On Sudan’s Streets, Young Professionals Rise Against an Autocrat

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CAIRO — As chaotic antigovernment demonstrations engulfed Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, a young doctor emerged from his hiding place and strode down a deserted street, his hand held high.

An eyewitness said the doctor, Babiker Salama, approached a group of security officials gathered around a truck last week and issued a plea. A protester had been injured and was badly bleeding, he said. Would the officers permit his evacuation?

Exactly what happened next is hotly disputed by Sudan’s president and the protesters seeking his ouster, but the result is not. A gunshot rang out. Dr. Babiker, 27, fell to the ground, grievously injured. An hour, later he was dead.

The death of Dr. Babiker, an idealistic young man from an affluent family, has emerged as a signal moment in a powerful tide of protest that has roiled Sudan over the past five weeks, posing the greatest threat yet to the country’s ruler of 30 years, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Demonstrations that started on Dec. 19 as a howl against soaring bread prices in the city of Atbara have snowballed into a nationwide movement, driven by daily protests calling for the president’s ouster. They hope to succeed where international efforts failed; Mr. Bashir’s autocratic rule has endured despite American missile attacks, war crimes indictments, international condemnation, economic sanctions, and a momentous 2011 split that led to the creation of South Sudan.

“Just fall, that is all!” cry protesters who mass in the streets of Khartoum nearly every day, often in an effort to reach the National Assembly building on the banks of the Nile. The security forces beat them back with tear gas and live gunfire.

A fresh wave of protests on Thursday drew thousands of people in Khartoum, Port Sudan and several other towns — the most widespread demonstrations yet. Activists said two protesters had been killed, one of them shot in the chest. At least 40 people have died, and hundreds have been detained, according to Amnesty International.

Mr. Bashir’s security forces crushed a previous protest movement in September 2013 with brutality, killing 170 people in less than a week, according to rights groups. But this time, experts say, the protests feel different.

The revolt, which has spread from Khartoum to 35 cities in 15 of Sudan’s 18 provinces, is led by disgruntled young professionals from the classes that were long tolerant of Mr. Bashir’s iron-fisted rule. Speaking by phone, a dozen protesters, weary of economic decay and international isolation, said they hoped the government’s panicky reaction signaled that Mr. Bashir’s rule was grinding toward its end.

“The regime is frightened,” said Sheraz Ibrahim, 30, a former United Nations consultant who has joined the protests. “This is not just about Bashir — we want the whole regime to step aside and let a new generation take control.”

As she spoke, a clamor erupted in the background. “That’s another protest, right outside my house,” she said.

International reaction to Sudan’s tumult has been muted — a product of indifference, perhaps, but also of apprehension among experts and policymakers who fear that, like the Arab Spring in 2011, upheaval could lead to instability or even greater repression.

“History tells us over and again to think seriously about what happens next, and how,” said Zach Vertin, a former Obama administration official who worked on Sudan, and recently published a book about South Sudan. “Libya and Egypt show the results of uncontrolled regime change when there’s no thought about the day after.”

Mr. Bashir has weathered severe storms before. An American missile attack in 1998 destroyed a factory in Khartoum and presaged crippling economic sanctions. In 2010, Mr. Bashir was indicted on a charge of genocide by the International Criminal Court over his conduct of the war in Darfur.

The secession of South Sudan in 2011 deprived his government of vital oil revenues.

“He has frequently been underestimated,” said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at Tufts University, who ascribed Mr. Bashir’s political longevity to a well-oiled security apparatus and a formidable patronage machine greased by corruption and shifting regional alliances.

But a precipitous economic collapse in the past year whipped up a storm of popular rage against Mr. Bashir, with even wealthy Sudanese suffering from chronic fuel shortages, price increases and a currency crisis. Young doctors emerged as vocal critics, in many cases motivated by the dire conditions in the grimy hospitals where they worked, and where patients often die for want of medicines worth a few dollars.

Dr. Babiker, the young man shot on Jan. 17, was an unlikely symbol of revolt. From a well-to-do background, he was raised partly in Saudi Arabia, where his father works as a lawyer. His family lives in an exclusive Khartoum suburb near business tycoons and foreign diplomats. Three of his four sisters are also doctors.

“We were not like the people in need,” said his 33-year-old sister, Sulafa Salama, who works as a doctor in Ireland. “We had nothing to do with politics.”

In 2016 Dr. Babiker was sent to the remote Nuba Mountains for his military service, where he was shocked by the conditions, often performing cesarean sections by the light of his cellphone. He voluntarily stayed an extra three months, until a replacement doctor could arrive.

“My mother begged him to come home but he refused,” Sulafa Salama said. “He said, ‘I can’t leave. I’m the only doctor here.’ ”

In death, Babiker Salama has become a rallying cry for protesters. The doctor who had tried to save his life addressed a crowd in Arabic and English, a Sudanese flag draped over his shoulders.

“This is a message to the world: The people killed in Sudan were not doing anything wrong,” he said. “They were going out peacefully, to say no to this cruel system.”

In a speech on Sunday, Mr. Bashir addressed Dr. Babiker’s death directly, blaming “infiltrators.” A government spokesman later claimed Dr. Babiker had been shot by an unidentified young woman who pulled a pistol from her purse.

“Communists have no religion and no morals,” the spokesman said, in an apparent reference to the woman. He promised to release a video recording of the shooting.

An X-ray from Dr. Salama’s autopsy, provided by a family member, showed numerous pellets in his upper torso, suggesting he had been hit by a round from a shotgun.

The crisis comes just as Mr. Bashir had started to inch his way back onto the international stage, if not quite to respectability. He has allied with the European Union to combat people smuggling, and has dispatched Sudanese soldiers to fight in Yemen under the Saudi-led coalition.

The United States lifted economic sanctions in 2017, citing improvements in Sudan’s record, but continued to list the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Mr. Bashir has given strong hints in recent years that he would like to step down, said Mr. Waal, the Sudan expert. But an indictment by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges leaves him with few places to turn.

“He has no way out,” Mr. Waal said of the Sudanese leader. “He’s not going to step down quietly. He worries that a successor would hand him over to the I.C.C. And he’s surrounded by a coterie that is probably even more determined than he is to stay in power.”

For now, the Sudanese strongman appears to be calculating that he can ride out the storm with repression and funds from regional allies.

On Jan. 17, riot police officers fired tear gas into a hospital, assaulted doctors and dragged wounded protesters from beds, according to rights groups. Women detained by the security forces say their hair was cut off and cast in the street.

In his first foreign trip since the protests started, Mr. Bashir was in Qatar on Wednesday to meet with the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in what was widely seen as a mission aimed at seeking aid to bolster Sudan’s crumbling economy.

One worry for Mr. Bashir is the cohesion of his security forces, which have come under great strain. One security officer was killed and several others wounded Wednesday night during a clash between members of the National Intelligence and Security Service and army troops in Port Sudan, a security body said in a statement.

But the greatest threat comes from impatient young Sudanese who have known only his rule, and now they say they have had enough. Several described their struggle as intergenerational as well as political.

Mars, a 22-year-old engineering student who asked that only his first name be used, said his parents argued with him every morning as he left their house to protest.

“They know it’s not safe out there,” he said. “They try to convince me to stay home because I have no brothers.”

But every morning, he kept going out the door. “I know that whatever comes next, it’s got to be better than what we are living now,” he said.

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