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By Arieh O'Sullivan
Protests against biting austerity measures in Sudan have started to gain momentum and spread, possibly indicating that the tightly controlled Muslim African country could be overcoming its reluctance to join revolts of the Arab Spring.
Since the beginning of the week, there have been continuous and growing anti-regime protests, sparked by government announcements to dramatically cut fuel subsidies and increase food and transportation prices.
The demonstrations began at the University of Khartoum in the capital and quickly moved off campus. While police fiercely cracked down, the demonstrations continued to spread, with the general population joining what some social media outlets are calling a "revolt."
They have intensified and were joined by other universities and took over major streets across the sprawling capital. Security forces have reportedly dispersed the dissent brutally, including shaving the eyebrows and heads of protesters, according to photographs and testimonies posted on Facebook and other social media networks.
International media coverage of the recent wave of protests has been slow and largely overshadowed by events in Egypt, Sudan's neighbor to the north, and in Syria. Still, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday issued a statement voicing "deep concern" by the harsh crackdown by government forces against peaceful demonstrators.
"We call on the government of Sudan to respect the right of its citizens to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in order to raise their grievances," the U.S. statement said in support of the protests.
Despite the crackdown, demonstrators gathered for the fifth day in Khartoum on Thursday chanting "The people want to overthrow the regime," while the riot police used tear gas to break up the marchers.
Journalists in Sudan, meanwhile, have launched their own demonstrations, taking to the streets to protest unofficial censorship and harassment apparently aimed at suppressing criticism of the government.
President Omar Al-Bashir, who has ruled since a 1989 coup, blamed the austerity measures on the drop in oil revenues since the country lost the lucrative oil fields to South Sudan, the breakaway nation that achieved independence nearly a year ago.
A mass protest, announced mostly on Facebook, has been called for June 30, the 23rd anniversary of the country's National Congress Party's (NCP) rise to power. While Sudan is home to both the first and second "Arab Springs" in 1964 and 1985, the latest attempts to topple the totalitarian regime will have trouble sustaining themselves due to poor organization and ruthless government crackdowns, analysts say.
"There have been repeated little stirrings of discontent in greater Khartoum. In each case they fizzled out. The government stepped on them quite heavily," Justin Willis, an East African expert at Britain's Durham University, told The Media Line.
"There is a suggestion now, partly due to the worsening economic situation and the fact that the government is having to take some quite drastic measures, because of their lose of the oil revenues, that that may be tipping the balance and may push more people out onto the streets and may make this protest more effective," Willis added.
After nearly a week of street protest, the beleaguered political opposition, hitchhiking on the wave of popular discontent, called on Thursday for the overthrow of Al-Bashir's regime. The National Umma Party scheduled a political rally for Thursday night followed by a demonstration.
Grappling with an annual inflation rate that reached 30.4 percent as of May, the Sudanese have seen transportation prices rise by 35 percent, fuel by 60 percent and sugar by 40 percent.
Protests by locals have taken place over the last few days in several of Khartoum's major streets and districts, where on Monday huge demonstration erupted in the main market. Merchants and locals chanting "How long will we live in debt" were assaulted by security forces, reportedly joined by loyalists to the NCP, with metal rods, machetes, knives and even swords.
Sudan's budget is largely spent on security and political sectors, which make up nearly 90 percent of its expenditures. The agricultural sector, which is the main source of livelihood for four fifths of the population, received just 3 percent of the total government outlays, with health and education respectively receiving 2.4 percent and 2.3 percent each. The value of the Sudanese pound has halved in the past 12 months.
The Global Peace Index, released this week, placed Sudan third in its ranking of failed states. Still, the Sudanese have been said to show resilience to continuous hardships and difficulties.
"As history has shown, when they decide that 'enough is enough,' then it overwhelmingly is -- and it seems that decision has now been made," wrote Yousif Mubarak ElMahdi, a Sudanese economist and activist, on his Twitter site.
Willis, of Durham University, said the Arab Spring has shown that leadership among the opposition was notably inconsequential.
"The crucial question really is how internally cohesive the government [of Sudan] remains," Willis said. "Historically, the current regime absolutely understands how important it is to keep control of the streets of greater Khartoum …and they have always been very good at it. They know that governments in Sudan are created and fall on the streets and they have devoted a great deal of energy and time and effort to it."
"The real question is, are they going to loose their touch?" he added.
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