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Sudan crisis: How protest over bread prices led to more than 100 dead, bodies floating in Nile

Humanity is facing a crisis in Sudan following a crackdown in Khartoum when Sudanese security forces brutally cleared a protest camp in the area in the early hours of June 3.

The protesters were calling for the Transitional Military Council to hand power over to a civilian-led government. According to Human Rights Watch, protesters were chased, whipped, shot at and, according to several reports, raped.

It is yet to be confirmed exactly as to how many people have died so far. But the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors has estimated the death toll at 118 people as of June 12. However, the military-controlled health ministry has put the toll at 61.

The list did not include around 40 bodies repeatedly fished out of the Nile river after the Khartoum massacre.

Why were the people protesting?

In December, protests broke out in Sudan after an economic crisis emptied bank machines and forced the government to triple the price of bread. What started as a fight for bread prices soon morphed into a nationwide movement demanding the resignation of Omar al-Bashir, the Islamist-backed military dictator who had ruled the country since 1989.

A baker prepares bread in Khartoum, Sudan. (Photo: Reuters)

Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in April, after a sit-in camp outside military headquarters in Khartoum forced top generals to mount a coup against him.

Ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. (Photo: Reuters)

However, talks between the protesters, who demanded democracy, and the Transitional Military Council, who have taken over the country, soon came to an end.

On June 3, the military unit in Sudan tried to break the protests of the revolutionaries in Khartoum by opening fire on the crowds and killing over 100 people, according to local doctors.

One of the first victims of the massacre was 26-year-old engineer Mohamed Mattar. Mattar was allegedly fatally shot by the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces during the 3 June attacks. He was reportedly trying to protect two women at the time.

His favourite colour was blue, prompting a social media movement where the users turned their Twitter and Instagram profiles blue to honour his memory.

Using the hashtag #BlueForSudan, thousands of users have since joined the movement, including US singers Rihanna and Demi Lovato, who have shared statements of support with protesters.

(Photo: Twitter)

Rise of civil disobedience movement in Sudan

Army officers who overthrew President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April after four months of protests have cancelled all agreements with the civilian opposition alliance and scrapped talks over power-sharing.

“The military council destroyed the political process,” said Amjad Farid, spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which had been leading talks with the Transitional Military Council (TMC).

A campaign of civil disobedience has emptied Khartoum’s streets. Security forces fired in the air to disperse demonstrators in the north of the city.

One of the leading protesters, Alaa Salah come to symbolise the protest movement in Sudan. She is a 22-year-old architecture student in Khartoum.

Alaa Salah said she does not come from a political background, and has taken to the streets to fight for a better Sudan. “Our country is above any political parties and any sectarian divisions,” she said.

The scenario unfolding in Sudan seems straight out of the playbooks of generals in Egypt who manipulated the 2011 Arab Spring to their advantage instead of introducing greater freedoms.

Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi pushed veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak aside after security forces could not contain protests focused on Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

But it became clear that Egypt’s generals, who ruled during a turbulent and sometimes violent transition, had no appetite for democracy.

In 2013, Armed Forces Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, overthrew Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, after mass demonstrations against his rule.

Sisi, who received financial support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to keep Egypt’s economy afloat, outlawed the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist group.

Security forces dispersed two Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo weeks after Mursi was toppled. Rights groups said 800 people were killed. Egypt said the protesters were armed.

Who is in charge in Sudan now?

The Transitional Military is headed by Lt-Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, a career officer in the regular army seems to be calling the shots in the country.

However, it is also suspected that the real power is under Lt-Gen Burhan’s deputy, Lt-Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is also known as Hemedti. Hemedti commands the RSF – an irregular force outside the regular military chain of command.

Hemedti’s troops control the capital and he has apparent financial backing from regional super powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which could end up making him the next military dictator in Sudan.

Shut down of internet services by the military government in Sudan

The military government, which is in power in the country, has shut down most of the internet, citing “national security” – a move apparently designed to prevent protesters using social media to organise their movement and hinder reporting on what is going on inside the country.

On Friday, Sudan’s military council admitted for the first time that it was responsible for dispersing the sit-in in Khartoum.

“We ordered the commanders to come up with a plan to disperse this sit-in. They made a plan and implemented it…but we regret that some mistakes happened,” spokesperson Shamseddine Kabbashi said.

“We feel sorry for what happened,” Kabashi said, while adding, “We will show no leniency and we will hold accountable anyone, regardless of their rank, if proven to have committed violations.”

Sudan’s ruling Military Council spokesperson Shamseddine Kabbashi makes a speech as he holds a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum. (Photo: AP)

What about outside powers?

The African Union (AU) has suspended Sudan until the establishment of civilian rule, intensifying global pressure on its new military leaders to stand down after the worst violence since Omar al-Bashir’s fall in April.

Ethopian PM Abiy Ahmed has been going back and forth across Khartoum in a desperate bid to broker some kind of compromise with the generals and pro-democracy forces and appointed a special envoy.

Ousted Sudan president to face trial soon

Ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will stand trial soon on corruption charges, while 41 former officials from his government are being investigated for suspected graft, the chief prosecutor said on Saturday.

Bashir’s trial will be a test of how serious the country’s transitional military council is about trying to erase the legacy of Bashir, ousted in April after 30 years of autocratic rule that saw South Sudan secede and the economy deteriorate.

Chief prosecutor Alwaleed Sayed Ahmed Mahmoud said the former president would be referred for trial after a one-week period for objections expires.

What will happen now?

All eyes are on Sudan as the coming days will be very crucial for the country. It remains to be seen whether the opposing forces will come to some kind of terms and move on to a shaky, uncertain path towards democracy. If not, then the clashes between the Rapid Support Forces and the unarmed protesters will continue.

And if we have learned one thing from our history, it is the fact that balance of power is always tipped towards forces holding the guns.

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