Maggie Michael

KHARTOUM, SUDAN: Security forces fired at Sudanese protesters with bullets and tear gas Friday as thousands took to the streets despite a fierce crackdown that rights groups say has killed dozens of people this week. The regime of President Omar al-Bashir is trying to stifle public anger over fuel price increases from turning into an Arab Spring-style uprising against his 24-year rule.

The marches in one of the world’s poorest countries — where nearly 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — have turned into the heaviest domestic challenge yet faced by al-Bashir, who has so far been spared the sort of anti-authoritarian popular revolts seen around the Arab world in the past two years.

Though he maintains a strong grip on the regime, al-Bashir has been increasingly beleaguered. The economy has been worsening, especially after South Sudan broke off and became an independent state in 2011, taking Sudan’s main oil-producing territory. Armed secessionist groups operate in several parts of the country. And al-Bashir himself, who came to power as head of a military-Islamist regime after a 1989 coup, is wanted by the International Criminal Court over alleged crimes in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

The unrest began Sunday in the town of Wad Madani when the government cut subsidies on fuel and gas, causing prices to leap. Protests quickly spread to the capital, Khartoum, and other cities as opponents of al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule worked to harness the anger over the economic woes into a wider movement.

Angry protesters torched police and dozens of gas stations and government buildings, and students marched chanting for al-Bashir’s ouster.

Al-Bashir so far has shown remarkable staying power, backed by a vast security machine and interests built on Islamist ideology, economic ties and tribal politics that enabled him to quash previous efforts at rallying mass opposition.

Activists acknowledge they have no unified leadership or support from political parties but express hope the spontaneous nature of the current round of protests means they’re gaining momentum.