- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 8, 2012

CAIRO — “I think my country, Sudan, has really hit rock bottom.”

Those were the last public words uttered by Usamah Mohamad, a 32-year-old Sudanese Web developer-turned-citizen journalist, in a video announcing he would join protests against President Omar Bashir.

Mr. Mohamad, popular under his Twitter handle “simsimt,” was arrested the same day his video was aired. For the next month, his family had no idea where he was. Finally they learned he was in Khartoum’s high security prison and were allowed to visit him last week.

He was skinnier and darker, a sign he had been left to bake in the scorching Khartoum sun, people close to his case say. The family itself is saying nothing.

Mr. Mohamad is one of many dissidents detained recently in a crackdown by the Sudanese government. At least 2,000 have been arrested, activists say.

The crackdown aims to crush a new attempt at a protest movement calling for the ouster of Lt. Gen. Bashir, inspired by the Middle East’s uprisings that toppled the leaders of Sudan’s neighbors Egypt and Libya, as well as Tunisia and Yemen.

A ripe target

Anti-government activists see Gen. Bashir’s 23-year-old regime as the most ripe in the region to topple. He has been weakened by the loss of oil-rich South Sudan, which became independent last year after two decades of Africa’s bloodiest civil war. His regime has had to impose painful economic austerity measures to make up for the loss of revenue from the south’s oil, sending inflation up to nearly 40 percent this month. Gen. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the western Darfur region, where a rebellion continues to bleed the country.

“We have more reasons than any other Arab country for an uprising,” said Siddique Tawer of an opposition umbrella group. “No other country was split. Sudan was. No other country has a civil war ongoing in Darfur and [fighting along the border with the south].”

“These are enough reasons to topple a regime, aside from the corruption, oppression and the rising cost of living,” he said. “The continuation of this regime is dangerous for the rest of the Sudan.”

Those troubles could also prolong the life of the regime. Gen. Bashir has showed a survivor’s talent for using external threats to keep key parts of the public behind him. He is backed by a brutal security machine and a network of interests built on Islamist ideology, economic ties and tribal politics.

At an inauguration of a factory in central Sudan on July 11, Gen. Bashir ridiculed prospects for an uprising.

“They talk of an Arab Spring. Let me tell them that in Sudan we have a hot summer, a burning hot summer that burns its enemies,” he said, waving his cane threateningly.

So far, his prediction has proved true. Some activists fled the country, others are lying low amid the crackdown after protests by thousands raged for more than a week in June, the biggest since the Arab Spring began in late 2010. Under censorship, newspapers are not reporting on the protests.

“I think a popular uprising to topple the regime is not an attractive option to the Sudanese right now,” said Hassan Haj Ali, a Khartoum University political science professor.

Many are wary of new turmoil after the long civil war and are bracing for a worsening economy. Sudanese also remember how unrest against Gen. Bashir’s predecessors led to military coups, bringing Sudanese “back to square one,” Mr. Haj Ali said.

Fear of breakup

Sudanese and the region worry of further fragmentation, with separatist movements not only in Darfur but also in the east and the south.

“What remains of Sudan may not hold as one bloc and may become so unstable it reflects on neighboring countries,” Mr. Haj Ali said.

As a result, regional powers — and the United States — may prefer “to deal with the regime in its current condition and not be embroiled in further crises,” he said.

Sudan came close to war with South Sudan early this year. With the two sides in protracted negotiations over oil-sharing and borders, Gen. Bashir’s regime can drum up public support with anti-South Sudan rhetoric.

Sudan’s crushing economic crisis has given youth groups a tool to galvanize the public behind their protest movement.

After years of a boom fueled by southern oil, Sudan has reeled since South Sudan’s independence. The crisis is threatening to worsen under austerity measures recommended by the International Monetary Fund to deal with shrinking resources.

Inflation is expected to rise further. Electricity bills are going up, and consumer groups are urging a boycott of meat and poultry because of skyrocketing prices. The currency has lost nearly half its value since January.

The youth groups, some of them working since 2009, put together a movement through social media and university activism. It links disgruntled communities of Darfuris and others who live in the capital of Khartoum.

On June 16, protests erupted. Female students marched in Khartoum University. Male students joined them, and together they moved into the streets of the capital. Over the next six days, protests broke out at universities in Khartoum and other cities. By Friday of that week, regular citizens in Khartoum joined them, coming out from mosques in marches that numbered several thousand.

“The people demand the downfall of the regime,” some chanted, a refrain heard in other Arab uprisings.

Throughout the week, police struck back with tear gas and rubber bullets and, in at least one instance, live ammunition, according to the London-based Sudanese rights group the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies. Several students were seriously injured.

The movement planned nationwide protests on June 30, coinciding with regime celebrations for the anniversary of Gen. Bashir’s coming to power. Under a security clampdown, protesters managed only a small turnout, but anniversary parades were canceled with so many troops in the streets.

Mohamad arrested

Mr. Mohamad, the Web developer, was seized at the Friday protest, as he tweeted about arrests by agents of the notorious National Security Services in Khartoum’s Burri district.

Friends say he may have been targeted because of his video aired the same day on Al Jazeera English TV.

“After 23 years of oppression and injustice, poverty and crime that are all committed under the current regime, change now is an inevitable must,” he said in the video.

His detention shows how the regime sees information about the protests as the biggest threat, said a friend of Mohammed who was held twice in custody, including once for 11 hours without water.

“He is detained for a month, a treatment reserved usually for a ringleader,” said the friend, who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution from authorities.

Activists report arbitrary arrests of protesters and bloggers and their families in the middle of the night. They said many have been beaten while in detention. Two Egyptian female journalists reporting for foreign media amid the unrest were deported.