voice for democracy

Opinion | Sudan's people have a taste of democracy and free expression. They want more. – The Washington Post

As an unpopular military coup engulfed Sudan in recent days, I was reminded of a different vision for that country: the democratic one where a multitude of voices can express themselves freely without fear of repercussion.
From afar, that seemed to be the path the country was on after a popular uprising brought down the dictatorship of former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019. We in the free world should be doing everything in our power to help the Sudanese people get back on that path.
“In a new Sudan, never again we will jail journalists,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said in his closing remarks at the United Nations in September 2019. He and I were speaking together on a panel about the role the international community must play in supporting press freedom in countries such as his. “I wish to see you in Sudan,” Hamdok said. “Come and report from our society. Our failures and our successes.”
That was an optimistic moment in Sudan’s modern history. Now, hopes that despotic rule was a thing of the past began to unravel. But the Sudanese people’s spirit of defiance in the face of military force is still strong and inspiring. That spirit was on show this weekend, as demonstrations against the coup took place across the country; reports suggest that at least three protesters were shot dead.
“In the past two years, the greater degree of press freedom has allowed Sudanese to discuss and debate their problems and challenges in a deeper and more frank way, beyond slogans and whitewashing,” Sudanese American journalist Isma’il Kushkush told me. He fears there will be setbacks.
Hamdok’s government was dissolved by military decree on Oct. 25. He and several of his ministers were detained. During the violence that ensued, multiple protesters were killed. Journalists were arrested, and the Internet shut down.
When I met Hamdok at the United Nations, it was clear he was no starry-eyed idealist. He knew Sudan faced an uphill battle toward democratic rule and had no illusions about the challenges that stood in its way.
“We know that democracy is an unfinished business. There is no finished model that you can just import. I wish there was one that you could just take out of the paper and unfold it,” he said. “Societies have to rise and fall in this process, and we’re happy to take that journey with all its challenges and problems.”
But he was betting on progress, and he understood — and I’ve seen no indication that his stance has changed — that it requires transparency. This means respect for dissenting voices and journalists’ freedom to report, and investment in the infrastructure that makes freedom of expression tenable for the long term.
This was precisely the opposite of what the military junta and coup, led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is pushing.
“Certain individuals have been put in custody — those individuals believed to undermine national unity and national security,” al-Burhan said as he detained supporters of the transition to democracy. “We are not muzzling mouths, we are blocking any voice [that] directly undermines our national harmony.”
Among those detained were Hamdok, members of his cabinet, democracy activists and members of the media. Hamdok returned home, though others remain in detention. Several newsrooms were also raided.
Perhaps most alarming was the Internet shutdown on Oct. 25 and the ongoing disruption to online connectivity. During the presidency of suspected war criminal al-Bashir, from 1993 until 2019, Sudan was among the countries with the lowest Internet connectivity in the world, according to Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Human rights groups and press freedom watchdogs are monitoring the flow of information.
“This is what we fear the most. Sudan was one of the last remaining open media spaces in the region,” Mansour told me. “To see this backlash is an ominous sign for Sudan and the region.”
North Africa is in a fragile state, with democratic movements in Sudan and Tunisia on the ropes. This is the moment to intervene in support of Hamdok and democracy, and against the strongman rule supported by our regional allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“As we’ve seen before, these censorship tactics are the hallmark of a government that wants to conceal its action on the ground, including massive human rights violations,” Mansour said.
Despite valid criticism of the transitional government under Hamdok, “for the majority of Sudanese, the transition into a democracy remains the prize,” Kushkush told me. “That large protests and rallies against the coup erupted so quickly and massively indicate that, for most Sudanese, the desire for democratic transition outweighs whatever promises the military may have to offer.”
The Sudanese people have had a taste of democracy and they want more. Al-Burhan and his forces may try and obscure that fact, but popular defiance to the military takeover is already brewing.
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