Birthday Note from Sudan’s Arab Spring

 “Today is my birthday, I wish to dedicate this day to detainees in Sudan, jailed for fighting peacefully for their rights. I wish for a ‘happy birthday’ next year with you in the streets of a free Khartoum.”

—    Sudanese twitter activist Gihan Eltahir


Contrary to the denial of President Omar al-Bashir, the army general who has held power in Sudan since 1989, the Arab Spring may have finally come to Sudan.


Gihan Eltahir

Mass protests, which began on June 16th have continued over the last month. Pictures and videos from the ground show thousands of peaceful activists, journalists, university students and citizens being attacked, their homes, offices and dorm rooms raided. Over 2,000 have reportedly been arbitrarily detained in clandestine facilities. According to activists on the ground, the regime’s security has hired thugs and criminals called Rabata to attack protestors, identical to tactics used in Syria, Libya and Yemen.


While the protests have dwindled in the past weeks due to fear, many continue to be detained, arrested and, according to organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, subject to torture. In the worst spate of violence since the demonstrations began, peaceful protestors in Nyala-South Darfur were brutally attacked;  12 were killed and dozens injured, according to a list published by activists. Some of those killed were as young as 16 years old. The government is clearly worried.


The headlines should write themselves. Sudan has been at the center of conflict for decades, warfare being the regime’s main instrument of governance. It had been locked in continued fighting with South Sudan, which voted for independence last year following a 23-year civil war that claimed the lives of millions, and fighting has continued to erupt over the last eight months as the two countries continue to hammer out differences on oil and borders. The regime also waged a brutal war against rebels in its westernmost province of Darfur between 2003 and 2010, claiming the lives of an estimated 300,000.


Seven weeks after the first protests in Khartoum, law and order seem to have collapsed in many parts of Sudan, and clashes between government forces and citizens continue to persist.


Yet international media coverage has been poor, barely mentioning the demonstrations, the intimidation and the scores of activists and journalists languishing in secret prison cells at risk of torture. Foreign journalists are being detained and deported, their offices raided and their entry into the country denied. But this is no excuse for the lack of reporting or response. Sudanese tweeters and bloggers can provide the coverage. In fact, they already are.


Social media sites have blown up as media savvy bloggers and activists around the country attempt to spread the message, despite continued arrests, threats and intimidation. You can track all of this on twitter at #SudanRevolts, or at


So why isn’t civil unrest in Sudan receiving the same attention that other Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syria inspired? More importantly, how can we support the efforts of activists such as Eltahir and honor her birthday request to stand with those in Sudan brave enough to work for change?


From Serbia to Georgia to the Arab Spring the media has been instrumental in mobilizing both internal and external forces for justice and democratic accountability. For decades, the international community has tried to contain the excesses of the al-Bashir regime through sanctions, threats of prosecution and the presence of U.N. military forces. This may be an historic opportunity for Sudanese themselves to transform this society that has suffered tremendously for decades — an opportunity we, in addition to the people of Sudan and East Africa, cannot afford to let pass.


Zahra Ismail is a program officer at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.