It was the night of March 20, and Ahmad spoke with the anxious urgency of a man on the run.
In February, the young Sudanese hip-hop artist, who asked to be
identified only by his first name for security reasons, had fled
Khartoum, the capital, after a 12-day detention that included beatings
Now he was back, arriving discreetly by bus from
the nation's hinterlands, and waiting furtively for his contact to find
out the details of a planned protest, which he'd then pass to his cell
Before, these instructions would have been sent by text message or email. Not anymore.
"We don't talk over phones much now," he explained.
In Sudan, the "Arab spring" that's shaken most other Arab countries
feels like a grim wintry chill. Protests have been dispersed quickly
under the heavy hand of security forces. Scores of demonstrators and
suspected ringleaders have been imprisoned. The movement has failed to
garner broad popular support.
Faced with a clear
opening-round defeat, the movement is doing something that questions the
assumptions about the role of social media in enabling the Arab
revolts: It's going old school, revolutionary-style, and shunning many
of the technologies that are credited with mobilizing the other
Through a network of carefully vetted small cell
groups - each knowing only what it has to - activists now pass messages
face to face in secure locations. The identities of members of the core
leadership team are carefully guarded, kept secret even from most of the
They're settling in for the long haul,
an acknowledgement that revolutions are rarely as spontaneous as they
may appear on TV.
The young people here have learned that technology can be a dangerous, double-edged sword.
Facebook and text messages? Compromised. Promoting a protest online? A good way to get everyone arrested.
Cellphones are treated warily now, as are regular email and
Internet forums. If activists chat online, they do it in camouflaged
forums designed to fly under the radar. Facebook sites are still used to
share pictures and video, but with much greater caution.
Sudan's government is led by a dictator who rose to power 22 years
ago in an Islamist-led military coup, gave Osama bin Laden a haven,
escalated a deadly conflict in the south by declaring it a jihad, and
countered an insurgency in western Darfur with a bloody, racially tinged
crackdown that many have described as genocide. The International
Criminal Court has indicted President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes
charges, and Western diplomats shun him. But his government learned
faster than its brother authoritarians elsewhere how to deal with an
Internet-based protest movement.
simply shutting off access to the Internet or cutting off cellphone
texting, as other regimes did, the Sudanese security services embraced
those tools. They even declared "cyber-jihad" against anti-regime
Pro-government agents infiltrated anti-government
sites, spreading misinformation and looking to triangulate the
identities of the chief organizers. They'd barrage Facebook pages with
pornography, then report the pages to Facebook for violating the rules.
Protesters abandoned a website they'd launched to gather reports
from the ground and map demonstrations online after they realized
government agents were using the information.
"Do not use SMS, and do not use the 'Submit a Report' link as these are currently not safe," the site now cautions.
Combined with clever suppression tactics, the crackdown was highly effective.
One popular method of outsmarting the protesters, according to the
accounts of multiple eyewitnesses, was to send teams of plain-clothed
young security men to the sites of planned protests. These agents would
initiate anti-government chants, luring in youths who were waiting
nearby for the demonstration to start. Once a small group formed, the
unwitting protesters would be led down the street to a trap of police
Once protesters were arrested, the
Sudanese security apparatus did its best to scare them away from going
back on to the streets.
"It was just basically torture,"
Ahmad recalled. "None of us could sleep on our backs" because of the
beatings. He and other detainees also faced electrocution, lengthy
verbal abuse and humiliation, he said. His short, stubby haircut is all
that remains of the Afro he once proudly wore - until the police shaved
it down the middle.
Always, the security forces remained conscious of the online battlefield.
One young protester, who was detained for 18 days on suspicion of
organizing demonstrations, said that security police refused to release
him until he gave them access to his Facebook page and email, where they
scoured his recent activity and communications. He asked not to be
identified for security reasons.
was so thorough that it's taken weeks for the movement to regroup, and
it's still struggling to get back on its feet.
The protests March 21, which Ahmad had scurried back to Khartoum for,
were a bust. The tactic of relaying the details by person, cell to cell,
rather than promoting them online seemed to confuse more than it
helped. A bitterly disappointed Ahmad was one of fewer than 30 youths
who made it to the final meet-up spot for a brief demonstration before
For the movement, it was back to the drawing board.
On March 31, it announced a new, but old, tactic: the launch of an
anti-government shortwave radio program, now on the airwaves, to try to
build support for the movement in the rural areas.
haven't given up on the protests or the power of the Internet for
publicity. On Monday, students staged a brief demonstration at the
University of Khartoum, then posted the video online.
But Ahmad knows that what the revolution lacks most is numbers.
"It's so sad. I know many people want change, and they need it. But they aren't willing to go out with us," Ahmad said.
The young artist - who raps under a stage pseudonym - hasn't given
up on the cause. He and other young musicians have released a
politically charged compilation album - a rarity in Sudan's tightly
controlled society - and his live performances are filled with
not-so-subtle anti-regime rhetoric.
Watching nearby tyrants
teeter and fall, he said he was still confident that the tsunami of
popular anger would hit Sudan's shores eventually.
movement needs to organize itself first, and prepare for that day.
Because that day is coming, certainly, and it has to come," he said.