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'It's more than bread': Why are protests in Sudan happening?

Anti-government protests have entered their eighth day in Sudan
Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they march along the street during anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan (Reuters)

A man stands in front of a crowd of people waiting eagerly for the words he will deliver, hoping to hear their worries will be addressed. The words the 44-year-old speaks will ultimately live to haunt him.

“Anyone who betrays the nation does not deserve the honour of the living.”

That was the promise made by the then-new ruler of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir while addressing a rally in Khartoum after seizing power in 1989. 

Today, backlash against the economic hardships and rising living costs under Bashir’s 29-year rule has taken the form of anti-government protests entering their eighth day.

Demonstrations have spread across Sudanese cities since they first began on 19 December, including to the capital Khartoum where on Tuesday large crowds gathered in the centre of the city to demand Bashir leave office. 

“The similarities between Bashir’s first statement when he came to power in 1989 and the economic situation that we are currently in is striking,” said Khartoum resident Samih Elshiekh.

It was these similar hardships that helped the president come to power through a military coup, Elshiekh mused.

“It is now Bashir who does not deserve the honour of serving as the leader of Sudan,” he added.

Not about bread

The struggle to achieve daily necessities such as fuel and cash has also been a large motivating factor for protesters.

Queues outside bakeries, gas stations and banks have become a common sight across the country in the last year and the waiting often turns out to be in vain.

“Life is very, very difficult. In every meaning of that word that you can imagine,” Mujtaba Musa, a digital marketer based in Sudan’s capital city said. “There are queues for bread, petrol and gas but then very often there isn’t anything there in the first place.”

When protests started in the city of Atbara, it was the tripling in the price of bread that sparked the initial frustrations. But a Sudanese-American writer, who has asked to stay anonymous, told Middle East Eye that focusing on this sole issue without wider context would be a “shallow and grossly incomplete picture”.

“The immediate crisis and pressing need that has pushed people to risk their lives and go out in protest, is to demand their daily bread,” the writer said. 

“Bread is what drove people into the streets, but 30 years of hardship and violent oppression is what is keeping them there.”

Bread shortages have forced people to wait in long queues for their daily supply (AFP)
That much of the reporting on the demonstrations has focused solely on the rising cost of bread has led many Sudanese to voice their frustrations. 

Musa also told MEE that the protests were political, not just instigated by economic issues.

“If the protests were only about economic issues then people would have stopped participating in them after the government declared they would bring the prices of bread back down after the initial increase,” he added.

With at least 37 protesters reportedly shot dead during protests according to Amnesty International, Elsheikh asked: “Imagine telling a mother who lost her son in the protests and is going through unimaginable pain that this loss was just over bread?”

The search for cash

A cash shortage in the Sudanese capital has also exasperated the patience of residents.

Rising demand for cash due to inflation and a lack of trust in the banking system after the central bank introduced a policy of restricting the money supply, to protect the Sudanese pound, have contributed to a liquidity crunch that has worsened in the last two months.

Not only are queues for ATMs extensive, spanning 20 people and requiring almost an hour of waiting, but trying to find a machine that actually has cash in the first place is the most pressing concern.

“Time is wasted just looking for working ATMs. If you have a car, then you waste your fuel looking, and if you don’t have a car, you will be waiting for public transport which isn’t available due to the fuel shortages,” Elsheikh explained.

“If you took a taxi, then you are also spending more cash to look for cash.”

“It is ridiculous, to be honest,” he added.

It is a struggle that can sometimes be a matter of life and death as payment for hospital treatment must be paid for with cash.

“The hospitals don’t accept cheques, it has to be cash. It’s a death sentence,” said Elsheikh.

Sudan’s inflation stood at more than 68 percent in September, one of the world’s highest rates.

Translation: Thousands of Sudanese demonstrate yesterday in a peaceful procession, described as the largest of its type in years, in central Khartoum calling for the fall of the regime and overthrowing of President Bashir from authority. Security forces prevent the protesters from arriving at the [Presidential] palace.

Black market

Without access to their money from banks and ATMS, many have felt no other choice but to turn to the black market but with the Sudanese government devaluing the pound in October, the price of the dollar has been unpredictable

“At the beginning of this month, the dollar had reached 85 SDP ($1.79) and now it is 62 SDP. And it will go up again,” Musa said.

But there are three prices for the dollar depending on where you go.

“There’s the price that you get officially at the bank but then there are two prices on the black market. You get more if you go with a cheque and less if you go with cash because cash is in such high demand.”

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Another female resident of Khartoum, who asked not to be named, told Middle East Eye that government officials have reportedly approached black market sellers and urged them to place their cash into the banks.

“Of course the sellers refused because any money you put in the bank, you can’t take out,” she said.

Daily hardships

The economic crisis has had a tangible impact on the aspirations of many of the country’s youthful generation.

A female medical student living in Khartoum, speaking to Middle East Eye on the condition of anonymity, explained how the rising costs of living obstructs her ability to just get to her workplace.

“I have to go to clinical rotations in hospitals and most of them are far from my home so I take Careem and Tirahal [car riding services] and it costs me 300 pounds per day. This used to buy me food, credit and drink and now it literally does nothing.”

Spot checks with traders and market vendors showed that over the past month the cost of a kilo of flour has risen 20 percent, beef 30 percent and potatoes 50 percent, Reuters reported in November.

The food in the student university cafeteria has also jumped from 25 SDP to 45 SDP, she notes that eating out has no longer become an option.

“We’ve had to cancel most of our outings recently because we can’t afford to waste money on these things when it’s so hard to earn money these days.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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