Can the Sudanese people bring down the dictator?

January 7, 2019
A poster advertising one of the December protests, calling on the government to resign.

In late December Green Left Weekly spoke to Younis Hamad Birama and Khalid Hassan from the Democratic Consciousness Forum, a Perth-based democratic and secular organisation founded by Sudanese refugees, about the wave of protests sweeping Sudan following the dramatic increase in the price of bread. Despite a brutal crackdown by security forces, including the killing of at least 40 people, the protests have spread and intensified, growing into a movement to bring down the regime of Omar al-Bashir.

In a follow up interview Birama and Hassan explained to Green Left how the movement has spread and created new organisational forms, and discussed the challenges it faces in bringing down the dictator.

As with previous outbreaks of unrest the first response of the government was repression, including the detention of about 2000 movement leaders. However, this time the protest wave was too widespread for this to succeed in slowing its momentum. By the time the regime had imposed a state of emergency in the regional cities where the rebellion began it had reached the capital Khartoum, where it is continuing to grow and where the government does not feel confident to respond so firmly.

While live ammunition is still being used by security forces against protestors, fewer have been killed in the last two weeks. Birama is sure that international pressure has stayed their hand. He said: "This time their attempt to censor the internet has also not been so successful. People have used virtual private networks to get around this and share information on social media. Furthermore the regular army is sitting on the sidelines. All these combined have given the movement space to grow and consolidate."

While initially quite spontaneous, the movement is starting to develop new organisational forms. A very significant contributor to the struggle has been the emergence of grass-roots unions and workplace organisations that have been formed in the past two months. These new unions and professional associations have simply sidestepped the existing organisations that were imposed on workers by the regime when it shut the previously existing independent unions. They, along with opposition parties and other activists, have been drawn together in community councils that are planning the struggle from day to day.

Birama explained that these councils have forged an unprecedented unity in the ranks of the opposition. "The movement was started on the street by the people and they understand that unity is required if we are to bring down al-Bashir. They won't accept any unnecessary division in the movement and this imposes a discipline on all the unions and parties to stick together and push on. People have suffered too much and the movement has come too far for them to accept anything less."

Similarly, the breadth and intensity of the movement has favoured the radical forces in the opposition coalition called the National Consensus Forces. The movement has also shifted the balance of power within the traditionally more conservative National Umma Party, away from its national leaders and towards more radical mid-level leaders. This process has clarified the understanding within the opposition that the objective of this uprising is not to cut a deal with the regime but to overthrow it.

According to Hassan, the fact that the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - North, which is fighting the government in the country's south, and the Darfurian rebels who control territory in the west, have been drawn into the movement also offers hope for ending Sudan's decades of war.

Hassan explained, "Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings where some of the repressive regimes retained the support of a significant minority of the population and the struggle quickly transformed into a civil war, in Sudan we've already been mired in decades of war. The fall of al-Bashir would open the possibility of ending the war."

He is also confident that the movement will not easily allow itself to be demobilised and duped by a simple changing of the guard within the regime, as happened in Egypt in 2011, when the massive outpouring on the streets by the people succeeded in forcing out Hosni Mubarak, only to have him replaced by another military strong-man. Twice already, in 1964 and 1985, the Sudanese people have overthrown military dictatorships only to have them reimposed, as when al-Bashir took power in a coup in 1989.

According to Hassan, "The Sudanese people have a deep understanding of how change is made and what they want. There is a determination to see this through."

The opposition is committed to using mass non-violent forms of struggle, but both Hassan and Birama are worried that with its back to the wall the regime may resort to ferocious repression or try to transform the struggle into a civil war. Hassan commented, "While al-Bashir does not have a mass base anything like the ones Gaddafi or Assad were able to call on, the regime's supporters are both very loyal and prepared to use violence."

A central question in the calculations of both sides is the role of the army. Al-Bashir came from the army and most of the senior officers are loyal to him. However, when the protests first broke out many rank-and-file soldiers and mid-ranking officers took to the streets on the side of the people. They and their families are affected by the increasing cost of living like everyone else. As well, they have their own long-standing grievances about budget cuts and the fact that regular soldiers in the Sudanese Armed Forces are only paid about half that of the al-Bashir loyalists employed by the National Intelligence and Security Service and the thugs in the pro-government militias. Unable to guarantee they will turn their guns on the people, the generals have confined them to base. It is an obvious and pressing strategic imperative for the opposition to continue to build support among rank-and-file soldiers.

The opposition has called a daily rolling schedule of actions for the second week of January beginning with big protests in Khartoum and the south-eastern city of Wad Madani, as it seeks to build towards multiple acts of mass civil disobedience. Sudanese refugee communities around the world will be joining them in their attempt to deliver the regime a knock-out blow.

Given the sheer scale and intensity of this uprising and the previous hostility of Western governments towards al-Bashir, the coverage by mainstream Arab media like Al Jazeera and the international news networks has been remarkably muted. The main source of news on the Sudanese uprising has been the information shared on social media by the protestors themselves.

Hassan said many governments in the region fear the change happening in Sudan will spread. "Some governments rely on the corrupt regime in order to exploit the country's resorces. Meanwhile the Western governments that have criticised al-Bashir in the past are nervous about the current uprising because they can't control the outcome. They would prefer that the opposition reach a deal with the dictator rather than implement radical change."

Reprinted below is the combined opposition declaration [translated by Khalid Hassan]:

Declaration of Freedom and Change

1 January 2019, Khartoum

We, the people of the Sudan; in cities and villages; north, south, east, west and west; with all our popular political, social, trade union and civil forces, and all those who demand it, affirm that we will not stop using all methods of peaceful struggle until the totalitarian regime is eliminated.

First: The immediate and unconditional end of the al-Bashir regime and its rule over the country.

Second: The formation of a national transitional government of national competencies by the consensus of all factions of the Sudanese people to govern for four years and undertake the following tasks:

1. Stop the war by addressing the roots of the Sudanese problem and addressing its effects, including the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons to their places of origin;

2. Stop the economic deterioration and improve the lives of citizens in all areas of life.

3. Make final security arrangements complementary to a just and comprehensive peace agreement.

4. Oversee the measures of the transitional period and the process of transition from a totalitarian regime controlled by one party to a pluralistic system in which the people elect their representatives, with the restructuring of the civil and military service in a manner that reflects their independence, national function and fair distribution of opportunities without compromising eligibility and efficiency.

5. Restructure and develop the human rights and justice system, and ensure the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

6. Empower Sudanese women and combat all forms of discrimination and persecution against them.

7. Improve Sudan's external relations and build them on the basis of independence, common interests and distance from existing alliances, with particular importance given to the relationship with our brothers and sisters in the state of Southern Sudan.

8. Commit the state to social support and social development through policies to support health, education and housing while ensuring protection of the environment for future generations.

9. Establish a comprehensive constitutional conference to resolve all national issues and enable the formation of the National Committee of the Constitution.

Third: Immediately stop all violations of human rights, repeal all laws restricting freedoms and subject the perpetrators of crimes against the Sudanese people to a fair trial in accordance with national and international conventions and laws.

The signing of this declaration, which remains open to be improved upon especially with regard to the tasks of the transitional government in order to accommodate all the concerns and aspirations of the Sudanese people, will also be further expanded by the accession of all the charters and agreements previously signed by the opposition political blocs and parties. We affirm that we will remain on the streets in support of our cause and call upon our brothers and sons in all the regular armed forces to stand side by side with the people and the interest of the homeland, and to protect unarmed citizens from death and abuse by al-Bashir and his regime.

The signatories to the Declaration of Freedom and Change to date include: Sudanese Professionals Association, the main opposition parties (including the National Umma Party, Sudanese Communist Party and Sudanese Congress Party), youth resistance movements, Darfurian movements and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N).

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