On Saturday June 16th, 2012, a group of students at the University of Khartoum in Sudan began a march from their dorms, in protest against austerity measures imposed by the government that have led to a staggering rise in the price of basic goods and services. During the subsequent wave of protests – which quickly grew to include calls for the toppling of the government – ordinary Sudanese citizens took to the streets in the capital Khartoum and in cities such as Kassala, Gedaref, and Sennar. These protests attest to the rise of a new generation of youth activists who are quickly emerging as a primary political force in Sudan. At the heart of this struggle is a movement by the name of Girifna, which was instrumental in broadening the revolt by mobilizing protesters, coordinating demonstrations and marches, and publicizing human rights violations perpetrated against demonstrators and activists.
Girifna, which translates from Arabic as “we are fed up” or “we are disgusted,” was founded by a group of university students in October of 2009 in order to encourage citizens to vote in the run-up to the May 2010 elections. These elections – which were the first to be held in 21 years – were seen as a way to bring about nonviolent political change. However, they failed to achieve their goal. The ruling National Congress Party, which came to power in a military coup in 1989 and which is headed by Omar al-Bashir (who is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his role in the war in Darfur) remained in power despite allegations of corruption, intimidation and vote rigging by opposition parties.
In the aftermath of the elections Girifna continued to push forward and organize for regime change. A Girifna activist who has chosen to remain anonymous (she will be referred to as Heba for the purposes of this article), explains, “We feel that the [NCP’s] ideology is the root cause of all [our] problems. We are a country of multiple cultures, multiple religions, multiple languages. We need to be governed in a way that accepts this diversity. These people are unable to accept diversity. Their ideology is imposing a supremacy of Arabism, Islamism…[it’s] an ideology of discrimination, of racism, and of manipulating religion to marginalize a lot of people in Sudan.” Heba insists that the secession of South Sudan in July of last year has done nothing to resolve Sudan’s problems. Even after secession, the country continues to be ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse, and thus the regime’s ideology continues to be the main source of oppression. “This was one of our first demands, and it is still one of our first demands, that the NCP goes.”
The movement is representative of today’s discontented Sudanese youth, who are “fed up” not only with the NCP’s brutal rule but also with the politics of the traditional opposition groups and parties. These parties – such as the National Umma Party, the Communist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, among others – are highly sectarian in nature and dominated by an older generation of male politicians and activists. It is the failure of these parties to mount viable or effective resistance to the NCP throughout its 23 years of dictatorship that has prompted the rise of Girifna and other youth groups that have also sprung up in its wake. “The opposition parties have failed,” says Heba. “They’ve failed in opposition, they’ve failed when they were in power.” She adds that they have also consistently failed to take young people into account and to allow them to “be creative, to be innovative and to exercise leadership.”
What marks Girifna apart from these older groups is not only its youthful constituency, but also the diversity of its membership. Girifna activists come from all parts of the country – from Khartoum, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, eastern Sudan and, before secession, South Sudan. The movement has also successfully tapped into the talents and expertise of the huge population of young Sudanese living in the diaspora. Women have consistently played an important part as leaders of and participants in the movement. One of the recent protests coordinated by Girifna, which took place on Friday, July 13th, was named “Kandake Protest,” or the “the Protest of Strong Women,” which saw mothers, daughters, sisters and others taking to the streets against the regime.
The contrast between Girifna and these older, more traditional opposition groups is also apparent in its tactics, which are characterized by fearlessness, creativity and innovation. The movement – which is decentralized in structure and led by volunteers based both in Sudan and in the diaspora – uses the internet extensively to organize and to raise awareness within the country and internationally, relying on a core base of activists, amateur bloggers and journalists to do so. As Heba notes, “we have really been at the forefront of new media over the last three years”. Through their website, their Facebook page, and Twitter, volunteers document the regime’s human rights violations, organize and publicize actions and protests, and campaign on behalf of political prisoners.
One of the group’s most successful internet campaigns focused on Safia Ishag, a Girifna activist who was kidnapped and gang-raped by members of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in Khartoum after participating in a political protest in January of 2011. Members of Girifna recorded Ishag’s testimony about her rape and, with her permission, posted the video online in February of that year. The video (below), which received thousands of hits on Youtube, represented an unprecedented milestone for women in Sudan. While rape is known to be a weapon widely deployed by the regime against women (used most notoriously by regime-backed Janjaweed militias in the war in Darfur), it is considered deeply shameful for women to speak publicly about their violation. Safia Ishag’s testimony, therefore, represented an historic milestone for victims of the regime’s sexual violence, the first time a woman has publicly and unapologetically broken the barrier of silence to speak about her violation.
The group’s internet presence has also been vital in the recent revolt in Sudan. Given the severe repression of the press and of free speech in the country, demonstrators participating in the protests relied heavily on Girifna’s internet presence to access information and coordinate actions. It was through the group’s Facebook page that the name for one of the largest protests, “Elbow-licking Friday” was coined, in reference to a statement that Bashir made that attempting to topple the regime was as fruitless as attempting to lick one’s elbow. In the run-up to the protest, which took place on June 30th, countless Girifna activists and sympathizers posted pictures of themselves, their friends, their children licking their elbows, in a show of contempt for Bashir’s statement. Since June, the group has continued to coordinate protests, including marches in support of political detainees and protests in solidarity with Darfur, among others. Since the beginning of the protests, membership on the group’s Facebook page has more than tripled; before the protests there were approximately 11,000 individuals subscribed to the page. Just over a month later there are almost 40,000 subscribers.
But if Girifna has been effective online, it has been just as effective on the street in Sudan. “One of the things that distinguishes this movement from others,” says Heba, “is that from the beginning we were very confrontational with the regime.” Over the past three years, Girifna has regularly organized themed forums on political issues and youth forums on social justice issues (forums that are constantly raided by the police and the internal security services), distributed pamphlets criticizing the regime, undertaken door-to-door outreach, held anti-regime rallies in crowded city centers such as markets and transportation hubs, and spray painted anti-regime graffiti all over the capital.
The movement’s tactics have been paying off in important ways. “If Girifna has done one thing,” says Heba, “it has managed to challenge and break the barrier of fear in Sudan”. Indeed, the group’s confrontational style and the fearlessness of its activists in standing up to state authorities have inspired many Sudanese to do the same. The protests that erupted in the wake of the government’s austerity measures, while largely spontaneous, testify to a new courage and determination on the part of average Sudanese to tackle the regime head-on. This is a state of mind that has by and large been nurtured and encouraged by Girifna activists over the past three years, and which is beginning to bear fruit on a widespread level.
But the movement’s successes have come at a cost. In the recent wave of protests, for instance – in which at least 2,000 people have so far been arrested – individuals associated with Girifna have been heavily targeted by the police and security forces. Heba explains, “We’ve been the most targeted movement [for arrests] because we have a lot of members, and we have very visible members who have a presence on the street”. She continues, “Our main challenge right now is detentions, because they are a disincentive for the Sudanese nation generally, not just for us.” A recent report posted on Girifna’s website highlights the plight of detainees, many of whom have been denied legal representation and held in secret detention facilities, and some of whom have been beaten or tortured.
Despite these obstacles, Heba says she has hope for the future, and dismisses pessimistic analysis in the western media that has tended to depict the recent protests in Sudan as insignificant in comparison to the “Arab Spring”. What is most encouraging, she notes, is that cracks are beginning to appear within the state’s very own security apparatus. She reports one friend witnessing the resignation of a member of the National Intelligence and Security Services, who gave up his job in protest at the treatment of detainees. Girifna recently posted a photograph of a policeman hiding his face and holding up a hand-written sign in support of protesters. Scuffles between members of the police and the security services have been reported, because of disagreements over the treatment of detainees.
“I personally am very optimistic for the future,” says Heba. “Change will come...The [NCP] has been in power for 23 years. It’s game over.”