In Sudan, a multifaceted civil opposition is posing a serious threat to the continued existence of Bashir’s dictatorial regime after weeks of protests, writes Mohammed Elnaiem.
If a hospital is not a sanctuary for an injured person, what is? And what level of hatred, what kind of viciousness can be satisfied by the attempt to ensure that a protester die twice? On January 9, riot police, plain-clothed Bashir loyalists, and security forces fired tear gas and live bullets into the Omdurman Teaching Hospital in Sudan after wounded protesters were taken there during the biggest protest to date demanding the downfall of the regime.
As clouds of chemicals suffocated the wounded, the hospital staff had to improvise — they emptied oxygen tanks into the room to clear out the CS gas. This is what Sudanese people are facing after one month of protesting to depose President Omar al-Bashir.
Since December 19, Sudan has been ignited by over 300 popular protests taking place across the country. The general uprising started in the northeastern town of Atabara — a city with a long legacy of struggle — before hitting 22 cities and towns, including the capital Khartoum.
After an IMF visit in July, the Sudanese government adopted an austerity program which cut subsidies and tripled the price of bread. Inflation is running at 70 percent according to official figures, unemployment is fifth worst in the world, bread is expensive, and gas is running short across the country. At the same time, the country is also witnessing an acute foreign exchange crisis, with ATM’s being empty for the most part. The people of Sudan are fed up.
It is noteworthy that the protests began in the peripheries, before hitting the capital — for if the people of the capital face misery, those in the peripheries may soon face a food crisis. The Famine Early Warning Systems Networks has predicted that food prices, already at 150-200 percent above average, will increase further to 200-250 percent. According to specialists, critical food insecurity is expected in most peripheral towns for 2019. Mismanagement is solely to blame. Sudan is a country that spends most of its annual budget to furnish the luxurious lifestyles of the regime elite.
But just as it is a moment of tragedy for the Sudanese people, it is also a moment of triumph. Since the protests began, not a day has passed by without a demonstration in some part of the country. The Sudan’s doctors syndicate is on an open-ended strike. The administration of Sudan’s universities have sided with the revolt. Football ultras, associated with the popular Hilal football team have blocked bridges. And ordinary people have found themselves doing the unthinkable — paralyzing a system that has remained resilient for almost thirty years.
A regime that once looked invincible has shown itself to be anything but. For a long time political analysts considered the Sudanese regime unbreakable. The endless civil wars accompanied by the persecution of all Sudanese people means that most of the GDP goes into propping up a security state to fight wars and torture dissidents. In 2013, Sudan managed to dodge the Arab Spring, even though a wave of popular protests that was mainly centered on the capital managed to scare the ruling elite.
In 2014, 88 percent of the national budget went to the “security sector” and the “sovereign sector”, i.e. the pockets of the elite. Members of the establishment dominate local business interests by virtue of having close ties with the government . Even the security agencies controla wide array of economic sectors. But this is not the only secret to the regime’s parasitic control over the economy.
Sudan’s government has deployed various strategies to maintain its power. The government has responded to demands for development by neglected rural peoples’ by arming paramilitary militias, who have in turn maintained power by terrorizing the people of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.
The government has responded to hunger with austerity. It has divided the country to maintain power. And it has left those on the peripheries with no option but armed struggle. In a word, instability has fomented stability for the establishment — insofar as they are able to reentrench sovereignty through continual violence.
The Sudanese government also follows the doctrine of the devil pact: in return for benefits to individuals, or more powerful countries and institutions, it seeks protection and legitimacy. Neoliberal reforms for the goodwill of the IMF, luxuries and privileges for the local capitalist class; bargain rate land for countries like Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar; soldiers for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and good tidings for Russia. It does so in the hope that these powers will fulfill their part of the bargain and protect them from popular unrest.
And sure enough, we have already seen how this has paid off. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar lent his support and offered aid to Bashir after the protests began. Cavdet Yilmaz, deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling AKP, also expressed solidarity. “We support the legitimate government of Sudan. Turkey has faced similar ploys many times,” he said after meeting with the Ambassador of Sudan. Russia’s Wagner Group was also invited by Bashir in early January 2018 and has now a presence in Sudan. On January 12, Al-Hadi Adam Musa, head of the parliamentary subcommittee on Defense, Security and Public order announcedthat Russian warships would be approaching Sudan’s ports very soon.
But while the regime has the guns, the backing of the “international community” and the fs, the Sudanese people have remained steadfast. For a long time, analysts have been puzzled how the regime has remained so resilient. Although this may appear to be the case, the Sudanese people have shown this to be but a facade that for a large part only exists to the extent that the people believe it does.
On December 19, when elementary, high school and college students started the first protest in Atbara by burning down the headquarters of the ruling National Congress Party, when they started beating the police, and when Colonel Mohamed Karshom defected and prevented the Rapid Support Forces — paramilitary forces loyal to the regime — from entering the city, the spell was broken and they knew that the state was already fragmenting.
Nothing was certain: mutiny by the military was possible, the police were unprepared for street battles, the state quickly lost control. From east to west, north to south, the Sudanese security forces haven’t been able to keep up. The regime was never omnipotent — the day this was realized, was the day their fate was sealed.
Desperate and ruthless
Various elements of the ruling establishment have jumped ship. The regime’s paramilitary loyalists, such as the Rapid Support Force — the notorious Janjaweed militias that committed the genocide in Darfur were once a component of this force — led by Lt. Gen Mohammed Hamad Doqlou have already leveled criticisms against Omar Al-Bashir, perhaps feeling the tide turning against him, and fearing that their opportunistic association with his rule might become a liability.
Some branches of the military — the very institution that brought the ruling Junta into power — even seemed to have gone on mutiny. Every single day, it seems, the ruling establishment becomes more desperate.
But if the uprisings of the twenty-first century teach us anything, it is that desperation comes first, soon followed by barbarism. Today in Sudan, plain-clothes policemen and militias roam the streets — they beat protesters, follow them home or even into the hospitals to ensure that they finish the job. At least forty people have been killed according to Amnesty International. Hundreds have gone missing. Opposition dissidents have been arrested en-masse.
The government hopes that the situation will devolve to that of Yemen or Syria; then they can be the “savior” — the Ingaz — from a “terrorist threat”. But they are facing a well-organized and multifaceted civil opposition. At the moment, insofar as protests remain peaceful, insofar as revolutionaries remain patient, then we could very well see the downfall of one of Africa’s most resilient regimes.
The past eight years since the beginning of the Arab Spring have left many — including many on the left — ambivalent about whether to support revolutionary struggles around the world. In Egypt, we saw the world’s most popular protest deform quickly into a restoration that brought General Sisi to power. In Libya, we saw a transitional government dependent on NATO fail to stabilize the country after Gaddafi’s fall. In Yemen, a revolution devolved into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis after the country became a sphere of proxy warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Syria, the country has been left in tatters after it became a battleground for Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Gulf Countries, and the United States.
While all of this ought to be recognized, it should not paralyze the left into a fit of despair. Since 2011, indeed, the left has been in crisis: but once we came together to celebrate the radical democracy of the squares. If we are to redeem ourselves, we need to return to that hope. For if a left is not revolutionary, it is nothing.
Have you heard of the dictators playbook? Each of the aforementioned countries have contributed their respective chapters to it: in Syria it was learned that red-lines don’t exist and killing civilians is fair game, in Egypt it was learned that a regime can continue if you change the figurehead, In Libya and Yemen it was learned that one could ally with militias to remain relevant, and in all these cases it was learned that in the world of geopolitics there are no morals, only interests.
There is also the opposition’s playbook. It is a book ridden with failures. In Syria, the lesson of Arab supremacy and chauvinism coupled with a reliance on despotic regimes taught us that revolutions can not be forged without recognizing the racial questions (i.e. the Kurdish question). It was also in Syria that we learned that non-violent revolts which prematurely arm themselves are an invitation to imperialist powers. In Yemen it was learned that yesterday’s opposition can be today’s concierge for bloodshed, and in Egypt it became clear that popular struggle and desperation can be co-opted by a military promising safety over liberty. In all, save for Egypt, it became clear that external intervention leads to misery.
Which brings us to Sudan. Popular struggle alone does not forge revolutions, and neither does ignoring the racial and class divides between the periphery and center. External intervention can’t chart a course forward for the country, and neither will premature armament. A transitional government is needed, the opposition ought not to be armed. The revolution ought to be represented by a grassroots organization, not the military, and there should be no reliance on external intervention. On all counts, the Sudanese revolutionary movement seems to be prepared.
Let us begin with the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the premier group representing none but the grassroots struggle. The umbrella organization has terrified the system. Their public face and secretary, Mohammed Naji Al-Asam, was targeted and arrested on January 4. In his last address, calm and defiant, he encapsulated the multi-faceted nature of the struggle in his call against racism and sexism, and his homage to those killed in the country’s civil wars.
“We send our salutations to those killed in the wars launched by the regime in the South, Darfur, Blue Nile and North Kordofan states,” he said. “We send salutations to all imprisoned men and women in the prisons of the regime, to the Sudanese woman who struggles shoulder to shoulder with the Sudanese man (…) salutations to all Sudanese people, east, west, north,and south — who have united for one cause, the immediate downfall of the regime.” Three days later, he was detained.
The SPA is a union umbrella that breaks through occupational lines in order to indict the regime. The umbrella organization was formed in August 2018 when various independent unions (teachers, doctors, university lecturers, lawyers, journalists, engineers etc) forged an alliance. Negotiations began in January 2018, after the annual official budget of the government signified the continuation of national austerity. Since then, the SPA has organized under a united front, in order to fight on behalf of Sudan’s working class.
What does it mean to be a professional in Sudan? In Sudan, it is often “professionals” that live the most precariously — they share neither the comforts nor privileges associated with the “middle class” in the popular imagination. ROAR spoke to a teacher and member of the teachers’ union that falls under the umbrella of the SPA. He joined the SPA due to a precarious existence. Representing only 2 percent of Sudan’s annual GDP, the education sector begins with a minimum wage for teachers that is roughly $10.25 dollars a month.
“The teacher is ill equipped and untrained to do their task, the teacher works for an unprofessional and immoral regime, the teacher is not represented by any but militant independent unions that fight to change her condition,” he explained. The SPA has evolved beyond representing different sectors of the working class — immediately taking up the mantle of organizing the revolt, since many Sudanese people have a hard time fully trusting the opposition.
There is also the opposition. These are the political parties that have organized themselves within the National Consensus Forces. For the moment, their most important initiative was Sudan Call — an alliance with the armed opposition in the peripheral regions of Kordofan and Darfur (Sudan Revolutionary Front). Through Sudan Call, the SRF has been convinced — and has even released public statements in that regard — to ensure that the revolution remains peaceful and unarmed.
Neither the National Consensus Forces or the SRF have called for external intervention. Despite arrests, Sudan Call has ensured that the Sudanese Professionals Association can keep up the momentum for non-violent civil disobedience. ROAR also spoke to Mahdi Muhammed Kheir Batran, who left Sudan and never returned since Bashir took power. He was a leader in the Sudanese Congress Party, which was formed to oppose Bashir’s rule, and has operated from exile ever since.
Dr Batran was enthusiastic about the recent developments, the coordination between the opposition parties and the struggle ongoing in the streets. “I haven’t returned to Sudan in twenty-nine years, it seems that I will be able to soon. This is a people’s revolution, one launched by the youth,” he remarked ecstatically. “This is a popular uprising, and it is only by the consent of the masses that any opposition program can be instituted. None of us started this movement.”
This is by all accounts a sophisticated and organized struggle, but getting rid of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime is only a first step. It will take political imagination — one that goes far beyond the liberal horizons of Tunisia, for example — to undo the damage done by the NCP. Charting the course towards a progressive Sudan that respects the rights of all and abandons the Sharia laws which have disrupted the unity of the country is an extremely challenging task. It ought reverse the violence wrought by neoliberalism and refuse to sell the country to the highest bidder.
This is not an Arab Spring revolt, rather it is a grassroots African revolt spearheaded by the Sudanese people demanding the fall of Omar Al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime. The multifaceted character of the social opposition is proving a major challenge to the government which after three decades in power is now facing one of the most serious threats to its existence.