What's happening in Sudan is nothing short of amazing. This is the country that has been ruled since 1989 by President Omar al-Bashir -- the man who faces a global arrest warrant after being charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court for his country's exterminationist policies in Darfur. This is a guy who was willing to kill millions of his compatriots -- and not only Darfuris -- in order to keep himself in power. Now, thousands of Sudanese are taking to the streets to defy him and his regime. Many have already disappeared into torture chambers for their efforts.
You could be forgiven if you hadn't noticed. Western media coverage has been thin. CNN aired just a few grainy videos -- which is actually pretty commendable, considering that even the New York Times can't bring itself to do more than printing a few terse Reuters dispatches. (Unless you count their excellent blog The Lede, which finally brought out a good piece on the protests late yesterday.)
But there are a few news organizations that have been doing their best to report on the developing situation: the BBC, Bloomberg, and Agence France-Presse. It's surely no coincidence that some of their correspondents have run into trouble with the authorities. On Tuesday the Sudanese authorities deported Salma El Wardany, a Bloomberg reporter who was arrested by the security services for several hours last week. An AFP journalist was also detained by the police until Western diplomats intervened on his behalf.
The Sudanese government has very good reasons for targeting the handful of foreign journalists in Khartoum. How the outside world covers the uprising in Sudan -- billed by some as the latest installment of the Arab Spring -- will have a major impact on what happens there next.
That was the most important takeaway from my conversation this week with Yousif Elmahdi, a young oppositionist in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. His activism really began in January 2011, when the Tunisian uprising first inspired Sudanese students to demonstrate against the Bashir government. Elmahdi was arrested and tortured by Bashir's secret police. This time around he's decided to confine his protest to the realm of social media rather than participate directly in the protests, but he has no illusions about what's likely to happen next. After our conversation he sent me a text:
Thank you -- I'm going to eventually get detained anyway if this thing increases so I'm trying to do as much as I can in the meantime without doing anything crazy to hasten the arrest.
And yet he was willing to let me use his name. That says something important, I think, about the grit of the people behind the protest movement now under way in Africa's third-largest country.
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.
Media coverage, of course, not only connects the Sudanese with each other but also imposes at least some constraints on Bashir, who has shown a certain degree of sensitivity to international criticisms of his government. Oppositionists have organized an information campaign around the Twitter hashtag #SudanRevolts to boost international attention to the protests. (Even in this impoverished country, it turns out, there are many Sudanese who can access the internet through their mobile phones, though few have computers.) Still, the activists are under no illusions: Social media, they say, still can't compete with good old-fashioned TV.
The worst thing the West can do, according to Elmahdi, would be to impose additional sanctions on Sudan, which merely tend to rally people around the regime. By far the most effective means of ratcheting up the pressure, he says, would be to help the Sudanese get a clear picture of what their own government is doing to its citizens.
Western countries can help. Governments that sponsor Arabic-language news broadcasts should step up their coverage wherever possible and boost signals to ensure that more Sudanese can receive their programming. Perhaps they could even lobby the governments in Riyadh and Doha to beam more footage into Sudan. (And along the way, Washington and Brussels could tactfully point out to the Chinese that having a new leader in Khartoum might enable the oil from South Sudan to flow again. Bashir's negotiations with the year-old government in Juba about bringing the South's oil to market clearly aren't going anywhere.)
Meanwhile, editors at the big Western media outlets should send more reporters to illuminate the latest events in Sudan -- and not because that would support budding democrats. Quite simply, there's a huge story in the making here. Omar al-Bashir is now Africa's longest-serving autocrat. Like Qaddafi, he's been the instigator of countless conflicts -- not only against his own citizens in places like Darfur or South Kordofan, but also among his neighbors. (He even lent his support to Joseph Kony, the leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.) His fall would offer the opportunity of a fresh start not only to Sudan but to an entire region. Surely that's a story worth covering.