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Internet shutdown in Sudan amid violence and protests underscores impact of social capital

The latest round of protests against Sudan’s President of 30 years, Omar al-Bashir, began April 6th with a sit-in at Sudan’s military headquarters in the Capitol city, Khartoum. The government’s efforts to limit the spread of pro-democracy uprisings have lead them to shut down the country’s main internet service providers.

Why there are protests?

Omar al-Bashir (Source Flickr/Open Democracy)
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (Source Flickr/Open Democracy)

President al-Bashir came to power in 1989 through a coup and remained in his position until 2019 despite several instances of the international community raising red flags regarding his leadership. These include the United States designating Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, the African Union deploying a peacekeeping force to quell the government’s use of militias, and the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for al-Bashir for war crimes and genocide committed in South Sudan.

Just before 2019 began, protesters initially took to the streets to demonstrate against food shortages and high prices, however the gatherings soon lead to criticism of al-Bashir’s leadership. At the beginning of this month, al-Bashir was deposed from office and government security forces killed over 100 people involved in protests. Immediately after the killings, mobile phone service through Sudan main provider Sudatel, as well as providers Zain and MTN, was suspended. Further, the following Monday saw a near total internet outage for landline connections as well.

Effects of the internet block

Without access to popular applications used for communication and organizing like Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter, people across Sudan remain digitally disconnected from each other. An activist who spoke with Human Rights Watch explained the increased risk of misinformation spreading, as well as vulnerability for those traveling on the roads due to the unknown locations of armed government forces. Demonstrators are now relying on small neighborhood committees working together to continue carrying out opposition and ensuring their messaging remains resilient despite challenges. In a test of the Sudan’s social capital, activists are now demonstrating the power of close knit communities to carry news from one group to another. One activist explained the idea that if you get a message from someone, you can then try to spread it to twenty more people to ensure it is dispersed.

“During the protests, you find safety in somebody’s house, you meet people from your neighborhood you never knew,” she said. “It’s integrating people.”

Social Networks in Cell Mesh Networks

Cell Mesh Network (Source Wikipedia/Mesoderm)
Cell Mesh Network (Source Wikipedia/Mesoderm)

Sudan is not the first government to hinder digital communication as a means of quelling protests. In 2014, the Chinese government censored messages from Hong Kong protesters seeking democratic process in elections. Consequently, demonstrators made use of an app, FireChat, which allows cellphones to directly connect with each other regardless of internet connection availability. Because the cell mesh network that forms as a result allows users to directly connect to users nearby and not rely on a central cell tower, it is not as vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed by large numbers of users, and cannot be shutdown by the government the way internet service can be. This sort of network can be extremely useful to bolstering the resilience of communication channels during times of internet outages, whether they be caused by environmental disasters or government censorship.

What’s to come

On Wednesday, June 12, the Transmilitary Council of Sudan announced that the internet service shutdowns have been necessary in order to protect national security. Further, there are no plans to restore access to service in the near future. One lawyer,Abdel-Adheem Hassan, successfully petitioned the courts to have his internet access restored, but TMC remains shut down for the rest of the country. In the meantime, some aspects of Sundanese society have been able to resume, such as sanitation services and the opening of some storefronts. However, the internet shut down has already been estimated to have cost the country’s business millions of dollars. In the meantime, Mr. Hassan has vowed to fight for the rest of the citizens in Sudan, telling BBC “We have a court session tomorrow (June 26) and another one the day after tomorrow. Hopefully one million people will gain internet access by the end of the week.”

Sources and Further Reading

State Sponsors of Terrorism – US Department of State

A timeline of key events in rule of Sudan’s al-Bashir- Assoiciated Press

Sudan internet blackout forces battered protesters to rethink – Financial Times

SPA: Sudan digitally isolated by ‘arbitrary’ TMC internet blackout – Dabanga

Sudan: End network shutdown immediately  Human Rights Watch

Streetsweepers, ATM queues return in Sudan’s capital as strike ends France 24 

Violations, rapes by Sudan militiamen documented despite internet shut-down – Dabanga

Hong Kong protesters turn to mesh networks to evade China’s censorship- Extreme Tech