The test of strength between Sudan's antigovernment protesters and its security forces came in a scalding, dusty expanse around a Khartoum mosque after Friday prayers, below a soaring, brightly colored minaret.
Several hundred Sudanese were ready with banners and slogans decrying the 23-year rule of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, his strict new austerity measures, and the failing economy.
But the July 13 protest was over almost before it even began. Riot police drove forward the moment prayers ended, swinging batons and firing teargas that doused the area and sent Sudanese racing for cover.
Within 15 minutes about 100 police formed a line to block a remaining group from leaving. After 20 minutes, scores of undercover policemen – many wearing the long robes of the Islamic faithful to blend in while they had infiltrated the mosque – departed the area, riding in the open backs of Toyota trucks, their job done.
"See? They are wearing exactly the same clothes as those at prayer. They are praying with them!" said one Sudanese witness, as the undercover security agents drove away. "This regime has no rules – their only thought is how to hold on to power."
As the demonstrations began a month ago on university campuses, and spread in Khartoum and to cities beyond, activists began to dream that an Arab Spring-style revolt had finally made its way to Sudan.
After all, the separation of South Sudan from the north a year ago deprived the government of 75 percent of its income; conflict and tension continues on several fronts; and inflation has doubled in the past year to 37 percent. Western sanctions are taking a greater toll, and Mr. Bashir is indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
It appeared a perfect storm, that could provoke regime-changing mass protests.
'A few agitators'
But Sudanese officials dismiss the protests as insignificant – none appear to have mustered more than 1,000 people, in a country of 34 million.
"They said the economic measures were a chance for the Arab Spring, but we've already had the Arab Spring a number of times," Bashir said in late June, referring to past popular revolutions. "When the Sudanese people revolt, they all come out. The people who are burning tires are a few agitators."
Indeed, the attempted protest witnessed by the Monitor at the Imam Abdel Rahman mosque in the northwest suburb of Omdurman – in which protesters shouted "the people want to overthrow the regime" – was described as "nothing happening" by a police spokesman, according to Reuters.
That nonchalance has not prevented a fierce reaction from Sudan's ubiquitous security forces. Activists say that 2,000 of their number have so far been detained and even tortured, among them key leaders, which has dampened enthusiasm for action on the street – for now.
"They are geniuses, we must admit this," says an engineering student activist, about the regime's ability to survive political and economic crises. "They manipulate Sudanese minds and know how to do it, to tell people what they want to hear. Now, for example, people are tortured, but you would not know it unless it happened to a relative. But the economic crisis has made people open their eyes more."
Those who have taken to the streets are mostly activists, says this student, who like other activists interviewed for this story asked not to be named. "But a regular Sudanese is just sitting in his house saying, 'Good work,'" says the student. "They are not physically engaged."
That high degree of passivity, despite severe economic hardship, has enabled security forces – who are also not particularly well paid, with policemen often receiving the equivalent of $70 per month – to keep protests under control.
"What is happening is the result of an accumulation of frustration, which dates to the separation of the South" a year ago, says Adil Abdelghani, a lawyer in Khartoum. North Sudanese have been despondent that they have "retreated" from the first to third largest country in Africa.
Also, after decades of mobilizing fighters to wage jihad on southern battlefronts, only to finally lose the vast territory – as well as the oil that once formed the lifeblood of Sudan – means that "the achievements the government had been speaking about either were not real, or they were lost," says Mr. Abdelghani.
"The pillars of the Sudanese economy have been destroyed, so now we are staring on this debris and ruin," adds Abdelghani, noting the currency losing value and "skyrocketing" prices. "What's going on now will continue. But whether it amounts to overthrowing the regime, I don't have an answer."
'Walls of fear are breaking down'
Antigovernment activists also say they can't calculate the staying power of Bashir, though the country has not seen such street protests – modest as they are – in many years.
"People have been suffering so much the last months, and they are going to suffer more, so that will get more people engaged," says the engineering student. "For the last 23 years people gave up on the freedom to express themselves. But the economic crisis could make them die, so this can move them."
"The walls of fear are breaking down, so people know [security forces] are not as powerful as they were imagining," the student adds. "So people are less afraid, and more aware."
The government also played its cards well, activists say. It has asked who is the alternative, and says any change will bring chaos and greater corruption. Officials presented the separation of South Sudan a year ago as a good step that removes south Sudanese "insects" from their midst. Even the arrest warrant issued by the ICC for Bashir for war crimes was painted in emotional terms, as a court of foreigners trying to weaken a president chosen by the people.
"This government is not smart, but they really do know how to keep themselves in power," says another activist, an engineering graduate. "One of the smartest things they have done is not crack down so hard it gets people further riled up."
Protests have been largely put down with batons and at times rubber bullets, though activists report that "pro-regime thugs" have also used knives, axes and metal bars.
But there has so far been no shooting of protesters that could provide martyrs, and martyr's funerals, to rally around. And other regional examples such as Syria, where anti-regime rebels say up to 17,000 people have died in the bloody 16-month uprising, are magnitudes larger.
In Sudan regime agents "are arresting all the key instigators; they have people undercover, see how these things develop, and they arrest them," says the graduate. "We do hate the government, but have no party. We can't organize."
"It's normal that people get scared," says another graduate, who has been unemployed for a year, and hopes to get a professional job that pays at least $160 per month. "When they lose the people [activists leaders] who motivate them, they will definitely step out [of the protests], and the government knows this."
Circumstances are grim for this graduate student, as they are for so many Sudanese. Of his graduating class of more than 50 engineers, only seven have a job – and one of those started a farm.
In his Khartoum neighborhood, where one vice president lives, women and children live on the streets, and some wait at the back doors of restaurants for scraps. The government has built a multitude of high-profile buildings – causing Sudanese to joke that it is a "concrete and metal pipe" regime.
But it also spends 70 percent of its budget on defense while "people are starving," says the graduate.
The disadvantages of ruling
The government may appear to have all the advantages of staying in power: control over security forces, the military, and the media. But they also have "every disadvantage," says Hassan al-Turabi, an Islamist opposition leader who helped engineer Bashir's rise to power, but has since fallen out with the regime and spent years in jail.
"Disintegrating the country, complete political suppression – people are libertarians in this country, we never had pharaohs like Egypt," Mr. Turabi told the Monitor, ticking off disadvantages. "We are free people who [historically] lived in the desert, nomadically, so we feel the impact of any censorship, any pressure, any monopoly of authority upon us."
"I am quite sure that all over Sudan, something is happening," says Turabi. Divided opposition groups agreed two weeks ago to join forces and back the street protests, though with little apparent impact.
"We are organizing gradually, from below.... It's freedom against dictatorship; it's unity and peace talks [in] Darfur or even the south, and not warfare and aggression and force," says Turabi. "Dictatorships don't unite people, they hold them together by force. It's a military dictatorship."
Activists say they have made progress since the dismal failure in January 2011, just days after huge turnouts in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Inspired by the Arab Spring revolts popping up, they wanted to do the same in Khartoum. A protest Facebook page indicated that 10,000 people would attend.
On that day, just 100 showed up and were arrested – a defeat that crippled the optimism of many would-be Sudanese activists.
The engineering student was one who lost hope that day, but feels a new optimism now, despite the "slide" away from street action. He says there are two scenarios.
"The government will continue cracking down and more people will be jailed, which will make more people angry and engaged, because of that and the economy," says the student. "Or the protests will just be put down until they stop. Even if that happens, Sudan will never be the same. Any mistake now could be their last."
Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter, at @peterson_scott