Sudan vowed Sunday to stand firm on its decision to hike fuel prices, despite days of deadly protests and criticism from within the ruling party and from hardline Islamic leaders.
Authorities say 33 people have died since the near-doubling of petrol and diesel prices last Monday sparked the worst protests in the history of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime.
Activists and international human rights groups say at least 50 people were gunned down, most of them in the greater Khartoum area.
There was no confirmation of fresh protests on Sunday but an AFP correspondent in Khartoum’s twin city Omdurman said riot police and security forces were on the streets in large numbers.
Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told AFP there was no going back on the fuel price hikes.
“No, it is not possible at all. This is the only way out,” he said in a telephone interview.
Bilal said authorities had to intervene when crowds turned violent.
“This is not [a] demonstration,” he said. “They attacked the gas stations. They burned about 21.”
Bilal said the government knew “riots” would occur if the cost of fuel went up but the reduction of subsidies would save billions of dollars.
“Our economy cannot tolerate such support,” he said. “We have to carry on. We know it is a bit heavy for the people.”
Arab Spring style
Arab-spring style calls for the regime’s downfall began after pump prices rose last Monday to 20.80 Sudanese pounds ($4.71) a gallon from 12.50 pounds ($2.83), while diesel jumped from 8.50 pounds a gallon to 13.90 pounds.
Sudan’s most popular newspaper, which has been an outspoken critic of the decision to cut subsidies, said it had been ordered to stop publishing.
Al-Intibaha is run by Bashir’s uncle, Al-Tayeb Mustafa, who told AFP that state security agents gave no reason for the suspension.
Journalists have complained of worsening censorship since the protests began.
Fuel prices had already almost doubled last year after a partial lifting of subsidies.
Sudan lost billions of dollars in oil receipts when South Sudan gained independence in 2011, taking with it about 75 percent of the formerly united country’s crude production.
Since then the north has been plagued by inflation, a weakened currency and a severe shortage of dollars to pay for imports.
The country falls near the bottom of a United Nations human development index measuring income, health and education.
It also ranked among the lowest of 176 countries in Transparency International’s index of perceived public sector corruption last year.
Officials in the Khartoum area on Sunday extended a school closure, in effect since the protests began, until October 20, official media said.
Classes had been expected to resume on Monday.
Residents say they have been struggling with rising prices for two years. Yet, until last week when thousands began protesting mainly in the capital, the poor had largely failed to take to the streets.
“People have accepted price increases before without much annoyance. But I think it’s the overall bleak picture of the economy, and of the country’s mismanagement,” said Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.
Reformers in Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party on Saturday told Bashir that the deadly crackdown was a betrayal of his regime’s Islamic foundations.
Hardline Islamic religious leaders called on the government to reverse the fuel price increase.
In a statement late Saturday they advised the regime “to turn back to God and provide justice”.
The information minister said that even though fuel subsidies have been cut, financial support will remain on wheat and medicine.
He added that compensatory measures aim to ease the burden as fuel prices rise. About 700,000 poor families receive handouts of about 150 pounds a month along with medical insurance, he said.
In their letter to Bashir, the ruling party reformers sought an independent investigation into the shooting of civilians.
Bilal said a probe was being conducted especially into what happened on Friday when “some innocent people” were shot dead.
Gizouli, the analyst, dismissed the government’s portrayal of the other protesters as “vandals.”
“The government’s calculation is... if you shoot enough, they will be scared and go back home,” he said.