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Sudan protests: How did we get here? | Middle East

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Last week, I lost a bet. Two days after the current protests started in Sudan on Wednesday, December 19, I said on Al Jazeera that I would be surprised if the regime of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan lasted till Friday morning.

A week later, al-Bashir’s troops are using brutal violence to suppress the protests. But I stand by my initial assessment. Having suddenly lost all residual legitimacy, the current regime is facing an apparently unstoppable surge of popular anger, even by earlier Sudanese standards. Massive violence will only make matters worse. Only a miracle, or a major miscalculation by protesters, will save it from its inevitable fate.

How Sudan got here

Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in June 1989, promising to end a situation of food shortages and economic meltdown similar to the ones he is presiding over today, complicated by rising insecurity and escalating civil war. However, his regime then exacerbated the economic woes and escalated the civil war exponentially.

As if this was not enough, the regime engaged in various external adventures, supporting Saddam Hussain’s foray in Kuwait, alienating a large number of regional powers and facing accusations of supporting terrorism. The result was international isolation, with more adverse impact on the economy.

A number of developments saved the regime. In 1999, oil production started in South Sudan, slowly easing the economic hardship. A split within the regime that same year, ironically improved its chances of survival.

When religious leader Hassan al-Turabi, the regime’s erstwhile Godfather, lost a power struggle, the impression was created that a more “moderate” wing of the ruling Islamists was now in charge. Discreet intelligence cooperation with the United States followed, coupled with overt cooperation on tackling the civil war. This eventually led to an internationally acclaimed peace agreement.

A new constitution was proclaimed in 2005, together with a government in which power was shared with former Southern rebels. Opposition parties were permitted to function openly and given seats in parliament.

However, just as the regime was coming out of isolation and revelling in a newly acquired legitimacy and relative economic prosperity, horrendous atrocities in a new war that broke out in Darfur in 2003 brought unprecedented international opprobrium. Al-Bashir was indicted in 2008 for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Then South Sudan voted to secede in January 2011, in an uncanny coincidence with the Arab Spring.

Surprisingly, no massive protests erupted then, in spite of attempts by young activists to emulate their peers in other Arab countries in organising protests using social media. The response was remarkably lukewarm. On the appointed day, even the organisers failed to turn up. Muhammad Ibrahim Nugud, the late secretary-general of the Sudanese Communist Party arrived with a handful of his supporters to find the square empty. He sarcastically scribbled a note addressed to his supposed fellow protesters on a piece of cardboard which read: “We called, but you weren’t in”.

A more substantive wave of protests erupted in the capital Khartoum in September 2013. However, brutal action by the government swiftly put an end to those, at the cost of more than 200 lives in one week. This only intensified and broadened anti-regime anger. However, the protests also lost momentum because many were alienated by the violence that accompanied them. Pro-government media exploited that element ruthlessly (as it is doing today, but with less success).

The regime then launched a process of “National Dialogue” in early 2014. An apparent breakthrough happened when al-Turabi, who became the regime’s bitterest and most effective adversary, suddenly agreed to join in. The process looked promising until al-Bashir showed his real hand and refused to give any meaningful concessions.

Participants wanted a new constitution and actual power-sharing. However, the regime insisted on holding a rigged election in 2015 to give al-Bashir a new term, ignoring opposition demands for a postponement, and arguments that the president had already served the two terms permitted under the 2005 constitution.

The whole process unravelled and things were back to square one. The economy went into a tailspin, in spite of the lifting of US sanctions by the Obama administration. The government made things worse by drying up cash in the banks to stem a downward spiral in the value of the currency. The majority of the Sudanese, who live on a pittance, were suddenly unable to access their own funds in the banks, which compounded their misery and induced an economic downturn.

The callous insensitivity of the regime to this misery and its preoccupation with getting the president a new term through amending the constitution fueled popular anger.

What will happen with the protests?

Ominously, the current uprisings started in the northern Sudanese town of Atbara, formerly a railway hub, and neighbouring Berber, which happens to be my hometown. It then spread to various northern riverain towns, before reaching other outlying towns, and finally Khartoum. This all happened within 24 hours.

The riverain region is widely trumpeted as (or accused of being) the regime’s stronghold since most of its strongmen hail from there. Regardless of the validity of this claim, the fact that the protests were ignited there should be very worrying for al-Bashir and his circle. The regime depends mainly on a core of hardline Islamists but the majority of those have also deserted. The regime has compensated by enlisting an assortment of constituencies and a raft of opportunists, including a contingent of the notorious Janjaweed tribal militias that terrorised Darfur during the last decade.

However, the rhetoric of the bulk of the leaders of the revolution is harshly and uncompromisingly anti-Islamist. There is a reason for this. The regime has probably done much more to discredit Islamism than the usual anti-Islamist suspects in Egypt and the UAE.

For most Sudanese, Islamism came to signify corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty and bad faith. Sudan is perhaps the first genuinely anti-Islamist country in popular terms. But being anti-Islamist in Sudan does not mean being secular.

The bulk of protesters use a pious language of which even hardline Islamist would approve. However, the strident anti-Islamist rhetoric and threats of reprisals against all regime supporters might cause many of those to circle the wagons around the regime for self-protection. A vicious spiral might impose itself, with the regime using massive brutality as it feels cornered, thus intensifying the mass popular anger against it and fanning the flames of more protest.

The resulting polarisation would be disastrous for a country that needs peace more than anything else. The regime is trying to repeat the 2013 “success”: Threatening and using mass violence, while working hard to sow divisions among the people rising against it.

Its chances of success are slim, given it has nothing to offer other than fear and polarisation. Al-Bashir has been given more chances to redeem himself than any other ruler in the region. I once counted seven major occasions when he could have opted to bring the country together and move it forward. Each time he has chosen his narrow interest and that of the small corrupt clique around him.

If he wants to avoid the fate of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and other failed Arab despots, he would be wise to join deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Jeddah and allow the country to heal and put itself together again without the unnecessary agony.

Sudan’s revolutionary experience

Sudan is a (largely neglected) school in democratic revolutionary practice, starting with its peacefully negotiated self-government in 1953 and independence three years later. The elite used exclusively peaceful protests and negotiations to achieve their goals.

It helped that Sudan was able to play the two “colonial powers” (Britain and Egypt) against each other. Interestingly, the self-government act promulgated by the British in 1953, was used, with slight modifications, as the constitution of all democratic governments in Sudan (1956, 1964 and 1985-6). The popular uprisings of October 1964 and April 1985 proceeded according to an almost identical script.

Student protests received the backing of trade unions and professional organisations, resulting in mass protests. Political parties then joined in, and influential sections within the military refused to take part in the repression, forcing the regime to cede power. A peaceful transition followed, with minimal disruption of the state or the economy, and no reprisals against former regime supporters. The process took one week in 1964, 12 days in 1985.

The current wave of protest is different in several important ways. This was not an elite-driven process, but a genuinely popular uprising, emanating from the periphery, not from Khartoum. It is thus virtually leaderless, much more so than the Arab uprisings, where media-savvy youth played a loose managerial role.

It is also a highly polarised affair. The current regime, unlike earlier ones, does have a residual core of popular support and a hard-core militant base, heavily armed and ready to fight. Political and civil society leaders are scrambling to replay the old script. On Christmas Day, they assembled a protest led by professional organisations, which voiced specific demands of regime change. Activists plan a campaign of civil disobedience and a series of mass protests and are working to forge consensus on change.

However, if no meaningful effort is made to win over the (largely Islamist) military and enlist disaffected Islamists, conflict may ensue. The difference between a popular uprising and a civil war is the degree of isolation of the regime.

It is a supreme irony that al-Bashir’s current woes started only a couple of days after his return from a controversial visit to Syria, where he embraced his fellow genocidal despot, Bashar al-Assad. It is not known what advice he received from Damascus, but it is certain that Sudan cannot endure a “Syrian scenario” of protracted murderous carnage that would destroy what little the country has.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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