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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sudanese anti-government protests mushroom

By James M. Dorsey

Sudanese students are demanding the fall of President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir’s government in growing daily demonstrations that come 15 months after student protests nearly forced the African Football Confederation to deprive Sudan of the hosting of an African soccer tournament.

Like in February of last year, attempts by security forces using tear gas have only boosted the demonstrators’ ranks with other population groups joining the week-old protests that erupted after the government announced spending cuts.

Hundreds of Sudanese of various walks of life joined the students after Friday prayers chanting the Arab world’s all too popular slogan: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” Mr. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the Sudanese crackdown against rebels in the Darfur region.

This week’s protests have already lasted longer than last year’s and it remains to be seen whether the eruption will fizzle out as it did last year. The killing by security forces of a student last year proved insufficient to give the protests the momentum witnessed in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The student protesters were born largely after the popular revolt in 1985 that forced then President Jaafar al Numeir from office. Nonetheless those protests, that like in Egypt last year prompted the military to step in and replace the disliked leader are one of the few, if not the only ones, in which an Arab leader was forced out of office by popular will prior to the current wave of revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. That revolt led to Sudan for a period of time becoming the first country ever to be effectively ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate rather than a democracy.

What makes this round of protests different from those last year is the fact that they feed on government measures intended to reduce a $2.4 billion budget deficit fuelled by last year’s secession of South Sudan that robbed Sudan of three quarters of its oil production that effect the pocket book of every Sudanese. The measures include lifting subsidies for fuel, and increased taxes and custom duties on luxury products.

Disagreement over the price that landlocked South Sudan should pay Sudan to pump its oil to northern ports has prompted the newly created nation to shut down production and brought Sudan and South Sudan to the brink of war.

Some analysts suggest that the myriad problems Mr. Bashir faces rather than popular discontent that struggles to maintain momentum the absence of a viable alternative to the disliked president could ultimately prove to be his downfall. "But an economic crisis, armed conflict along the borders, a stalemate with South Sudan on sharing the oil yield and a malfunctioning political system might all render a popular uprising unnecessary, and cripple the government from within," said Sudanese analyst Nesrine Malik in an article in The Guardian.

If Darfur is one of Mr. Bashir’s problems, Darfur United, the region’s fledgling soccer team made up of survivors of the vicious battles against Bashar-backed forces who live in refugee camps in neighbouring Chad is happy to contribute its bit. The team plays in a bid to offer a violence-ridden and destitute region a ray of hope, keep it on the world’s map and serve as a reference point that allows a far-flung refugee Diaspora to maintain contact. Newly formed with the support of an American NGO, singer Macy Gray, National Basketball Association Tracy McGrady and Adidas, Darfur United earlier this month participated alongside Kurdistan, the Western Sahara, Provence, the Tamils and Northern Cyprus in the 5th VIVA World Cup for nations world soccer body FIFA refuses to recognize.

“Soccer united people. It keeps Dafur on the international agenda. Competing in VIVA in Kurdistan is more important than winning. We are now part of the world,” said a Darfur United player putting a good face on the fact that his team ended at the bottom of the tournament.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat.

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