The current wave of unrest was started by women. On June 16, a group of female students at the University of Khartoum launched a public protest against drastic hikes in the prices of food and public transportation. Their male classmates joined them, and together they marched into the center of the city, where they were met by the combined forces of the police and the infamous National Intelligence and Security Service, who attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and iron rods. Courts have sentenced some of the detainees to lashes -- in some cases as many as 60.
But this failed to stop the revolt, which soon spread to other universities in Khartoum and then outside of the capital. Since then there have been demonstrations around the country, including places as far afield as Omdurman and Kasala. And the protests are no longer only about the high cost of living -- contrary to some of those headlines about "austerity protests." In the eastern town of Gedaref, members of the crowd chanted, "the people want to overthrow the regime" -- the mantra of the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters. Observers say that political demands have come to the forefront as the demonstrations have progressed.
Bashir responded by declaring that his government would push ahead with planned price rises. He denounced the demonstrators as a few criminal malcontents under foreign guidance and vowed to unleash his "jihadis" on anyone who persisted in taking to the streets. That last threat was enough to send a chill through many Sudanese, who understood Bashir to be referring to the Popular Defense Forces, a fanatical Arab militia with a particular record of viciousness in Sudan's myriad civil wars. "These are the people we'll see if this thing really spirals out of control," says Elmahdi. "These are the people who will shoot on sight."
Simple fear might explain why the demonstrations in Khartoum itself have ebbed somewhat over the past few days (though they're still going on). Yet the protests have continued unabated in other parts of the country. And it's not like the Sudanese are inexperienced. They take great pride in their past revolts against unpopular leaders.
So far, however, Sudan has not found its Tahrir Square. The demonstrations have been widely dispersed, usually amounting to a few hundred people at a time -- apparently a conscious tactic to avoid reprisals by the security forces. There's a risk of atomization. People won't keep it up if they think they're the only ones.
Hence the importance of the media. Most Sudanese rely on outside sources for their news. By far the most popular outlet is the Qatari-financed satellite TV broadcaster Al Jazeera. But there's a problem: The Qataris are friendly with the Bashir regime, and so Al Jazeera's Arabic programming has been notably coy in its reporting. For the first few days Al Jazeera barely deigned to mention the demonstrations. Saudi-owned Al Arabiya has been notably more forthcoming, but not as many Sudanese watch it. Elmahdi credits Al Arabiya -- as well as Arabic radio broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, and U.S.-financed Radio Sawa -- with pressuring the Qataris to provide more balanced coverage of the events. But there's still a ways to go. "Ultimately it's Al Jazeera that's going to make or break this," says Elmahdi. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.