Sudan's emerging online heroes are Bashir's worst nightmare

Sudan's emerging online heroes are Bashir's worst nightmare
Comment: Under Bashir, uniting and organising have been snuffed out, but a new united front of protesters is bringing hope to the Sudanese people, writes Khalid Albaih.
4 min read
25 Jan, 2019
'Whatsapp has become an new arena for information wars' writes Albaih [AFP]
The protests currently gripping Sudan are the country's youth's third and most organised effort to hit the streets since the winds of the Arab Spring revolutions swept the region in 2011.

They chant the anthem that changed the region "The people want the downfall of the regime!"

And following in the footsteps of autocrats before him, in addition to arresting opposition figures and blocking news and journalists, the first thing al-Bashir did at the start of these protests almost two months ago was to block social media access.

Not to be deterred, within 24 hours most of the activists were back online, and even surer that they must be on the right track, or so it seemed. The fear of not being connected is a chilling sensation, particularly when you're living under a dictatorship that has isolated Sudan from the world for the last three decades of its rule.

Internationally, very little is known of Sudan, but the cliché of a rich but poor African country that is ruled by a narcissistic military dictator who does anything for money, is depressingly close to the truth.

In addition, world leaders are reluctant to call on Bashir to step down, because even if he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, he still serves their need for "stability" making it harder for the protests to gain international momentum and coverage on world news.

Domestically, Bashir controls the nation's media, and excludes anyone who is interested in real news or journalism. Those who do try to report on events are severely punished, their publications are confiscated after going to print, and the publishers lose their investment.

The fear of not being connected is a chilling sensation, particularly when you're living under a dictatorship

To combat this, many journalists took to social media, and in particular Whatsapp, as the main source of news and distribution. Unfortunately, the government agents followed, and Whatsapp became an new arena for information wars, where government agents spread fake news, causing people to lose their trust in their only source of news.

This leaves the Sudanese citizen with two choices: Propaganda or unverified news.

The effect of 30 years of government propaganda has left many believing that there is no one in Sudan who can rule the country but Bashir and his entourage. Not because he is a hero, but because there are no heroes left - or so the thinking goes.

Every time there are new protests, people wonder, "but who is the alternative?"

With no official independent media, it's easier for the government to defame rising stars or potential heroes of the revolution, by spreading Whatsapp messages suggesting they are on the side of the government.

As a result, people lose confidence in their heroes, and by consequence in the protests.  

Now two months in to the protests, the revolution has been plunged into a sea of online information, some of which is true, but most is unverified, and sometimes fake news.

This makes it harder for international news agencies to trust any information regarding the protests. As a result, independent journalists and twitter users have taken it upon themselves to make the effort to verify all photographs and videos spread online.

Paranoia about control of information is also the reason the government agents have blocked Aljareda newspaper 12 times in the last two weeks, in addition to arresting scores of brave journalists.  

The government's fight against a free and independent media, where there will never be definite news and the people are left in constant doubt, makes it easier to make or break heroes. Officials from traditional parties, journalists, singers and football players all become either corrupt or silent beneficiaries of the regime. Their complicity reinforces the notion that there is no alternative.

There is however, a glimmer of hope in the anonymous Sudanese Professionals Association that has emerged on social media.

They are a group of united, Sudanese educated activists who became responsible for organising protests and uniting Sudanese professionals around the world.

For Bashir, they are his worst nightmare; both united and anonymous

For some, they represent the new wave of protests, and embody why this uprising is different. And for Bashir, they are his worst nightmare; both united and anonymous.

The Sudanese Professionals Association has no connection to traditional parties that could be manipulated, has no officials to arrest or buy, no newspapers to confiscate, and no headquarters to raid.

They are the heroes that the people were waiting for; they are everyone and anyone, they are the internet, and they are us.

Khalid Albaih is a Sudanese artist and political cartoonist who often publishes under the name Khartoon. His cartoons have appeared in publications such as the The New York Timesthe Atlantic, National Public Radio, and the BBC. 

Previously based in Khartoum, Sudan, and Qatar, Albaih currently lives and works in Denmark, where he is the ICORN/PEN Artist in Residence for the city of Copenhagen.

Follow him on twitter: @khalidalbaih

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.