, which seized power in a military coup on June 30, 1989, and hosted Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s before kicking him out only under withering international pressure, has a long list of bloody failings. But it just may be the worsening economic situation, which seems to have been the last straw for a growing number of nonideological citizens of Khartoum, that could end his grip on power. The recent austerity cuts have been particularly painful in a country already suffering from inflation that hovers over 30 percent, and which lost more than 70 percent of its oil revenues upon South Sudan's independence.

The recent demonstrations in Sudan's capital are different than previous student-led protests. They have been strategically dispersed -- relatively small crowds have spread out in numerous locations throughout Khartoum, stretching and exhausting the security forces' resources. Demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime erupted in university campuses as well as in Wad Nubawi, al-Sajjana, Bahri, Jabra, al-Kalaakla, and Um Badda, among other neighborhoods and areas in the capital.

Unlike in the past, the protests were not just led by students but also by older folks, and Sudanese women and mothers. There were also coordinated protests in other towns and regions throughout Sudan such as Kosti, Sinnar, and the northern parts of the country.

As with neighboring countries, social media and on-the-ground citizen journalism has been absolutely critical in getting important footage, pictures, and stories out to the world. Under the Twitter hashtag #SudanRevolts, Sudanese anti-government, pro-democracy netizens have curated the news coming out of the tightly controlled country while fending off the regime's "electronic jihad" trolls. This is all the more important because the few available independent media outlets in Sudan are small and heavily suppressed.

Just as deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime did in its final days, the Bashir regime is wising up to the subversive power of cyberspace. Sudanese activists and foreign journalists in the country have reported widespread rumors that the Internet in Khartoum could be shut down, or at least significantly slowed down in speed. So far, however, updates continue to flow out of the country.

So far the response by the government, its armed thugs, and the NISS has been predictably brutal. In addition to tear gas and rubber bullets, student activists have reported being attacked by pro-government "militias" intent on breaking up the protests. It will likely get more violent. Yet despite the mass arrests of protesters, including prominent activist Usamah Mohammed Ali, the demonstrations are continuing and intensifying.

The world has long struggled for a solution to the seemingly endless humanitarian disaster in Sudan. The protesters' victory would represent a way forward. With Bashir and the NCP battered and gone, the door to change will open up in Khartoum -- and a new, more responsible government could lead to better policies toward South Sudan and Darfur. Better leadership could bring the kind of peace that will finally ensure economic development in both Sudans -- fueled by their bountiful oil reserves -- and also open its doors to foreign governments and international oil companies seeking to invest and grow.

It must be understood that the government in Khartoum is not a monolith, but rather a conglomerate of various interest groups: the military, state security, the ruling party, elite businessmen, tribal alliances, the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, and lately, Salafi groups.

Some groups in this system, especially the business community, are increasingly frustrated by the NCP's incompetence and staggering corruption, and understand the urgent need for better management. And some calls for change have in fact come openly from within the NCP itself, hinting at tensions within the party.

With the defiance of the street growing, and some indications of the established political opposition parties mobilizing, the tide is shifting against Bashir. What the new Sudan would look like, of course, still remains hazy. But given their history with the Islamists, which in some ways resembles the dismal experience of Iranians, most Sudanese citizens aren't yearning for more Islamism, but are instead focusing on and demanding better economic conditions, transparency, and accountability.

Although this battle will ultimately be fought and won by Sudanese, the international community also has an important role to play. U.S.-based Sudan advocacy groups can help push for better media coverage of the situation so that protesters on the ground know the world is watching. Pressure could hopefully compel the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera Arabic, which is widely watched in Sudan, to report the demonstrations more adequately, which could shift the psychological dynamic strongly within Khartoum.

As for the U.S government, U.N. envoy Susan Rice can play a constructive role by rallying the world body to focus more attention on the unfolding crisis. And when or if a new Sudanese leadership emerges, both Washington and Khartoum would be better off if Washington used not just sticks, but also carrots -- namely, the lifting of economic sanctions, and the normalization of relations -- if a new government affirms its basic local and international obligations.

Beijing, a close ally of Khartoum, should appreciate that its long-term interests lie with the Sudanese people and not Bashir's government, which has helped squander China's billions of dollars of investments in Sudanese oil -- oil that is no longer flowing thanks to the deadlock between Khartoum and Juba.

But at the end of the day, the Sudanese people cannot rely on governments. As those inside the country take to the streets in ever greater numbers, those of us on the outside are doing what we can to bear witness and expose injustice. Let us show solidarity with the protesters in their fight against Bashir, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against his own people.

The Sudanese street has shown its resolve loud and clear. Time is now of the essence, in light of the protests' building momentum and worsening crackdown. There isn't a moment to lose: The international community must do its part to help Sudan achieve a better future.



Covering Up

If the kingdom's top woman can't keep her story straight about whether she wears the veil, what are other Saudi women supposed to do?

Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom's highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.

But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. When the news of her appointment first broke, the Saudi daily al-Watan published a small headshot of her, wearing a headscarf but showing her face. She reacted angrily, and quickly clarified that she wore the niqab, a black covering that hides the face except for a small slit for the eyes. For Saudi women who wear the niqab, showing their faces in public, let alone mainstream media, is unacceptable.

"The publication of my photo upset me immensely," she told the newspaper in an interview. "[I]t is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd," she said, referring to the conservative central region of the country, "and thus I wear a niqab. I will never allow the publishing of my photo in newspapers and I will not accept that it be put up anywhere."

Faiz asked the media not to use any photographs of her and, for the most part, it respected her wish. Upon her inclusion in Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, the magazine used an illustration of a woman wearing the niqab. In response to questions about how she can work with her male colleagues -- given the strict gender-segregation rules that prohibit men and women from working side by side in government offices -- she responded that their interactions would be conducted "through closed-circuit TV." (In other words, she would sit in a different room from her male colleagues and would be able to see and hear them, while they would only be able to hear her voice.)

A woman's decision to cover her face is a personal choice, and I respect it. But despite Faiz's repeated invocations of her pious Najdi roots, she does not regularly wear the niqab. And the fact that she feels the need to tell the Saudi media differently raises some troublesome questions about the prospects of those trying to reform the kingdom's policies on women's rights from inside the system.

The evidence Faiz doesn't always wear the niqab is all over the Internet. Walid Fitahi, a well-known Saudi doctor, recently tweeted a photo of Faiz addressing Saudi graduates from American universities in Maryland that showed her wearing a white headscarf. A photo distributed by Saudi Arabia's official state news agency on the same day shows her in the same outfit, sitting next to Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir.


I was surprised, but Twitter followers told me this was not the first time Faiz has appeared in public niqab-free. One of my followers sent me a link to this photo, released by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, showing a smiling Faiz shaking hands with Britain's Undersecretary of State Alistair Burt during their meeting in London earlier this year. There's nothing wrong with that as far as I'm concerned, but sitting with men and shaking their hands contradicts her self-portrayal as a conservative Najdi woman.

"She doesn't cover abroad and she is not a typical conservative Najdi," my fellow Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan commented on my blog. "She does and says those things to appease people who are looking for any excuse to bring her down."

If Faiz wishes to don a headscarf, I respect that decision as well. The problem is that she is doing one thing and telling a mass audience the other -- leaving Saudis to guess at the reasons for her sartorial choices. Just few months before the above photo was taken in London, Faiz appeared on Saudi TV wearing her niqab -- what changed since then? Is she no longer a conservative Najdi woman? Was she wearing the niqab to deter attacks from religious conservatives, who until recently controlled girls' education in the country?

Some argue that as the first Saudi woman in such a senior position, Faiz has come under unfair scrutiny. Covering her face is a small compromise she has to make to reform the failing education system in our country. If this were the case, then she would hardly be alone: There are many Saudi women who do the same thing. They choose to cover their face or hair in public not because they prefer to take the veil, but because they want the focus to be on their cause or their work, not their clothing.

These sorts of awkward compromises have won women incremental progress in recent years, but Saudi Arabia still denies them many fundamental rights. In September 2011, women were given the right to vote and run in upcoming municipal elections four years from now, and will be appointed to the Shura Council, a consultative body that serves as the kingdom's quasi-parliament. They still can't drive, however, and need the permission of their male guardian for things like traveling outside the country or attending university. Efforts by women's rights activists to push reforms in these areas have fallen on deaf ears in the government.

As for Faiz, does revealing her face suggest that Saudi Arabia has finally become more willing to put women in leadership roles? She'd certainly have you believe that the opportunities for women in the kingdom are improving. "It's a new stage in Saudi Arabia where the women will be included in the decision-making," she told Saudi graduates in her U.S. speech, pointing to changes taking place in the education ministry, especially in the curriculum.

But let's just say it's hard to take Faiz's words at face value. After all, she is a government official who was speaking at a government-sponsored event. Out of the 6,000 students celebrated in that graduation ceremony held in Maryland, less than a quarter were women. The real test is to see them assume high positions in the government and the private sector. For now, Norah al-Faiz, with her niqab or without it, remains an anomaly.