Sudan's leader has avoided major public unrest for years -- but that could be about to change

Anti-government protestors in Kordofan, Sudan on December 23.

Nima Elbagir is a senior international correspondent for CNN. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)A camera phone captures the scene, filming from behind a makeshift shelter. Shots ring out in to the street. In the mayhem, a body drops and you hear shouts in Arabic, "he's dead, he's dead," as a body lies on the ground motionless.

This was one of the first videos to circulate on social media in Sudan in the first days of the demonstrations that began more than a week ago over fuel shortages and a spike in food prices. The footage originates from El Gadarif state in the east of the Sudan where protestors have been demonstrating against the rising cost of living.
It's hard to believe but after the initial first years of entrenchment of rule, the Islamist regime of President Omar al-Bashir has avoided these kinds of public confrontations in urban centers.
    The far regions like Darfur and the contested border areas are regularly prey to a miasma of militia and army violence. Much of it still led by the Janjaweed, the dreaded tribal militias accused of perpetrating atrocities to put down an armed rebellion in Darfur. It's now long since absorbed into the government as a formalized paramilitary group -- under the new name of the Rapid Support Forces.
    In the cities and towns though, the interrogations, the regime "ghost houses" and disappearances, which we who grew up in the shadow of this regime remember all too well, are much invoked but not widely utilized.
    Sudanese government officials are still quoted as saying: "You don't want us to return to how we were." But it was usually seen as a vaguely idle threat. Between the sporadic co-opting of opposition forces into periodic national unity coalitions, and genuine geopolitical influence and security cooperation with the United States, the almost three-decade rule of the Islamist regime manages to survive.
    Until now they have rarely faced a genuine existential threat.
    That long-term survival meant that in theory they were safer than ever. The Trump Administration lifted two-decade long financial sanctions in their first year and Sudanese government officials confidently told me they expected to be off the US's state sponsors of terror list very soon.
    Then the economic free fall became unmanageable; overnight, bread more than doubled in price and people took to the streets. Almost three decades of repression and humiliation spilling over.
    Anti-government protestors eject a teargas canister lobbed to disperse them as they march along the street during anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan on Tuesday.
    In my life I've only known five years of democracy in Sudan, so when I moved back home after graduating from university in London I didn't really know what to expect.
    My journalist father's exile by Bashir's government had ended after the first of the artificial "Unity government" pretenses. My father believed that he belonged at home in Sudan, that home is where his work and life mattered. I graduated and followed him.
    I arrived to work in his newspaper's newsroom to find that unity government didn't mean any real freedoms. I was going to have to learn to be a journalist in a newsroom with a state censor sitting in our midst. My father's casual courage and epic screaming matches with the security operatives weren't much practical use in helping me find my way but I was lucky that two extraordinary journalists - Khalid Abdelaziz and Yasir Abdullah - agreed to mentor me.
    Both came of age under Bashir's dictatorship and yet because of, or in spite of it, they were both utterly fearless. The first demonstration I reported on was with them, the first time I was tear gassed, the first time riot police detained me and the first time I jumped off the back of a security service pick-up truck and ran.
    They taught me when you should walk away because that particular argument with the government is unwinnable and when to stand your ground and argue back. They laughed at my (still appalling) Arabic grammar and explained which regime officials were true fanatics and which were good for an off the record briefing.