KHARTOUM, Sudan—On a recent afternoon, Mariam Al-Mahdi, a daughter of Sudan's last democratically elected leader and a spokeswoman for his political party, found herself unable to attend a family get-together.
The women of the Al-Mahdi clan were preparing to deliver a petition to the headquarters of the country's National Intelligence Security Service demanding the release of hundreds of youths jailed since pro-democracy rallies broke out on Jan. 30.
The young protesters, most of them expressing public dissent for the first time, were being beaten, shocked with stun guns, threatened with rape, and—perhaps in honor of Sudan's biggest agricultural product—burned with molten sugar that interrogators poured on their bare flesh, including their genitals. New to open defiance and its brutal rewards, "I don't think many of them will protest again," a family member of one detainee told me.
Unsettled by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, the coming secession of Sudan's southern region, and a cratering economy, President Omar al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party has never been weaker. But the sharpest response the opposition could muster to free the imprisoned youth was a petition delivered to the torture-chamber gates by a few dozen brave women of aristocratic stock.
If it's a far cry from Tahrir Square, even that weak gesture was intolerable to the Islamist security state: As she was preparing to join her cousins at NISS headquarters on Feb. 11, Mariam Al-Mahdi found herself abducted.
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There was a moment, way back in 2005, when even some jaundiced observers of Sudan allowed themselves to hope the days of brutality and censorship might be over. After decades of civil war, a landmark peace agreement was signed between the Arab Islamists in the ruling National Congress Party and the black, southern-based rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement represented more than just an end to Sudan's racial and religious-themed hostilities; it envisioned a radical reboot of Africa's biggest country as a plural, democratic state.
The treaty, known as the CPA, became Sudan's interim constitution, and it called for fair elections, decentralization, and a free press. It was negotiated with the unstated premise that rebel leader John Garang, a Christian—backed by voters in the south and the disaffected millions in Darfur, eastern Sudan, and the far north—would become Sudan's first black president. The National Congress Party, which took power in a 1989 military coup, would survive as junior partner in a new government embraced by the United States and Europe. Garang believed in a unified and democratic "New Sudan," but few of his followers agreed. So the treaty gave Sudan six years to make good on its promises, after which the south would have the option to secede.
Garang's death in a July 2005 helicopter crash, and the decline of U.S. influence after the Iraq debacle, put an end to the dream of a "New Sudan." Hard-liners regained the upper hand in Khartoum, and secessionism became the core political value of the south. Since then, the north's freedoms, always tenuous, have been under steady assault. When southern Sudan becomes an independent state on July 9, the CPA itself will cease to exist, taking with it any pretense of civil rights in the north.
President Bashir says the rump Sudan's future identity will be Arab and Islamist, ignoring the fact that Arabs form a plurality in the north, but not a majority. Today, a ruling party clique presides in God's name over a country that is seventh from the bottom on Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index and spends two-thirds of its annual budget on security. The April 2010 elections that certified Bashir's rule were comprehensively rigged.
"The CPA was a gift from the south to the north," Sawi Bitek, an ethnic Nubian elder in the northern city of Wadi Halfa, whose homeland is threatened with inundation by two Chinese dam projects, once told me. "People were crying here when Garang died." The absence of a southern counterweight will be keenly felt throughout the chastened north.
Torture of dissidents, illegal land seizures, renewed bombardment in Darfur—it's the kind of situation one might expect to hear the U.S. government shouting about. South Sudan and Darfur have fierce advocates in the West, but it's hard to find many people talking about repression in northern Sudan. The people there have been written off.
U.S. policy instead is fixated on bribing and cajoling Khartoum into honoring its commitments to let the south depart in peace. The bargaining chips include the likely removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, an end to U.S. sanctions, and a possible deferral of Bashir's trial for alleged genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.
Scott Gration, President Obama's Sudan envoy, has been full of praise for Bashir's government, in early February lauding its "great steps to lift restrictions" on humanitarian workers in Darfur A week later, a French aid group was ejected from South Darfur state, and on Feb. 25, the government suspended the operations of Catholic Relief Services in West Darfur state after accusing the charity of distributing Bibles.
"Gration and the government are working together at this point," Kamal Sadig, editor-in-chief of the banned news station Radio Dabanga, told me. "No one is talking about a democratic transformation—it's normalization they want. Only normalization."
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On the day Mariam Al-Mahdi was picked up by state security, a 23-year-old college student whom I'll call Osman was in his eighth day of captivity. He'd been beaten with a rubber hose and stun-gunned, but he was lucky enough to avoid being burned. Fifty-four students, journalists, and activists were being held in his wing of the building, he said, and a larger group was being tortured elsewhere. More than 300 people were arrested that week. Detainees were forced to give up their Facebook and e-mail passwords.
While some demonstrators were traumatized by the experience, Osman sounded determined to rejoin the struggle. "Compared to the early '90s, the torture we had was nothing," he told me the morning after he was released. "There's no question: I'm going to be arrested again. They told us the second time will be worse."
Like young people across the Arab world, he'd been spurred by the fall of Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali and the movement to topple Hosni Mubarak. "When we saw what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt, we were inspired, we had to come out," Osman said. "We've kicked out dictators before, in '64 and '85. We kicked [Ibrahim] Abboud out, we kicked [Jafaar] Nimeiri out."
I asked Osman what role Sudan's traditional opposition parties had played in the demonstrations. "The big parties didn't support us," he said. "I was expecting them to come out, but they didn't. They're politicians. This is not the time for politics. This is the time for revolution."
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Sudan's people have indeed unseated dictators in the past, notably in 1985, when protests removed Jaffar Nimeiri after 16 years in power. While many of the conditions that led to that revolt exist today, particularly rocketing food prices and inflation, many components of the coalition that toppled Nimeiri are absent.
The Islamists who stole power in 1989 have broken Sudan's trade unions. The leading opposition parties, two of them dynastic affairs tied to large Sufi orders, have been weakened by years of infighting and restrictions on organizing.
On Feb. 16, Bashir taunted Sudan's traditional opposition, daring them to take to the streets, "if they have any supporters." For now, the old-line parties are holding fire.
There's a fantasy scenario floating around that rebels in Darfur could one day join forces with remnants of the southern army in Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains to help unseat the regime. In May 2008, a mobile force of the Justice and Equality Movement roared across hundreds of miles of desert from Darfur to the very edge of Khartoum, pausing only to massacre dozens of people at a NISS training center in Omdurman, before the army beat them back. But these days the rebels are fighting for survival in Darfur, and they are unlikely to threaten the capital any time soon.
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For an hour and a half, Mariam Al-Mahdi had been driving around Khartoum in the back of an unmarked government car, the men in plainclothes unsure what to do with her, clear only on their orders to keep her from attending the rally for the detainees.
As kidnappings went, this one was polite, and not without precedent. Al-Mahdi's father, Sadig Al-Mahdi, has been imprisoned several times by this and earlier regimes. Her cousin Mubarak Al-Fadil spent seven months in Khobar Prison in 2007. Two of Mubarak's sons were at the top of the list of protesters the Al-Mahdi women hoped to free that day. And her uncle the radical Islamist leader Hassan Al Turabi remains in prison since his arrest on Jan. 17.
In other circumstances, Mariam Al-Mahdi might have organized the petition drive, but she was still recovering from a Dec. 24 beating in which police shattered her left forearm after a party meeting. The arm was still in a cast, the ulna bone held together by a metal rod and five screws. So when the security men hustled her into their car, they were stealing a foot soldier, not the leader, of that day's demonstration.
"I asked their officer, am I under arrest? But he wouldn't answer," she said. "They just kept touring around with me in the car. After 90 minutes, he stopped the car and told me to dismount."
It was then that the officer noticed a thin sheaf of papers in Al-Mahdi's right hand. He ordered his men to seize them. "I can't use my arm yet, so I hugged the papers to my chest while four men were putting their hands on me, on my chest, trying to get them," she said. They pried the papers away and left her outside the high walls of her family home.
"The whole episode is puzzling," she said. "Like a joke, but not."
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The question for many people in Sudan is how long this angry and amputated northern state can go on. A currency devaluation and reduced government subsidies on sugar and gasoline provoked small protests in several cities in early January—before the Tunisian uprising bore fruit. These pocketbook issues, several people told me, pose the greatest threat to Bashir's rule.
"The government needs money to lubricate the security machinery for buying and renting cooperation, but money is very tight now," a Sudanese economist told me. "Meanwhile, the people are desperate. There are no jobs."
"The Islamists have torn themselves apart and done themselves a disservice through their performance," he said. "This looks like the last months of Nimeiri."
Sudan's opposition parties have formed a big-tent coalition to demand new elections and an inclusive government. The regime's response has been less than magnanimous.
"I hope the Egypt and Tunisia lessons are heeded," Mariam Al-Mahdi said. "They will change or be changed, either peacefully or violently. All chances are open."
Click here to read a slide show on the Sudanese referendum.