Anti-government demonstrations in Sudan are unlikely to die down soon and pose the strongest challenge to President Omar Al Bashir's rule since he seized power in 1989, activists and political observers say.
Hundreds of people protested in cities across the country after midday prayers on Friday and were quickly confronted by security forces firing tear gas. The demonstrations were the most widespread since the protests began in the city of Atbara on December 19 in response to the government raising the price of bread from one Sudanese pound to three. They were also notable for the large number of women taking part, including one led by women in the Tuti Island area of Khartoum.
"It proves that there's a nationwide demand for this regime's fall," said Mahjoub M Salih, an award-winning journalist and the founder of Sudan's first independent newspaper Al-Ayam 1956.
“In Sudan’s history, people have ended two dictatorial regimes by national revolutions. The current protests threaten the regime, and prove the nation’s desire to end it. It’s hard to predict scenarios for the future in this early stage; however, the change is inevitable.”
The government has responded by posting security forces in public areas and arresting opposition figures and journalists, including the head of the Sudan Congress Party Omer Eldigeer on Friday. Nineteen people have been killed during the protests, including two security officers, according to government figures, and more than 200 were injured.
“The developments in future are up to the demonstrators’ ability to carry on,” said Mohamed Abdulazeez, a political analyst and journalist. Although the protests might be suppressed, the public anger could turn into a revolution that pushes Mr Al Bashir's National Congress Party from power, or at least force the president to step down, he said.
The protests have received the backing of opposition parties and groups such as the Sudanese journalists' national union and the Sudanese Professionals Association, which led a march on the presidential palace in Khartoum on Tuesday and has called for another on New Year's Eve. However, the protests appear to be driven mainly by people's anger at the steady decline in the economy and living standards that they blame on Mr Al Bashir's government.
Already dogged by corruption and poor planning, the Sudanese economy suffered a blow with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, taking with it three quarters the country's oil reserves. A foreign currency crisis has affected the import of essentials such as wheat and inflation is at 70 per cent. Even people with money cannot get their hands on it because of a cash shortage.
After years of coping by cutting expenses, people on low to middle incomes have reached a point where school fees, rent, medical care and other services have become unaffordable. The tripling of the price of bread was the last straw.
“We are dying from starvation, lack of health care among other basic needs; we might as well die in the streets by the regime’s bullets,” said Amira Osman, a political activist from Khartoum who has been taking part in the demonstrations.
At the very least, the protests have turned international attention to the situation in Sudan.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday appealed "for calm and restraint" and called on "the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths and violence".
The UN chief is "following with concern" developments in Sudan and "emphasises the need to safeguard freedom of expression and peaceful assembly", a spokesman said.
Late on Friday, Sudanese Information Minister Mamoun Hassan Ibrahim said police had captured a group of rebels from the Darfur region in North Khartoum who were planning to "kill demonstrators".
Mr Ibrahim said police seized weapons from the rebels and that they had confessed to planning to kill protesters.
However, on Saturday night Abdul Wahid al Nur, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement faction – accused of organizing the killing of protesters by the group arrested the day before – stated that his men had not committed "any military acts in any Sudanese city".