Sudan: Anger is Finally out of the Bottle – Now What?

Besides their nonviolence, to which the entire world bore witness, these protests were mainly characterised as most wide-ranging, geographically speaking. Citizens of every region protested in the streets, or at least expressed their desire for change. The middle and upper classes were practically the force behind those protests
2021-01-16

Shamael Elnoor

Journalist and writer from Sudan


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Following al-Bashir’s fall, how did the Sudanese pound continue to crash in an unprecedented manner? How did the security situation get out of control, unchecked, in the peripheries as tribal conflicts came to surface? How have representatives of the ousted regime not been judged yet? Why is justice taking so long to be had? And peace? Then again, why did we rise up? These unanswered questions persist one year into the rule of the transitional government in Sudan – product of a political partnership between civil and military branches after al-Bashir’s regime was overthrown in April 2019.

Initial sparks

On December 19th, 2018, when popular protests broke out against the high cost of living in Atbara city, some 300 km north of Khartoum, revolution was basically a done deal. Not because protests covered the entire city or because the high cost of living now affected the middle classes too, but because the government had come to such an impasse that nothing short of a popular outburst was left. That day, Atbara city ended up burning down the headquarters of the ruling National Congress Party, and its authorities declared a state of emergency. That same night, the flames travelled into a number of cities north of Khartoum. There, as symbolism would have it, headquarters of the ruling party were set on fire in a blatant expression of anger and a sense of injustice. Fears were shared that this spark would die down, as it introduced a degree of bloody violence that spared no one.

It is then that the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) took initiative and directly announced the first central march to take off from the heart of Khartoum on the 25th of that same month, proclaiming one demand, “the departure of the regime”. Established in 2012 out of trade unions, demand-oriented and pressure groups, the SPA was about to propose to the president of the republic a raise in minimum wage. Atbara’s protests, however, introduced a bigger agenda. The Sudanese street responded in large numbers to the first march that openly called for the “regime to leave” ever since the Islamist party had taken over. Authoritarian crackdowns ensued in an attempt to suppress them, but such large popular response, which would only grow with each new march, urged the SPA to organise a second march, just five days later.

In December 2013, the traditional forces were absent from the protests. This time, the street needed leadership – one which would drive the revolutionary spark all the way to its objectives. The SPA invested such need and channelled it accordingly, gaining a great deal of trust from the Sudanese street

Worth noting was how the Sudanese street responded to an unknown body that had no political record nor history of public work –barely known even among professionals in their respective fields. The SPA appeared for the first time in public, addressed people through its Facebook page, and became most popular in Sudan. Back then, the street had no need for knowing who was behind the SPA as much as it needed leadership – one which would drive the revolutionary spark all the way to its objectives. The SPA invested such need and channelled it accordingly, gaining a great deal of trust from the Sudanese street –in its different bearings and classes– in a short period of time. Such trust was the natural result of an accumulated disappointment from a continued failure of the traditional political powers.

The December 2018 revolution and the September 2013 protests are often compared, as organisation and leadership were lacking in both, and which resulted in crackdowns on protestors and many lost young lives. In 2013, masses rose up in rejection of the IMF policies, which stipulated that subsidies on fuel be lifted, pronouncing as such a new phase of Sudanese economy, as oil resources were lost to South Sudan when it declared independence in July 2011. When masses took to the streets for the first time in the shadow of the Islamist party rule, they did not know that traditional political powers would be absent; they demanded the regime departed and were brutally oppressed. As Sudan’s geographic surroundings were already revolting at the time of a so-called “Arab Spring”, the Sudanese government had been primed to extinguish any potential flames, regardless of how costly that would be and how justified that flame was. All the while, political parties (right and left-wing) stood by watching, perhaps hesitant to take on such great responsibility. They took no position on the protests, barring statements that condoned and denounced them; they stayed out of the streets and did not invest in that spark. With absent leadership and lack of organisation, the flame was thus extinguished.

Nevertheless, these protests constituted the kernel of a waning trust between the people and political powers, which the 2013 protests put to the popular test. While the spark had indeed been dimmed, the lesson learned remained most important; for the first time, the street realised its critical need for new leadership that could both comprehend and embrace the nature of required change. One way or another, the street maintained the protests’ spark through intermittent but contiguous nonviolent action: it manifested through rallies and strikes within various professional sectors, with journalism at their forefront –as it suffered confiscations, prohibitions, and security investigations. It also manifested through diligent action the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors carried out; modern Sudanese history has lived through numerous prominent instances where the medical sector resisted in major national issues.

IMF policies continue as anger grows

Al-Bashir government continued to apply IMF policies and gradually lifted subsidies on a number of main goods. In 2016, the government announced that it would gradually lift subsidies on medicine, which then resulted in a 30 percent increase in its prices. Several voices on social media began calling for civil disobedience throughout the country. Everyone was struck by the response that followed, wherein the Sudanese people applied civil disobedience for two whole days – in an important test that felt the pulse of the street, which seemed to be ready.

The government maintained its economic policies, stubbornly refused to fight corruption (which became the ruling regime’s prevailing characteristic), and financial waste reached 18 billion dollars, according to a local organisation. Al-Bashir’s government failed to create alternative policies as production sectors frighteningly deteriorated, some of them coming to a complete stop; inflation increased, which neared 70 percent by the end of the first half of 2018, and the local currency depreciated. As such, nothing was left but a popular outburst, which practically began with the government announcing lifting subsidies on wheat and medicine, and ended with al-Bashir’s fall.

Financial waste reached 18 billion dollars and Al-Bashir’s government failed to create alternative policies as production sectors frighteningly deteriorated, some of them coming to a complete stop; inflation increased, which neared 70 percent by the end of the first half of 2018, and the local currency depreciated.

While it was the economic situation –along with a want for wheat, medicine, and fuel– that lit the “December Protests” aflame, those protests later developed into a comprehensive revolution that raised the banners of fundamental change. They resulted in sharp social divisions, even among the same family. It was incredible to witness sons of regime leaders participate in the popular unrest; some of them even publicly critiqued and blamed their fathers on social media. As youth (ages 18-30) were the overwhelming majority on the streets, the “social media” machine would thus become the revolution’s media outlet that could dispense with the conventional government-controlled media. All anyone needed was a small amount of money to connect to the internet, a smartphone, and some networking and coordination among local groups who called themselves Resistance Committees, whose foundations had already been laid during the September 2013 protests. It was such simplicity that the revolution used as a weapon to win against a killing machine in the making for more than thirty years –which used up 70 percent of the state budget– at the expense of essential service provision, including healthcare, education, water, and housing.

Professionals and women to the forefront

Besides their nonviolence, to which the entire world bore witness, these protests were mainly characterised as most wide-ranging, geographically speaking. Citizens of every region protested in the streets, or at least expressed their desire for change. The middle and upper classes were practically the force behind those protests; professionals of various sectors (medical doctors, engineers, journalists, lawyers, pharmacists, and others) were the active force on the street in terms of organisation, leadership, and numbers. As such, they worried the government: those who took to the streets were not poor; they were in it for the long haul, and demonstrated inexplicable bravery in facing live bullets. Likewise, the government faced a real dilemma when it came to girls and women; those played a most prominent role as the security and military services showed restraint in handling them and avoided using violence against them. All of them were to be made equal before the oppression machine, however, after the protests reached their peak, where women raised their own fair share of slogans and participated in marches with their own specific demands; in fact, many marches and demonstrations were women-only. However, when security services realised that it was difficult to deal with women (who joined the frontlines) on location, they decided to assume the dirtiest of methods. Many girls and women would be systematically harassed during their arrest and prosecution – a weapon the security services decided to use in order to limit women’s involvement.

Youth were the overwhelming majority on the streets, the “social media” machine would thus become the revolution’s media outlet. All anyone needed was a small amount of money to connect to the internet, a smartphone, and some networking and coordination among local groups who called themselves Resistance Committees, whose foundations had been laid during the September 2013 protests. It was such simplicity that the revolution used as a weapon to win against a killing machine in the making for more than thirty years –which used up 70 percent of the state budget.

Many marches and demonstrations were women-only. When security services realised that it was difficult to deal with women on location, they decided to assume the dirtiest of methods. Many girls and women would be systematically harassed during their arrest and prosecution. Women’s participation in the protests is estimated, however, to be between a third and a half.

No confirmed percentage of the extent of women’s participation in the protests and the revolution exits; it is estimated, however, to be between a third and a half. All active forces in the revolution centre around two bodies, the SPA and the Resistance Committees. The latter are committees that formed within neighbourhoods and played a most visible role in leading the marches, maintaining their continuation and the flame of the revolution up till now. In parallel, as not many young men and women of the neighbourhood resistance committees are affiliated with any unions or parties, they are prone to polarisation and persuasion. And because nothing but the revolution guides them, the resistance committees are revered and sought for their approval on the one hand, while many try to win them over to their side on the other. Nonetheless, the desired outcome everyone seeks is their impartiality, at the very least.

The December Revolution raised many slogans, all of which addressed the Sudanese people’s need for radical change. “Freedom, Peace, and Justice” was its primary slogan. Though such a chant requires no itemisation, there was great diversity in sub-slogans, chants, and demands, which had been amassing throughout the years. Most prominent of those were related to war, peace, and racism. War and torture victims in the prisons of the regime had their own particular demands, while economic rights enjoyed as strong a presence as when they first blasted the revolution open.

The duo, the Resistance Committees and the Sudanese Professional Association, led the revolution to its very end; political parties participated in various degrees but were not its main actors. While the SPA membership was made out of partisan youth in the first place, they realised the importance of an independent –from the slightest degree of party domination– front and the need to maintain it. However, things seemed more difficult in reality: disputes among the SPA escalated and split it into two blocks. One was in support of the government, and another inclined to work with Resistance Committees in putting constant pressure on the government in an aim to realise the demands of the revolution and correct its pathway.

Though the SPA was expected to get on with its battle of building unions, all ruined by years of al-Bashir rule and crackdowns, it became involved in good old power struggles. Those could be explained away by the nature of its composition; the SPA is mainly made up of young party affiliates, parties that are essentially members of the ruling alliance (Freedom and Change). Those parties compete for controlling the SPA and determining its objectives to match their own political agendas. However, the SPA itself lost its popularity after the regime was overthrown and the transitional government formed, whereas civil society organisations are on the rise, members of whom control Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s office.

The committees that formed within neighbourhoods played a most visible role in leading the marches, maintaining their continuation and the flame of the revolution. As not many young men and women of the neighbourhood resistance committees are affiliated with any unions or parties, they are prone to polarisation and persuasion. And because nothing but the revolution guides them, the resistance committees are revered.

In parallel, the prime minister’s office has been at the receiving end of much critique from some of the components of the ruling alliance. They consider those organisations, with direct ties to the international community and its policies, to have tightened their grip on the prime minister, who has strayed away from his political origins.

Post-revolution: party calibre is tested in real life

The Sudanese could finally breathe in freedom after al-Bashir’s fall; however, and despite the unlimited political freedoms the revolution afforded them, parties remained dormant, with no political mass action performed to date. Those parties do not wish to discuss questions of elections and are not in the least interested in the electoral process – even at the very level of general party primaries where new leaders are elected. A political incubator of the government, they make do with statements listing demands, blessings, or refusals. Such incubator is made up of several parties, most prominent of which is the National Umma Party, sectarian in its approach, the Unionist Association, a group of young people who tired away from the frameworks of the Democratic Unionist Party, a centre party, and leftist parties: The Communist Party, the Ba’ath Party, the Sudanese Congress Party. The period that followed the December Revolution revealed a dire need for a revolution within the parties themselves, one that would enable them to keep up with the transformation at hand. Those parties were largely crushed during al-Bashir’s years, during which their role and efficacy were paralysed. Reality now clearly shows, however, that the crisis lies within the mentality that steers those parties, which constantly refuses winds of change. Worth noting here is the multiplicity of tribal and provincial fronts that appeared throughout the former government years; some explain their appearance a striking evidence of deficient political party action that bases itself on clear agendas and plans.

Shafi’e Khader, a communist whose party dismissed him after he called for reform, believes that party failure is one of the reasons behind that “vicious cycle” of the “revolution, coup, revolution, coup” sequence. Such failure does not mean that the parties are over and done with, but that they have failed to answer the main questions raised since Sudan declared independence in 1956. In his view, the most prominent of those questions is the form of state and government, distribution of resources, and nature of the state.

Furthermore, those parties failed at regeneration: regenerating their discourse and leadership. All the while, their followers developed in extraordinary rhythm with the technological revolution; they no longer waited for their leaders to tell them what went on around them – a conflict of generations of sorts. While the parties did play their own role in effecting change, it was not as great as overthrowing a regime. The truth is, it was the people who leaped over their leadership and realised change. Ultimately, Shafi’e objects to the calls for transforming the Resistance Committees or the SPA into political parties.

From their early beginnings, youth initiatives garnered popularity and gained the trust of the streets. They unmasked traditional powers and showed their failure. One of them is the “Road of Accidents” (Share’e el Hawadeth) initiative, which had outstanding success stories in voluntary humanitarian work; its members collected donations to provide medicine to needy patients and launched calls for blood donations. Another is “Nafir”, a movement which carried out voluntary initiatives to aid those stricken by the deluge and floods. Sadaqat and Mujaddidun are two other initiatives; though the security services previously considered them communist party organisations, no one could deny their achievements; they outdid both government and opposition in public action. As such, those initiatives had youth controlling the arena of public action.

Escalation continues

One year after the formation of the transitional government, the resistance committees continue their revolutionary action; whenever they feel the slightest decline, they take to the streets to keep the revolution’s objectives intact and the memory of its martyrs alive. Some parties within the government tried to pass on some of the executive tasks to the resistance committees, such as monitoring the distribution of flour, controlling smuggled fuel, and other local authority responsibilities. As such, they were given a responsibility not theirs, and so friction grew between them and the streets. People concerned with the fate of the resistance committees therefore think that this was a wicked plan that aimed to void the committees of their revolutionary role, submerging them in executive action without legal basis. After all, the committees’ goal is to guard the revolution, be a parliament of the street, rather than perform executive actions.

Right after signing the transitional period documents, disputes emerged amidst the ruling alliance (Freedom and Change), which includes the major political parties in Sudan, some armed movements, the SPA, as well as the civil forces. Conflicts manifested in an unprecedented manner among those components who followed different approaches and commitments. They began competing over official jobs and dividing shares between them. Social media websites turned into battlefields where the political party affiliates that formed the ruling alliance were constantly fighting. In parallel, a youthful discourse arose rejecting parties and their involvement in the government, be it politically or executively.

One year into signing the constitutional charter, the Sudanese street awakens to the fact that the only issue the political powers had in common in the past was their desire to overthrow the regime. No governance agenda, no clear economic plan, and no vision for a peace process or an end to the war. The government thus completely immersed itself into its daily work. It is worth noting, though, that the nature of change that took place among civil powers -with their different goals and bearings- and among some of the military forces created barriers and introduced tough hurdles, which seem to currently stand in the way of real change, or the realisation of the bare minimum of the urgent demands of the revolution – which broke out for reasons that still exist today, or rather deepen by the day.

Disputes among the SPA escalated and split it into two blocks. One was in support of the government, and another inclined to work with Resistance Committees in putting constant pressure on the government in an aim to realise the demands of the revolution and correct its pathway.

The “revolution government” continued to experiment with the experimented with and to apply IMF policies – proven as useless – which the overthrown president had started and is the direct and main reason behind the uprising against his regime. A gradual increase in fuel prices is now taking place, while 82% of public funds remain beyond the control of the ministry of finance, which only regulates 18% of it, according to recent prime minister statements. There seems to be no party or entity that has an economic agenda that could offer an alternative to the IMF policies. Except, perhaps, for the Communist Party – which goes no further than incessantly condemning and objecting, and has yet to reveal an agenda or a clear economic plan for the transitional government to follow. The prime minister matches his political incubator in its lack of vision and agendas. As regards justice, representatives of the former regime are still in prisons, unjudged, barring some a limited number of them who were summoned to court regarding the 1989 coup. In the meantime, war victims in Darfur have yet to see their calls for handing over the overthrown president to the ICJ answered!

Such a situation begs the question: “Why did we revolt?” Here, two aspects may be mentioned. The nature of the signed constitutional charter resulted in two governing partners: a military partner with wide-ranging privileges it wants to maintain through a new authoritarian mechanism, in addition to seemingly renewed commitment to the former regime, keeping its symbols and interests intact, and a civil partner split between “radical change” and “formal change”.
Presently, overthrowing the regime has been the easiest step on the long road to change. Change needs agendas, plans, and clear unequivocal vision. Unless parties and entities are capable of comprehending what happened, change cannot happen.

With every hiccup and disappointment, the revolutionaries on social media like to quote one of the icons of the revolution, martyr Abdel Salam Keisha, whose life was taken during the general headquarters sit-in in Khartoum. There, he raised a sign with the following words: “We fear for our revolution from its elites.”

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Yasmine Haj
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 22/10/2020

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