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The Sudan Uprising and the critical role of social media Open in fullscreen

Alexander Durie

The Sudan Uprising and the critical role of social media

The 9-months of protests deposed long-time President Omar al-Bashir [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 September, 2019

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The Sudan uprising proved that in countries where the army tries to silence opposition, social media is – for civilians – a way to hold people in power accountable.
If the Sudan uprising had to be embodied through an image, it would be the iconic photo of Sudan's 'Nubian Queen,' Alaa Salah, taken on April 8. Wearing a white dress and golden earrings, Salah stands on top of a car, finger raised high like a revolutionary leader. 

Besides highlighting the leadership women took in the 9-months of protests that deposed long-time President Omar al-Bashir, the image shows something else that shaped the revolution.

Surrounding Salah, dozens of phones are held aloft, recording the historic events. Across Sudan, civilians faced regular episodes of violent government repression and internet shutdowns to quell demonstrations, but protesters actively documented and shared events whenever they could.

The Sudan uprising proved that in countries where the army tries to silence opposition, social media is – for civilians – a way to hold people in power accountable.

"It [social media] forced the government and the rest of the world to pay attention to us," said Hiba Siddig Diab, a 23-year-old demonstrator in Khartoum.

A state steeped in censorship

Crowds fill Khartoum's streets to hail 'new Sudan'
Read also: Sudan's transition to democracy:
Will it be smooth?

Ranked 175 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Sudan is one of the most censored countries in the world.

RSF reported at least 100 cases of journalists being arrested and that critical newspapers were harassed and silenced on a near daily basis by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) since the pro-democracy protests started last December.

Deposed President Bashir – who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity – made censorship and military violence integral parts of his long-standing regime. But his ouster in April did not mark a sudden end to his reign of terror.

A council of generals known as the Transitional Military Council (TMC) took power following Bashir's demise. The TMC was led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burha, though Mohamed Hamdan "Hemeti" Dagalo, the vice-president and commander of the violent paramilitary group the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), was mostly at the helm, particularly due to his support from regional allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Persecution of the media and violence continued under the TMC. On May 30, Al Jazeera, one of the main channels to broadcast Sudan's pro-democracy demonstrations, was forced to close its Khartoum office without explanation. And on June 3, the RSF and other paramilitary forces raided the months-long mass sit-in in the capital, injuring more than 400 and killing 127 people, with 300 still missing and most likely dead.

Documenting the massacre

Due to the amount of content demonstrators posted on social media, the June 3 attack was one of the first live streamed massacre.

Open-source investigators from BBC Africa Eye pieced together the violent crackdown by analysing 300 videos shot in Khartoum on that day. 

The use of open-source intelligence – in which events can be documented and analysed from afar – helped publicise evidence of the massacre and, crucially, circumvent Sudan's severe censorship.

"This protest has really been shaped by the diaspora, by internet coverage," said Benjamin Strick, the BBC's lead open-source investigator on Sudan.

"If you have a look at the videos from the protest, everyone has their phone out. It's the only way of holding people to account. Recording violence is the only safety you have."

If you have a look at the videos from the protest, everyone has their phone out. It's the only way of holding people to account. Recording violence is the only safety you have

A few hours after the massacre, cybersecurity NGO Netblocks reported a near-total internet shutdown in the country that lasted up until July 9.

The government stated that it shut down internet networks because it saw it as 'a threat to national security', but civilian protesters told The New Arab that the TMC ordered the internet blackout to try and prevent information surrounding the deadly attacks from spreading.

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Inside the sit-in that brought down
Sudan's dictator Bashir

For demonstrators at the sit-in, the sudden absence of internet and ways of communicating with family and friends, especially following the massacre, left them distraught and in shock.

"There was a lot of dead, wounded and missing people," said Reem Siddig Diab, a 19-year-old pro-democracy protester.

"My friends were still in there. It was so hard to know about them. The situation was unsafe because the blackout was on the same day as the massacre. Everybody was crying. The hospitals were full. [...] It was the worst day of my life."

Resisting the internet blackout

Since December, the protests have been spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals' Association (SPA), which relied heavily on social media to spread information and mobilise the people.

"We had weekly hashtags that were set on our schedule. We hashtagged to get media attention," Samahir Elmubarak, the SPA representative, told The New Arab.

We had weekly hashtags that were set on our schedule. We hashtagged to get media attention

These hashtags ranged from "Tasgut Bas" which translates to "Just Fall," to #SudanUprising or the viral #BlueForSudan, started by SPA members based abroad who avoided the blackout.

According to Elmubarak, the internet blackout was another clear act of censorship and an attempt to suppress the revolution.

For some Sudanese people, like Nouf Nourien, an 18-year-old medical student in Khartoum, the blackout achieved the TMC's goal of breaking the uprising.

"I think social media is probably the most important factor [in the revolution]," Nourien told The New Arab. "I know this for a fact because during the blackout, without the internet, we were almost helpless."

But for many other pro-democracy demonstrators, social media was important but not essential to continue the revolution.

"We had to go back to very primitive and traditional techniques," said Elmubarak about the blackout period, "going door-to-door, mobilisation through leaflets, through rallies, and in fact that proved very effective because the result was the greatest rally in the history of Sudan which was on June 30. That was organised without social media."

Tens of thousands rallied on June 30 in what was dubbed the 'millions march,' Sudan's largest pro-democracy protest. The mass turnout proved that despite social media's critical role in the Sudan uprising, it was people that really drove the revolution forward.

The role of the diaspora

As the Sudan uprising spread both online and offline, it also spread beyond Sudanese borders.

"The diaspora from the very beginning played a massive role in the revolution," Elmubarak told The New Arab.

The diaspora from the very beginning played a massive role in the revolution

Close to five million Sudanese people live abroad, according to estimates by the Sudanese government. Using social media to stay updated about events in their home country, the large diaspora played an invaluable role in the uprising by sharing updates and spreading solidarity.

It was in mid-June, during the blackout, that a blue wave took social media by storm and millions of users turned their profile pictures to blue with the hashtag #BlueForSudan.

Why is everyone on social media changing their profile pictures into blue?
Read also: Why is everyone on social media
changing their profile pictures into blue?

The online movement honoured Mohammed Mattar, a protester murdered at the massacre. Driven by Sudan's large community abroad, the trend helped shift international attention towards Sudan, especially as several celebrities used their platforms to raise awareness about the situation.

"The nationwide shutdown pushed the diaspora to work even harder to ensure that their voices [the protesters'] were heard," said Sahar Ibrahim, a 23-year-old Sudanese demonstrator in London, "and to ensure that the rest of the world would know exactly what was going on." 

As the trend peaked, many fake accounts surfaced online, such as the @SudanMealProject, claiming to help but in fact only seeking to get more followers and spreading misinformation.

But like with most information posted on social media, many Sudanese people abroad agreed that it was important to remain cautious of the content being shared about their country. 

For Sali Mudawi, a Sudanese photographer also based in London, even small acts of solidarity proved meaningful.

"Non-sudanese people changing their profile pictures is more than enough," she said. "The blue started a conversation."

Towards freedom

The importance of social media in the Sudan protests, but also in Algeria in the past year, have incited suggestions of a second Arab Spring.

But for Magdi El-Gizouli, a Sudanese academic and fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, that term is "problematic."

According to El-Gizouli, what characterises the emergence of social media as a tool for mobilisation and awareness is generational rather than regional.

There's "a new crop of people who see the world a bit differently and who feel comfortable on a medium like the internet rather than the printed press," El-Gizouli said.

Though he referred to Sudan, the scholar could have easily been discussing civilians in Hong Kong or Pakistan.

For Sudanese abroad like Ibrahim and Mudawi in London, who only got to know Sudan through recent visits, following the 9-months-long revolution online awakened in them a pride of being Sudanese and a desire to reconnect with their roots.

As protests have now died down and a new government – with four women ministers – has been unveiled, hope seems to be on the rise for Sudanese people on their country's route to freedom. 

"Whether it [democracy] happens this year or in 5 years, Sudan won't be the same," Ibrahim said. "The people will make this happen, and I just hope to be a part of that."



Alexander Durie is a freelance journalist and photographer. His stories focus on social movements, subcultures, migration issues and the arts & culture. His work has been featured in The Daily Star Lebanon, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Huck Magazine, Reuters TV, and more.

Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie

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