A Sudanese presidential candidate on Facebook

In less than six months, the Sudanese will be choosing their next president. A young Sudanese voter writes about the need for change, the power of popular movements, and one promising candidate with a campaign on Facebook.
Reem Shawkat

Rumor has it that the Sudanese will be flocking to the polls in early April 2010 to vote in the first official presidential elections for nearly 24 years. 

I have found out that at least 60 percent of the Sudanese are eligible to vote, and decided to find out more about the presidential candidates and their programs. 

In December 2000, President Omar al-Bashir won 86.5 percent of the votes in a contested round of presidential and parliamentary elections. In contrast, April’s elections are expected to be Sudan's first democratic elections since 1986. 

In my search for information about the presidential candidates, I found out that a distant relative from my mother's side was ruthlessly canvassing my neighborhood in support of the current government.  

At least for now, I've managed to locate my ride to the ballet box.

I will impress her by telling her that I plan to vote but, after she gives me a ride in her government car, guiltlessly not vote for the government. After all, as a citizen, I have every right to be chauffeured around in a government car as I attempt to make a difference in Sudan. 

In April 2010, I will be in Sudan, casting my vote and trying to break out of the vicious circle of apathy that seems to define my generation.

I am from a passive generation, born in the 1980s and raised in the 90s, when Sudan was losing itself in chaos, war, religious extremism, and dictatorship. Everything was dictated by a government that called itself one of "national salvation.” We were told what to wear, what channels to watch, how to live our lives and, of course, what to say. 
I remember the stories I've heard about the revolution of 1964 and the popular uprising of 1985, when the people of Sudan ousted two different military dictatorships, and I can't help but wonder what went wrong. Why were we silent for 20 years? 

In 1964, the Sudanese people stayed home for days, bringing the country’s economy to a complete halt. After a few days of giving the government the silent treatment, they took to the streets with placards and banners. They reached the presidential palace, sat there, and didn't budge, even when the army was called in to the rescue. 

Asking the army to intervene in an internal problem tells a lot about a country's government. The army is responsible for fighting an invading enemy, not its own people. But, then again, a dictatorship considers its people the enemy. 

The police, on the other hand, was outraged at the army. They stood by the people. They were "at our service," as their motto claims. 

The president, embarrassed by the clash he has caused between the police and the army, dissolved his government on Oct. 26, 1964. He left power with dignity. October 1964 remains one of the most important events in Sudanese history. 

In 1964, the revolution was inspired and carried out by students, individuals of my age group. 

A student was shot down by a police man during a protest at the University of Khartoum. Back in 1964, the government couldn't get away with this. Murder was murder, no matter how some tried to sugarcoat it with words such as security, stability, or even civil strife.  

Nearly 50 years later, in 2009, one of Stalin's quotes remains true: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic."  

As I listen to "Al-Malhama," a song commemorating the 1964 revolution, I feel saddened to realize just how different my generation is from the previous ones.

Even the University of Khartoum, the centre of all national revolutions and uprisings, is crippled by a tightly-controlled student body. Student groups friendly to the government recruit students as soon as they finish their freshmen orientation. And students and non-students know that being involved in anti-government protests means a lot of sacrifice.  
As a member of Generation Passive, I remember hearing about the most important rule: not to disagree with the government and not to criticize their policies. You had to remember this rule, as you try to live your everyday life, you remember that: "the coward raises his children". 

Time for change

As we head towards the 2010 elections, severe media censorship prevents potential electors from learning about the candidates. If you can't write freely about the different campaigns, the population will remain uninformed and hesitant about their candidate of choice. 

I remember watching a debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the run-up to the US presidential elections a year ago. I remember when John McCain was touring America to promote his campaign. I remember the speeches, the numbers going up and down after each state visit and the interviews, the hundreds of thousands of individuals, scholars, professors, journalists, politicians talking about the elections and how they are going to affect the world.

I don't expect the same in Sudan. We are an underdeveloped, neglected country most people don't know or care about. However, I do expect to know who is running, their plans, and how they are going to affect me. I want to know why I should vote for this individual! 

Forget Sudan, Blue Nile, Al-Shorouq, Harmony or any other Sudanese television station, the Sudanese presidential campaign is on Facebook

Remember the post-election violence in Iran? Where did all the information come from? We stayed tuned to Twitter, Facebook and blogs for our latest updates. The channels couldn't keep up with all the information, posts and pictures submitted by online activists. 

The internet in our part of the world is important and I've learned how to appreciate it. It gives people like me a venue to voice their views and learn about what's going on from other concerned citizens. 

While the media is censored and political parties struggle to organize campaigns and reach out to the uninformed Sudanese public, I found a life-changing group on Facebook.  

Sudan’s answer to Obama

Originally trained as a doctor, Osman Al-Raiah worked in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Sudan to practice medicine. His interest in politics was mainly inspired by his dissatisfaction with the public health care system in Sudan pushed him towards the private sector, where the pay is very high in a country like Sudan. 

Al-Raiah was still unsatisfied. He saw the deterioration of Sudan in the health care system and in everything else. He was dismayed at the number of qualified Sudanese professors, doctors and other professionals living abroad, in self-imposed exile. 

Driven out of Sudan because of their opposing ideologies, they had lost a country and a country had lost a whole class, the professional class. Services have deteriorated and the right people were not here to do the right things in the right way. 

Always smiling in an elegant suit, El-Raiah resembles Obama in many ways. His Facebook group has a picture of Obama, and he is fan of an Obama group.

"The Sudanese people are prepared for change, the Sudanese people need a revolution for change," declared first-time candidate Al-Raiah to Freedom Bells, a popular Sudanese newspaper.

In an American-style campaign resonating Obama's own 2008 endeavor, Al-Raiah proposes his plans on his Facebook group and to other online Sudanese forums and provides an account address, hoping for donations to support his humble, but growing campaign. 

With already 750,000 supporters offline, equating at least 3% of Sudanese eligible to vote, he is eager to benefit from Facebook by attracting the alienated Sudanese youth, living both at home and abroad. His message is clear: Youth are important for Sudan and for this campaign, and their vote makes a huge difference.  

Many young Sudanese feel they can relate to him as he started campaigning at the age of 38.  The two other presidential candidates -including the current president- are in their 60s, and do not appeal to youth in view of the huge generational gap.

With representatives everywhere from Tennessee to North Carolina to Khartoum, El Raiah has managed to garner an online team of supporters, supervisors, defense personals and online campaign managers. 

Manal Ahmed Badri, of the well-known Badri family responsible for establishing Ahfad University for women, has declared her support for Dr. Osman El Raiah for presidency on behalf of the university by writing on the group's wall.

The Facebook group has inspired many other groups in support of El Raiah such as Khartoum for Osman El Raiah, and Kassala state for Osman El Raiah. His group has also attracted many known faces such as the popular Sudanese singer, Nancy Ajaj.

Although the number of supporters in the mentioned groups is not large, the fact that citizens living in rural areas in a country a third the size of the United States know about his campaign is a positive sign. 

In a country where the majority does not have direct access to the Internet, word-of-mouth is crucial in the face of the extreme lack of press freedom.

A younger candidate

As the world is calling for democratic change in countries as diverse as Sudan and Iran, El Raiah wants a smooth shift to democracy by first forming a transitional government.

As of November 2010, El-Raiah is going to face two candidates, the current president and his first vice president who is also the current president of South Sudan, Salva Kir. 
After most of the opposition parties registered, a statement was issued on the 18th of November confirming that the opposition parties will decide on whether they should boycott the coming elections or not by the end of the month. The reasons cited for this boycott include fraud, the short time voters have to register and the lack of resources provided to the other parties to actively campaign.

Al-Raiah started campaigning over a year before any other candidate and his "strategic planning” program has been debated in online Sudanese forums. 

He puts a lot emphasis on the unity of Sudan, an important issue as we approach the 2011 referendum, in which South Sudan will vote either for unity or secession. 

His campaign focuses on change in many fields, including peace and unity, environmental awareness, living conditions in slums, respect for the ethnic and cultural diversity of Sudan and prevention of the spread of religious extremism.

He calls for Sudanese solutions to all Sudanese problems, because they are the most appropriate and the most long-term solutions. 

He states that the regime change that the country’s citizens are desperate for is not enough, as only free and fair elections leading to a growing democracy will save the day.  Scholars verify that voting should always be the way out of political stagnation, not coups. 

Paul Collier, a writer and professor of economics at the University of Oxford argues that coups are "not a cheap way of replacing a government." 

Since we can't afford to spend 7 percent of a year's income on a coup, let's try to make the best out of this election. 

To reiterate what presidential candidate Al-Raiah said, this election is very important. If it is carried out in a democratic manner, the Sudanese people will start believing in Sudan again, and will start trusting their government for the first time in a very long time. If not, it's going to be difficult to change this status quo. 

To follow the Sudanese elections online by reading party profiles, other documents and debated issues on Sudan Electionnaire.