By Deepa Babington
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Medical student Ahmed Widaa was content to support Sudan's ruling party from the sidelines for years, until the uprisings in Tunisia and neighboring Egypt made him worry that Sudan could be next.
With revolutionary zeal, the 21-year-old now lobbies online to defend the status quo -- one of many pro-government youth taking to the Internet to hit out at anti-government protests in the oil-producing country.
"We want to get our message out -- that we don't have to go out and protest," said Widaa, who says he is convinced that the still small protest movement in Sudan is just a front for the unpopular Communist party. "We've seen what's happened in Egypt and Tunisia and things are worse after the protests."
While a desperate Egyptian regime cut off Internet access at the height of anti-government protests in January, Sudan's ruling party is taking on protesters at their own game by urging its youth to wage a counter-campaign online.
Protests against Bashir's more than two-decade-old rule have not gathered mass support and been swiftly quashed by security forces, but with food prices soaring and the south voting to secede, a nervous government is keen to win the propaganda war.
"What we're telling members is that anyone who has a laptop or access to the Internet should go online and try to defend the NCP (National Congress Party)," said Omer Basan, information secretary for the ruling party in the key Khartoum state.
"This is not an aggressive strategy. The idea is to correct what (the protesters) think."
NO PEACEFUL PROTESTS
In a mostly rural country without access to running water or electricity in many areas, only the relatively wealthier citizens of Khartoum can afford to wage Internet battles.
But with youth protesters trying to emulate other Middle East uprisings by canvassing support for street demonstrations via Facebook, the social networking site has become a crucial battleground for pro- and anti-government groups.
Sudanese youth from the ruling NCP party say they have set up at least 10 Facebook groups in the last couple of months ranging from the "I am the NCP and I'm proud" to the "No to protests in Sudan -- be they peaceful or subversive."
Together, they claim tens of thousands of supporters online, bragging that they have far more than the 17,000 supporters online of the Sharara group leading the youth protest movement.
Photos of a smiling President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, dressed in military uniform or traditional white robes while waving a stick in the air abound on the pages.
Videos of projects deemed a success are also thrown in.
"People in Sudan have this idea that the NCP does nothing. We want to show them the positive side -- the bridges, the buildings the party built," said Widaa.
Mosab Saleh, a 22-year-old university student, believes in going a step further to support the party. He says he tried hacking into the protesters' Website and created fake Facebook profiles to join their group and leave pro-government comments.
"They delete any comment we leave within two minutes and then they kick you out so you have to create another profile to get back into their group," he complained.
Khaled Salim, who manages the Website of the NCP's Khartoum wing, said he guessed thousands among the roughly 17,000 online supporters of the Sharara protest movement were actually NCP members who had joined to hit back at the protesters.
Party officials say hacking is not the official policy being encouraged, and that the push to promote the NCP online is entirely voluntary -- and aimed at starting a dialogue.
Activists in the protest movement say the motives are more sinister. They say security and NCP members had "infiltrated" their groups on Facebook to find out details on protests to shut them down, sowing confusion and distrust among activists.
One activist, Sarah, said NCP youth sent harassing messages to protesters online with threats of arrest, and worse.
She says she herself was bundled into a vehicle and detained before planned protests on March 21, where she was made to sign into her Facebook account and show what groups she was part of.
All this has forced the protesters to abandon Facebook in favor of face-to-face contact and impromptu demonstrations to outfox security forces and government members, said Magdi Okasha, spokesman for the Youth for Change protest group.
In the end, there may be several reasons why protests have not taken off in Sudan, including a weak opposition and protest movement and the trauma of losing the country's south, said Roger Middleton, a Sudan expert at the Chatham House think tank.
But the NCP's Internet campaign also indicates that it has actively managed any potential signs of trouble, he said.
"The Sudanese government has been proactive in heading off any potential protests," he said. "It shows the NCP is more competent in heading off these things before they escalate. They're sort of well-entrenched in society and Sudanese life."
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)