Uprising in Sudan: Interview with Sudanese Comrades
As the Sudanese uprising enters its most critical conjuncture, with negotiations between the military council and the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change collapsing, and the latter announcing a country-wide strike, Elia El Khazen interviews three Sudanese comrades in order to better situate the Sudanese uprising and understand future prospects. Originally posted in Al-Manshour here.
Elia El Khazen is an active member of the Lebanon-based revolutionary socialist organisation The Socialist Forum and an editorial member of its publication Al-Manshour. His writing has appeared in the organization’s publication, Jacobin Magazine and Salvage Quarterly.
Photos by Zaher Omareen.
Elia El Khazen (EEK): Can you walk us through how the protests first started and what ignited them with a a brief contextualisation of the relevant socio-economic and political factors that might have driven them?
Mohammed Elnaiem (ME): The protests started in the peripheral city of Atbara on december 19th, and it was school students (middle, and high school students) who spearheaded the revolt. The story that is told often is that it only took one angry child who couldn’t afford a falafel sandwich –a staple food for students after they finish school — to start a revolution. When the other students who shared his discontent joined him and marched towards the headquarters of the National Congress Party, Omar al-Bashir, the dictator of thirty years, had his fate sealed. This story of course can’t be confirmed, but the burned down headquarters of the NCP are a testament to the anger caused by hunger. Police were apparently beaten up, and when the Rapid Support Forces were dispatched to the city, lower ranked soldiers (including one Colonel) eventually drove them off. Whether the story about the child is true or not isn’t important, for even as an allegory it is instructive. The people rose up because of the price of bread — that was the initial trigger. Upon the recommendations of the IMF, the Sudanese government cut bread subsidies and was facing a foreign exchange crisis. ATM machines were empty, and the peripheries were facing the threat of famine. Sudan is a country which on some years has spend 88% of the GDP on intelligence, and which has only descended further since the secession of the South, which the government is also to blame for. The protests which started in Atabara quickly spread to dozens of cities, including the capital.
But as the bible tells us (wo)man does not live on bread alone. For the 30 years that Omar al-Bashir has been a dictator, not a day has passed where there wasn’t a form of resistance in the streets. Without a rich, underground political culture, able to nurture under such circumstances, it isn’t easy to conclude that anybody would have been able to seize the moment. The materialisation of this political culture was the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) — a network of banned unions — taking the helm of the protests. That was the beginning of the end for the regime.
Sara Abbas (SA): I believe now that it was the town of Ad-Damazein that started the wave of protests, not on Dec. 19th. but on Dec. 13th. Ad-Damazin is the capital of Blue Nile State, an area that has suffered from war and poverty. But we know little about the circumstances of the protests there. Then on Dec.19th. Atbara started to protest, and so on. We have a problem in Sudan that those of us getting our news mainly from the capital often miss out on the details of acts of resistance from regions far away from the capital. This is in a way a reproduction within our own movements of the way the country is ruled- from Khartoum. We need to challenge this in our own movements, not reproduce it.
ME: Thank you so much for this correction Sara, I was unaware of this.
Raga Makawi (RM): The history of resistance in Sudan is accumulative, this makes me generally skeptical of the idea that a sweeping rupture of unfolding (small but connected) events could be traced to a city, a day, or a single act of resistance no matter how radical i.e setting something or someone a blaze. Still, every revolution needs a narrative and a conceptual framework to allow its deployment as an ideological tool whose rhetoric is meant to further fuel the resistance and rally up the popular masses. In this instance where could possibly be better than Atbara, the once upon a time center of Sudanese postcolonial revolutionary nationalism. I do agree with Sara regarding the risks of reproducing antique national narratives of a Sudan that have since changed drastically, these run parallel to attempts at mapping revolutionary developments in a chronological order, with a single or unified demand, glossing over the many overlapping and intersecting variables.
The socio-political and economic realities that drive the ‘revolution’s’ agenda are much more intertwined and complex than the once popular demand of ousting al- Bashir. With the 3 main objectives and subsequent demands of the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) unfolding, the incohesive and inconclusive prospect of the negotiations, especially over what constitutes a priority for the subaltern many is overlooked, hardly a surprise if one examines with objectivity the class and ideological similarities between the liberal democracy leftist camp and its right wing Islamist counterpart.
EEK: Where are the protests initiated and where are they coalescing, were they originally rural and provincial around areas Darfur or more central around areas like Khartoum? And what are the most relevant demands, chants and revendications?
ME: Whereas the revolution started in an urban context — in the city of Atbara, once a communist and trade union stronghold — it would also be accurate to say that these protests began in the peripheries before reaching the capital. Protests also hit rural areas, insofar as they were towns that didn’t have populations scattered across vast spaces. But even in the peripheries, the protests were mainly centered in the cities, except for those organised by armed resistance groups (SPLM, SLA, etc.), which tended to be in rural strongholds.
That makes these protests unprecedented. The last wave of protests in 2012/13 were mainly focused in the capital, this time however a rural/urban divide was overcome.
In Sudan, urban resistance movements tend to be led by middle class professionals/intellectuals — although we can also say that these themselves tend to be living close to poverty, and/or are often unemployed. This is a middle class, that either graduated from college to find no job, or remembers a time when they didn’t lead a precarious existence. Quite simply, it is culturally but not materially middle class. The Sudanese Professionals Association in fact, prior to organising these protests, came into the public eye with a massive study on the minimum wage of Sudanese “professionals” (teachers, lawyers, doctors,) finding them all below the poverty line, in some cases making less than $50 a month. Withstanding all of this however, I do not want to make the mistake of calling this a middle class revolt that is being waged in the interests of the middle class.
Those who take the most risks, just based on what I’ve seen on the ground, and those that run head on towards tear gas canisters, chanting “I need my fix, bring on the tear gas.” These people tend to be misfits, the working class, the starving artists, the rasta’s with the dreadlocks, the countercultural youth. That’s the urban context.
When it comes to rural resistance movements, things tend to get a bit messy. The first reason is of course related to their very existence; a rural/central divide — especially economic — has categorized Sudan since independence, and has as result spurred the existence of armed struggles. To those in the cities, the struggles of rural peoples’ tend to be distant, perhaps even abstract. There are many reasons for this, uneven development is one, but of course, a racism that promotes the idea that some lives are more important than others, is as widely practiced in Khartoum as it is denied. With no space upon which to use the means of resistance in the arsenal of activists in the cities, most activists in the peripheries, particularly in the peripheral towns and cities find themselves having no choice but to take up arms. It’s the only way that they will be heard. This is what happened in the Nuba mountains, and it’s what happened in Darfur. So the timeline itself for this revolution would be different whether you ask someone from SPLM, or an urban professional in Khartoum.
What made this revolution work is how the two were able to coordinate. The alliance of the dispossessed middle class revolt, with the working class and the misfits put pressure on the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) in the central cities, while the rural movements put down their arms and marched in the peripheries, taking the lead of students in those towns and cities who had for long preached that there was a non-violent solution to the Darfur question, just to take an example. With the armed movements choosing non-violence, and the central movements maintaining the momentum, the opposition began to unite just about the time when the government was starting to fall apart. The government couldn’t call the protesters terrorists, and as a result, couldn’t scare the middle-class. The government was also not able to divide the population through racism either.
One key moment was when the government, using old tactics, likely tortured and brought Darfuri students on TV to claim that Israel was funding the armed movements to divide the country through this revolution. In response, protesters in Khartoum chanted “You are racist and sly, We are all Darfur”.
SA: The most relevant demand in the first months of the protests was “tasgot bes” (fall, that’s all”. It was the bottom line that unified all the different components of the revolution including those in the diaspora as well as the majority of those that didn’t go out on the street but support the uprising. I found the slogan powerful yet ambiguous. Was it addressed to al-Bashir? Certainly. But as the revolution deepened, it became clear that it’s addressed to the regime, not just him. And later I realized that it goes even deeper- it’s addressed to the military state, which has ruled Sudan for all but 11 years since independence. It has not only ruled by physical violence, but also through structural violence- getting people, especially those in rural areas, so impoverished, and in some parts of the country so physically insecure, that their main concern is survival. This worked for a while, but it has also backfired. Because in the process, the state became seen as morally bankrupt, and as a dragon that must be slayed. And for some, the feeling of having lost their honor in the struggle and indignities of everyday life, and of the country having lost its honor has led them to see honor in resistance.
As Mohammed already said, another important slogan was “You are racist and arrogant [not sly], the whole country is Darfur!” This was a rejection of the divide and conquer of the Inqaz regime, its racial politics that tapped into ethnic hierarchies embedded in Sudanese society. I see this slogan as a significant turning point, but it’s not enough on its own to make for a social revolution. Same with women’s incredible leadership. All you have to do is look at the composition of the opposition’s negotiating team to see that it’s mostly male, “Arab”, urban, educated and Khartoum based. It’s an elite in opposition but an elite nonetheless. So the openings and challenges that the revolution has offered must be pushed and expanded through organization, and continued resistance.
One final thought: the rural/urban divide is a critical aspect of class in Sudan. It’s not just a postcolonial reality in Sudan, but also a colonial legacy. The British used the rural areas, for extraction (of cotton etc) and those populations as the labor force, sometimes bringing in seasonal laborers from further afield. And in urban areas, especially Khartoum, colonialism cultivated an educated class (the “efendiya”) to fill in the lower ranks of the civil service and after the end of colonialism, to rule. The efendiya class may have been economically hit by successive military regimes but it still carries massive cultural and political capital.
RM: The question around the relationship between geographical locations and extent of demonstrations is one of inquiry into what kind of class politics are shaping the popular uprising and consequently it demands. In this instance it is important to realise that one of the many legacies of the Salvation (Islamist) regime was that it managed to alter old power dynamics through the creation of a new middle-class mostly drawn from the peripheries. Hence, employing a class analysis around outdated modes/demarcations of center/periphery divide could be misleading.
Moreover, decades of repressive and irresponsible governance policies employed in the absence of any accountability has created peculiar realities for different regions, cities, areas especially when it comes to public work. Darfur for example has been under martial law since 2003, this has effectively meant that the entire region has been operating as per a highly securitized order, down to the last aspect of daily administrative affairs. In conditions like these, resistance takes on alternative forms, ones that might not fit neatly into the prescribed called for SPA forms of resistance but could be as effective if not more.
The SPA and DFC’s style of popular rallying is customised to fit a particular area and class, even within the center, they seem to draw on their ancestors experience of the 60s and the 80s uprisings, but Sudan has drastically changed since. The classical rallying language employed isn’t half as disappointing as the absence of a revolutionary message implicit or explicit to address the underlying class differences. Even within Khartoum’s many and divergent neighbourhoods, commitment to the aims and message of the revolution wasn’t easily attainable from day one, anecdotes from protestors reported that substantial neighbourhoods like Ombada (working class neighbourhood in the outskirts of Omdurman city) refused to participate for the first few months out of fear of excessive retaliation against them by the security apparatus. Failure to rally out the ‘city’ speaks yet to another form of cultural and racial divide within the class binary that the revolution’s leadership tends to ignore.
Massive alterations in the country’s economic structure has brought decisive changes to the class system as well. The dismantling of the agricultural industry and its replacement with a poorly managed/developed service sector has further accentuated labour precariousness facilitated by mass migration to the cities. On the other hand the integration of the once neglected peripheries into the war economy raises questions about new understandings around and of labour and capital in relation to who participates, with what demands.
A closer look at the ongoing conversations between the people that stack the rank and file of the revolution is a better informant of the mood, opinion and position of the protestors five months into the uprising . In keeping with the latest developments on the political landscape a different culture of sarcastic politicking has come to replace the once ubeat slogans unified by an anti-Bashir stance. I believe there is more truth and omen in the humorous memes that circulate in the aftermath or intermissions of the prolonged negotiations. The mockery spares no one, friend and foe and is in my opinion the most accurate measurement of the people’s voice.
EEK: Do you think this uprising can be characterized using Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of ‘revolutionary spontaneity’ i.e. mass protest driven without the aid and guidance of a revolutionary party? What then becomes the role of progressive, leftist and revolutionary organisations once the masses are more advanced than them?
ME: It’s important to note that when Rosa Luxemburg provided her reflections on the mass strike in Russia, the Bolshevik revolution had not yet occured. Nor had the split in the social democracy movement occured yet. In fact, it was at a time when the European social democracy movement was ultimately convinced that it was the historical actor that would lead the proletariat to providence. There are parallels here with the Sudanese opposition parties. But more importantly, Rosa Luxemburg should be understood here as someone who was closer to the pulse of the 1905 revolutions of Russia than the social democracy movement, and her reflections then ought to be seen as early forms of dissent against European social democracy, who seemed to deny the significance of the self-organization of the working class.
Two reflections stand out that are helpful in understanding the revolution — the first is about political education. To overthrow absolutism in Russia, Luxemburg says, “the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.” Already it seems, we see Luxemburg suspicious about the idea that spontaneity contradicts organisation, as well as an exposition of the idea that while important, pamphlets, panel discussions, and so on are not enough for the success of the social democracy movement. It is here where we find the biggest organiser of revolution, and so her appeal is to tell the social democracy movement not to think of spontaneity as political immaturity, but quite to the contrary, as you put it — as the masses being more advanced than the party.
A second reflection, which in a sense can be seen as a reinforcement of the first point, is that “in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a predominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are “uneducated”, but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.”
This attempt to play schoolmaster, and this feeling of self-importance that many opposition parties, chief among them the Umma Party has, is what always keeps them a step behind the revolutionary masses. One finds himself feeling like they are looking at a living parody, when Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the UMMA party for example, tries to declare on live television that he is the legitimate leader of Sudan because he was the last democratically elected leader before Bashir’s coup thirty years ago!! Of course he was ridiculed for that. The same can be said for the other opposition parties, which the vast majority of protesters are suspicious of, considering that in thirty years, most of them engaged in concession after concession to the ruling elite.
So why do people put trust in the SPA? Well, for one, they don’t claim to lead, they are offered the mantle of leadership. They are seen as learning about the struggle in the streets, and they are accountable to the streets. They engage in the battles on the street. When the leaders get arrested, they get arrested in protests. They aren’t trying to play the school teachers of the revolution, in fact most don’t even know who they are. It’s a horizontal organisation made up of illegal union members, your own english teacher could be SPA, or your doctor, or your neighbor, and they wouldn’t tell you. But that doesn’t at all mean that they aren’t members of political parties. It doesn’t at all mean they aren’t organising with the parties. It’s an open secret that many of them are (the elected chairman, northerner Mohamed Yousef, was a member of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the southern armed struggle!) . When the government says that a huge portion of them are communists, while this is propaganda, they aren’t lying. Most are likely politically independent however.
But when one chooses to dedicate themselves to the SPA, instead of their own political parties if they are a member of one, this means they give up on the petty in-fights that are paralyzing the opposition, and means that they answer to the streets before anyone else.
The SPA of course, beyond being the interloculator of the streets to power, also must engage with the very “world of politics” which most people in the streets are suspicious of. But people feel that the SPA is sort of an infiltrator in the sphere of political parties, shaking things up, acting on its behalf, standing up to the military and so on. The SPA set up the forces for freedom and change, of course, to unite the resistance. So officially, it is part of a body with the biggest opposition parties (The Umma Party, the Communist Party, the Sudan Congress Party, and so on) — but at the same time, while perhaps providing these parties with a newfound popular legitimacy, it’s always seen as both the leader and the odd one out.
Does the SPA, therefore, not fulfill the criteria of a revolutionary party? Considering that our revolutionary parties, including the Communist Party (the oldest one in the region), are not entirely trusted by the masses? I think it does.
SA: I* think* the protests when they started did fit Luxemburg’s idea of revolutionary spontaneity, but we need to really go to those towns and speak to those who participated to understand better. The SPA was able to channel the protests, imbue them with strategy, unity and organization. I think the association has been accepted as a leader by the majority of protestors for two reasons that Mohammed pointed to. The first is that they are not a political party. This is important, since the whole political class is distrusted, especially by the youth, who make up the majority of the population. But this reason alone doesn’t explain the SPA’s appeal. Why didn’t Girifna or the bigger Change Now coalition for example become the leader? (Girifna is a social movement style decentralized organization that emerged to my knowledge around the 2010 elections and confronted the regime, both it and Change Now (التغيير الآن) which it allied with at different points drew on youth and students, some of whom had party affiliations but chose to organize outside them and in a different way). I think the answer lies partly in the composition of the SPA. While its language builds on the language of other movements, esp. the youth and student movement (that came out on January 30, 2011 and attempted an uprising) with its emphasis on unity, rights, justice, peaceful resistance, anti-racism and anti-sexism, there’s an element of it that is old, namely that relies on professional formations. The 1964 revolution and the 1985 intifada were organized in large part also by professional organizations. For example, the University of Khartoum Teachers’ Union played a critical role in organizing and mobilizing for the Intifada. Many of those who were very active in the union, like my father, did not become politicians afterwards, rather handed the government over to politicians. Sudanese culture puts a very high degree of trust in education and educated people. And education is seen as one of the few vehicles that were available for social mobility, something that this regime is accused of destroying. Finally, the SPA has older faces, but some very young ones too as Mohamed said, some of whom were part of Girifina, Change now, and localized committees and groups. The reading of working class youth (which in Sudan more or less means 40 and under) of the Inqaz regime is sharper than the older generation’s, since they grew up under it and confronted it again and again. While they can use the older discourse when they deem it necessary, they also have access to different discourses, a more direct way of speaking, and at times use dialect and street language in a way that crosses over to young people and the street guys who didn’t necessarily have a chance to go to or finish school. This has been important as an element in their appeal.
I do think the SPA at the moment is the closest we have to a revolutionary party, but in the past month, it has been falling out of step with the masses. For example, its position is weaker (but still very strong) since it entered into an alliance with political parties and armed movements (the alliance being the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, FDFC). The alliance makes sense strategically (not the least to unify the opposition and prevent spoilers). But it also means the SPA has to deal with a group much of which is out of step with the masses, esp. the youth. It is also unclear what the SPA’s position will be should a transition take place and lead to elections. At the moment, it positions itself as the voice of the masses, taking its cue from them. But it contains different political currents within it, various affiliations, and its decision to negotiate with Burhan’s military council is contested, and thus has to be constantly negotiated with the masses on the street. The street is more militant in its distrust of the military establishment than the Forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change, and in demanding retribution for the killing and torture and maiming of protestors.
RM: This question I believe has a large potential in unravelling the many concealed class disparities that the idea of a revolution with an overarching aim of achieving ‘Freedom, Peace and Justice’ means for the many as well as for a viable nation building process that as Lenin said is not consumed with the architure of development as much as reworking of the country’s class trajectory.
There is no doubt that the one undisputed achievement reclaimed by the people in full over the past few months was the restoration of freedoms, a space to speak, act and behave with liberty not just from the repressive machinery of the state but also from the dominance of a conservative culture that is in essence racist, sexist and elitist. This break, through an act of spontaneous political thinking and action, can be seen mostly at the grassroot levels as evident in the organizational work of the many committees who have mustered a reputation of not only managing and safeguarding the sit-in areas but whose early activities saw the mobilization of various neighbourhoods to match the rallying call from the SPA.
This isn’t unexpected, neighbourhood committees in Sudan, almost akin to what you would define as borough councils in the UK, have long been at the forefront of resistance, this is perhaps why the Islamist learned how to infiltrate them, and apply to them, as they did with the state machinery their infamous tamkeen (empowerment) policy, either by buying off their representatives or replacing them by those aligned with the regime’s ideology. Many of us who watch the SPA stumble on its road to securing civilianship, find solace in the nuclear level of organization as mustered by these youngsters, most identifiable by their slender bodies and undefiable attitudes, both a product of long enduring hardships and courtesy of self-serving elite policies.
However, in between spontaneity and discipline of prescribed governance routes, those nuclear power houses and their achievements are lost. A call for a technocratic government in line with the liberal democratic values of what the left perceives as civic builds on neoliberal values of apolitical meritocracies. This formula favours the already privileged as clear in the almost comical scramble for nominations. In this instance the SPA provides the grounds for reproducing the old order, its reluctance to address the issue of privilege or class politics clearly throughout has facilitated the direction in which the negotiations are developing which is the refashioning of the new state in the image of a professionals class. Political parties, as falltering as their history might be, provide a more viable political space for different class members to negotiate agendas and secure wins should accountability be introduced.
EEK: The level of organisation in the Sudanese uprising has been staggering, can you locate the historical linkages and lessons learned that the current Sudanese uprising has taken from previous uprisings and demonstrations in the country and the counter-revolutionary reversals across the region?
ME: While the SPA existed before the revolution,it also came into existence in anticipation of one. It draws its inspiration from Sudan’s rich revolutionary history. In October 1964, after the repression of students at the Khartoum University, and an event which led to the death of a student called Ahmad al-Qurashi, a revolutionary wave engulfed Sudan. The two key organising bodies were the National Front of Professionals and the National Front of Political parties (including the Umma Party, the National Union Party, the Communist Party and to a lesser degree, the Muslim Brotherhood).
Characteristic of that revolution was some of the same issues we’ve seen in the ongoing revolution. General strikes, coordinated marches, divisions between the upper ranks of the Armed Forces and junior personnel, and most importantly, the enlistment of sympathetic officers to the revolution. In 1964, just as there is now, a coalition of political parties and professional associations came to the shore (The Forces for Freedom and Change), so too was there The United National Front which negotiated with the army for a democratic transition.
The same can be said about the 1985 revolution. It was led by a professionals association called the National Alliance for National Salvation, a joint movement between the trade union movement and professionals. It was characterized with general strikes, and the support of sympathetic members of the military, who refused to take orders to repress the revolutionaries. Once again, a Transitional Military Council was also formed to ensure a transition.
This is the third professionals association in Sudan’s revolutionary history to take the lead of an uprising and overthrow a military dictator and the parallels are too clear to be coincidental. The SPA formed The Forces for Freedom and Change, as a coalition between the armed/civilian opposition and the SPA, in a clear attempt to mirror the United Front of the 1964 revolution. The call to the occupation at the headquarters of the military was on April 6th, the day that Nimeri fell in 1985. The central role of junior officers, meant that there was likely lines of communication open between revolutionaries and lower ranked soldiers.
It’s not necessarily clear that these were lessons from the past. It’s more likely that these were just inherited strategies and tactics in an intergenerational political culture that never died. The revolution started months ago, but preparation started years ago.
The revolutionaries of course also learned important lessons from the regional revolts. In Egypt, there is the lesson of not trusting the military to bring democracy, and not giving into desperation and allowing for the revolutionary masses to give up the struggle for democracy in return for some faux guarantee of safety (you get neither). Tamarod in Egypt did not do this when it helped organise the revolution to overthrow Morsi. In Yemen there was the lesson of not trusting any Saudi/Emirati sponsored “transition”, and this definitely informs the suspicion that people have today of these regimes. In Syria and Libya, there is of course the weariness of armed struggle and, more importantly, armed external intervention. Overall, Sudanese and Algerian people today have enough of a critical distance (unlike many Egyptians unfortunately), to recognise how things went wrong in Egypt. They know, perhaps because of that distance, that nationalistic sentimentality towards the military should in no way translate into unconditional trust.
SA: I also don’t want to underestimate the years leading up to this uprising. In 2005, the “international community”- the US and some European countries, backed a regionally-mediated “comprehensive peace agreement” (CPA). To cut a long story short, after the end of that transitional period in 2011, when southern Sudan declared independence, Sudanese people saw the international community withdraw without regard to both the deep economic crisis the split caused, the return to highly repressive political culture, and the situation of being in limbo that southerners faced- stripped of Sudanese citizen and unable to live in South Sudan due to the emergence of conflict there or due to a feeling of not being at home . I saw a shift after 2011, Sudanese political forces of all stripes stopped looking to be saved or to reform the regime, and began to unify around the idea of bringing forth its collapse. The 2013 uprising that was violently crushed is one testament to that. As were the protests last year. As well as the formation of political coalitions like The National Consensus Forces etc. But to me of vital importance is the strike actions. For example, the militancy and the radicalization of doctors during this particular uprising did not come in void. They have been striking about their working conditions and the state of the public hospitals, as well as the privatization and corruption in the health sector, for some time now. They brought some of these organizational lessons to this uprising, as has the SPA (which was banned) with its work to campaign for raising the minimum wage. Members of other groups- Change Now, etc, neighborhood committees, women’s political party forum and movements like Girifna and Change Now have also gained knowledge in organizing. The latter two used social media and helped popularize the idea, already seen by the Sudanese from a distance in the 2010/2011 Arab uprisings, that social media can be a powerful documentation and communication tool. They also took an explicitly anti-racist stance, which grew also thanks to the work of Darfurian student groups and other political organizations from the so-called “margins”. And women’s groups such as the No to the Oppression of Women ( لا لقهر النساء) held street actions and some of their members were arrested. Political actors would meet on different platforms and cross paths and network and some activists are members of multiple groups simultaneously. I say this but I am also aware (and have a strong desire) to find out more about the organizing that was happening away from Khartoum. We still build narratives that are too much focused on Khartoum, or on the more formal political structures. This risks obscuring major contributions to the struggle. I’d like to know for example more about the history of the neighborhood committees, which are now playing a key role in the revolution.
RM: The level of politicization among the Sudanese youth is at an all time high, this isn’t strictly the product of the uprising but a result of a healthy and vibrant organizational and political culture that has defined the history of the country’s modern nation building process. Samir Amin’s theorization around Sudan’s unique hybrid typology of the export economy and labour reserve puts in context the why and how of the country’s resistance legacy. However, the post-independence period has witnessed, as in the case of all other African postcolonial countries, a shift in the political narrative which reflected the contemporary emerging class dynamics, product of education, universities, political parties, civil society as they engaged and negotiated their space and identities with state institutions in a rapidly globalizing neoliberal order. These new spaces of emerging elite ideologies were not open to everyone.
What I mean to emphasis by this somewhat prolonged introduction is that historically, resistance developed along two parallel lines, one bonafide and central to the development of modernism in Sudan and to its middle-class sense of urban identity, those ‘effendia’, their struggle narratives lined the nationalist imagination and their cadres were rewarded with nothing short of state power. The other self-effaced at the sidelines, struggling with informality save for the few sectors whose blue collar workers served the export led/foreign exchange industry.
The class aspects of resistance manifest themselves clearly in and throughout the uprising and in the sit in, the professionals at the table, the workers and the unemployed at the barracks. Complex gender and ethnic identities are interwoven in between, each draw on their own history of resistance in the process. The cohesion that the ‘revolution’ masks carries within it disparities over right to agency and claims over political space and agenda. The recent disagreement around barrack zones revealed what’s at stake for each according to their priorities. The professionals vy for promised concessions in the grand master game of politicking, the rest a defence line in protection of their lives against a violent militia state operating in the absence of any rule of law, the debate still rages on.
The stark difference in the composition and style of the resistance at each end reflects a crisis of a state integrated in the global order through an enclave economy. The neighbourhood committees, the local councils and other grassroots organizations communicate the language and aspirations of the majority of the popular masses, not just in terms of demands and language but also in their style of delivery. Enclaves of globalization within state and civil society speaks another set of priorities, where decades of neoliberal training on ‘inclusivity’ has identified the gender agenda as most pressine, the tool of delivering equality, the quota system, nevermind the absence of any institutional grounding that sees through the logical aftermath of these assignments.
EEK: Can you give us more insight on the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) that seems to be at the forefront of the Sudanese uprising?
ME: The Sudanese Professionals Association is a clandestine organisation, with few key visible leaders and potentially hundreds of members. Membership is mostly secret, and for official faces, the most well known are Sara AbdelJalil, Mohammed Naji al-Asam, and Mohammed Yousef. There have been conflicting reports about the moment of its foundation, some say it was formed in 2012 by various professionals, while others insist that it was 2016 in a meeting between the doctors syndicate and the university lecturers union at the university of khartoum. The official website claims that it was formed in October 2016, after the Central Committee of Sudanese doctors, the Sudanese Journalists Network, and the Democratic Lawyers Association came together to forge a join body. It came to the fore, and became known to the intelligentsia, at least months before the revolution after publishing a study on the minimum wage.
The SPA was known for setting the schedules for protests. It would often coordinate with neighbourhood committees of the youth, and it’s own members would show up to the places where protests would be scheduled, and risk arrest. The SPA, initially, was known as the organiser of the protests after December 25th. By January 1st, however, with the declaration of freedom and change, it had also shown its capacity to draw a roadmap for the future of the country. The first two clauses of the declaration are about solving wars, a goodwill gesture to those in the peripheries (civil society and armed organisations) that it could also try and bridge the central/peripheral divide.
SA: The SPA did not as far as I know plan the early protests. Those were in AdDamazin, Atbara and Gadarif etc, i.e. outside Khartoum. But when the protests came to Khartoum, they called for a march to the Palace. From there, its power grew, and it has spokespersons and branches in different cities inside and outside the country. What is stunning is that most of its members were unknown, with the exception of a few. Those who came out with their identity publically, like Al-Asam, knew they would be arrested. I think it’s a damning indictment of Sudan’s political class that people were willing to follow an unknown organization with mostly unknown members whom they saw as speaking truth, rather than well-known political figures.
RM: The Sudanese Professionals association is a ‘professionals’ body made up of the main unionised sectors who have since grown to encompass a plethora of bodies under its wing. At the helm is the doctor’s (represented in two factions and this has its own history as well), lawyers and engineers. These three perhaps make up the cadres of ‘effendi’ class proper and all have their political affiliations or at least inclinations, their voices are the most heard, positions emphasised, their actions define the political tone of revolution. The phenomena of a professional body occupying a prominent space in Sudan’s political history isn’t new, their authority over the revolution, popularly bestowed, should be a topic of scientific enquiry in time, possibly a result of multi party decay and the rise of the illusion of professionalisation in the aftermath of the NCP’s higher education privatization policies.
Earlier debates in the first few months of the revolution had alluded to the crisis of a seemingly apolitical group leading a political revolution, this weakness can be clearly discerned in their struggle to communicate a popular position or agenda beyond organizing/leading demonstrations despite the massive popular support that has placed them in an advanced position at the negotiation table.
EEK: Teachers were at the forefront of the uprising against Omar al-Bashir last December, following a government decision to triple bread prices. What are the major unions and syndicates involved in the uprising?
ME: The major syndicates seem to be, the teachers committee, the central committee of Sudanese doctors, the Democratic Lawyers Association, the Sudanese Journalists Network, the Association of Democratic Veterinarians, the University Professors Association, the Sudanese Doctors Syndicate, the Committee for the restoration of the Engineers Syndicate, and at least 9 others. The most important thing to mention though is that since the uprising, even those organisations which are not “officially” members have acted in unison with the SPA. There have been various “associations” formed, sometimes geographical, sometimes occupational, sometimes on a neighbourhood to neighbourhood basis.. There is for example, the “unemployed graduates” association. Students of universities have also organised themselves into associations. One of my favorite pictures to come out of the revolution is the “students of the Jinn al-ahmar university” (hard to translate, but the best description would be is that it is a satirical take on university contingents by those who didn’t attend university, “bla bla bla” university essentially.”
SA: The unions representing blue collar workers, which were destroyed by the regime, are also important to watch. Their previous members are also organizing, for example the Railway workers who helped make it possible for the train to come from Atbara in support of the sit-in in Khartoum. And the dockworkers in Port Sudan, who began in the revolution to organize against the contracts by the port authorities and state with foreign companies, which are threatening their already highly precarious livelihoods. The port in Port Sudan is a perfect example of capitalist greed enforced by the state and its trajectory under the Inqaz (al-Bashir’s regime) reveals the contempt of the state for working class lives and the deliberate policies of impoverization.
RM: It is important to note the modification in unionship as a form of resistance resultant of NCP ‘s repressive policies as well as the restructuring of the economy and the international capitalist developments in relation to labour. All three elements contributed to the ineffability of the union as a form of collective bargaining. While the SPA includes under its banner the most effective sectors from doctors to teachers, there is less acknowledgment and understanding of alternative modes of collective resistance as organised by those in the informal sector. However the economic crisis, defined as the major drive behind the uprising should naturally avail more attention to informal/unemployed resistance methods, especially if they are to be constructively integrated into the proposed civilian government’s reformative plans.
Another issue one must pay attention to is the legal frameworks and practices that have come to govern even the most regulated of unions, the NCP had passed laws to restructure the organizational nature of unions, syndicates (نقابة المنشأ) replaced the old union structures weakening them from within by encouraging labour association within firms as opposed to across the sector. This practice has effectively undermined the worker’s positions by overlooking power dynamics and conflicting interests between blue and white collar labour when lumping their grievances together.
EEK: What about leftist and communist organizations in the country, how involved are they in the uprising?
ME: Sudan, like many muslim majority countries, has had to deal with the painful legacy of an influential, islamist propagated, anti-communism. Once upon a time, most workers who were members of a union had sympathies with the Communist Party. The Sudanese Communist Party had the reputation of being the biggest in arabic-speaking countries, and one of the largest in Africa. Until today, in comparison with other communist parties in the region, it is quite influential: it has consistently played a large role in the opposition, and is especially strong in the universities.
But to the popular imagination, communist means atheist (even if, of course this is a farce), and atheism is not yet tolerated. This is the legacy of NCP rule. When the revolution began, senior figures in the NCP immediately blamed two culprits: they claimed that Israel, in coordination with the armed forces was conspiring to bring instability to Sudan, and that the Sudanese Communist Party had received 250 million dollars to sow discord. Where the precise number came from, nobody knows. And while this might be partially comedic, it also comes with a tragedy: these kinds of associations in the popular imagination do work.
The Sudanese Communist Party has to be pitied somewhat. For decades, it has taken immense risks, its cadre members have been arrested and tortured, in the universities it has played a large role in politicizing students within the “Democratic Front”, and it has played a role in protecting a vibrant intellectual culture. Am I a sympathiser? Of course. Withstanding this however, it is also a party that often seems out of touch, unable to evolve beyond a Stalinist outlook (when this revolution started, they said it was the national-democratic revolution). While the youth are very active, and it can be said that they are often the ones taking most of the risks, and reaping the least praise — the central committee is made up of an older out-of-touch generation. This is a problem that categorises most opposition parties. In a young society, most of the leaders are older.
And then there is the problem of a political concession mentality for the sake of expediency. I still don’t understand how the Sudanese Communist Party could enter into an alliance with the Peoples Congress Party when the opposition coalition, the National Consensus Forces was formed. That party is run by Turabi, the architect of the regime, who only joined the opposition after a fall-out with the ruling elite.
Withstanding all of this, most negotiations with the military council (except for some here and there), have included the Communist Party. For the youth who have to deal with the stigma of the c-word, the ability to say that they are “members of the forces for freedom and change” has allowed them to propagate their ideas to thousands of workers, for the first time in over 30 years. They often do this in the occupation outside the military headquarters.
The SPA, just as a coalition of banned unions, is obviously also under the sway of many leftists, but not exclusively so. It’s official statements are more progressive and liberal in nature. That this hasn’t turned off people lies in the power of its messaging: it talks to people about their most immediate material interests: rent, food, safety, transportation, etc. It doesn’t address the contentious topic of Sharia law. In Sudan, the left wing includes everything from liberals, to leftists — while the right often denotes islamist leading parties. The SPA is not doctrinal, but its very nature probably deters islamists from joining in.
SA: Leftist organizations in Sudan means basically the Communist Party but there are many leftists who are close in orientation to the party but not members of it. There is also the Democratic Front, university student groupings which are leftist in orientation to varying degrees in different periods. The SCP, as Mohammed said, is in bad shape in Sudan and has been for decades now, partly as a result of repression and the deliberate dismantling of the platforms through which it works (unions etc) and partly due to its own policies and undemocratic practices. But, as Mohammed also said, while the party’s constituency is small, its impact on the political discourse and Sudanese intellectual life is huge. This revolution offers a chance for the party to rebuild itself. It will confront as it always has a very religious population that associates communism with being anti-Islam. And it will need to show its relevance to regular people as now it’s mostly a party of elites. But the rebuilding and reclaiming of the unions will be one arena that will help, as is the battle to make sure the economic justice doesn’t fall by the wayside in the transition and beyond. But it will be challenged by the fact that many if not most parties have adopted some of its core turf- bread, jobs, universal education and health etc. I’d be curious to see if other explicitly leftist parties emerge in the transition.
RM: To Sara and Mohammed’s comprehensive comments on the state of the left in Sudan today I can only add that notions of popular engagement and association with the communist discourse and the party’s agenda needs to be re-examined in relation to the current developments. The liberal left’s tendency to dismiss class politics as an ineffectual variable in the democratic process by using international standards of income to what constitutes a classist society is problematic because it inadvertently undermines the socioeconomic resistance agenda. A recent survey conducted by revolutionaries at the sit in received quite a bit of attention over the female representation in the polling process, lesser attention was given to the political affiliation of those polled with the larger share associated with members of the Communist Party. If accurate, these readings could hold promising indications for state reform under a civilian government.
EEK: After the fall of Omar al-Bashir and his successor Awad bin Auf, what strategy is the military council with Abdel Fattah Burhan at its helm employing in order to stay in power and delay the transition to a civilian rule?
ME: The Military Council seems to be trying, and failing to win popular support — while at the same time doing everything it can to have revolutionaries turn on the FDFC. As it does so, it hopes to stall and ensure its place during the transition. Of course, Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have a role to play in this. The Rapid Support Forces, which is run by Hemedti, have been followed around by camera crew in stint’s that many suspect are manufactured: in one, they raided a house in the capital, and found explosive vests, guns, communication devices, and even medals! In another, they claimed to stop a helicopter that was smuggling out gold for the regime. This is a way to garner legitimacy, and make people feel that they are the only guarantee of safety. These are all strategies to gain an upper hand in the ongoing negotiations. They don’t seem, however, to be working; the general attitude is one of contempt towards the military council.
SA: It’s buying time and stalling, holding the demand for a civilian government hostage to try and work out a favorable deal for itself so as remain in control. Early on, one way they tried to do that was by holding meetings with non-FDFC parties, which are dozens, to say they deserve to be in government too. But these parties are mostly discredited, and are mockingly referred to in Sudan as أحزاب الفكة or “pocket-change parties” in reference to the strategy of the al-Bashir regime to foster division in the opposition by luring opportunists through money or governmental posts to break away and form their own parties. Negotiations have been taking place between the military council and the FDFC in May. It’s no surprise to me that they accept the FDFC’s suggested parliament (though one third of it they will unfortunately have a say in) and also accept the idea of a technocratic government (ministers with professional profiles rather than political ones). In the military’s mind, those institutions don’t matter. The are most stubborn in regards to the Supreme Council. This is because the Supreme Council (المجلس السيادى) is equivalent to the presidency, which has always been the only branch of government that mattered under military regimes and where the control rests. They agreed now with the FDFC that this council will be an “honorary” one, with no powers, but I personally don’t buy it.
RM: I suspect that the Military Council is an acting agent of greater power dynamics that aren’t apparent to the average revolutionary, here a more nuanced understanding of what the deep state constitutes as well as the particularities of the negotiations should be availed for an open debate among the popular masses. The SPA has been forthcoming with this practice but selectively, the need to control the political discourse could be one caution against making every detail public which has it positive as well as negative aspects. In any case it is wonderful to see such terms and discussions popular among the once layman/woman instead of them being confined to elite discourses.
I think it is important to realise that the current military state in Sudan has become somewhat of a skilled expert in the political marketplace to use Alex De Waal’s concept where Sudan is now being auctioned off to the highest power block bidder. To realise the bid with minimum comprises a combination of leveraging and concessions are used to manage the negotiations, these practices should be understood and theorised in relation to the country’s history and its major political players, the DFC included.
The biggest fear is posed by transnational interests, snippets of daily updates that serve mostly as gossip now can help stitch together the story of how remnants of the old regime still operate behind the scene, their extended authority beyond regime and government is a testament of the hegemony of international capital no matter what conditions prevail. I was mesmerised by a story I read the other day on how the newly appointed General Prosecutor was deterred from entering Salah Gosh’s (‘disposed’ head of the national intelligence) house to serve a summons warrant by security elements armed with grenade launcher pick ups at his residence door. We need to question who those people are in relation to the social structure and how are they being financed and most importantly how did they come to defy the revolution in this sense?
EEK: Since December, repression has been fierce with hundreds of deaths confirmed and more injured. Do you fear that the current military regime could scale up repression in order to break the protests and sit-ins?
SA: The sit-ins and protests in some Darfuri towns, Nyala, Zalenji, Kutum were brutally attacked. And on May 13th, the sit-in in Khartoum was attacked, leading to many injuries and casualties. One problem we have now is to figure out who is orchestrating these attacks. In more than one case, eye witnesses claimed that this was Hemedti’s militia, the Rapid Support Services. Speculation is rife- we know these attacks are by security and militias affiliated to the old regime. But the question is whether RSF is still loyal to that regime? Is it acting on its own behalf? Is it RSF at all (public opinion seems to believe so). And if so, the question is what the RSF’s relationship is to the military establishment. The RSF was a janjaweed militia created by al-Bashir’s security as an agile force unhampered by military rules to fight the rebel groups in the areas of Darfur, South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile State. It’s committed massive atrocities. After the EU began pumping millions into Sudan after 2014, with the prime purpose being to contain migration to Europe, the regime designated the RSF for that job, and nominally integrated it into the army. But it remains above the law and not always aligned with the military’s interest. So I see Burhan and Hemedti, his deputy on the military transitional council, as having only one major common interest: the continuation of Sudan’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This proximity to the UAE and Saudi Arabia is critical to both. They, especially Hemedti I imagine, fear a democratic, civilian government ending all his lucrative deals- on Yemen, in relation to the control (read: abuse) of migrants. And worse for him, though he probably currently feels too powerful and immune, a transitional justice process (as especially being called for by Darfuris and the families of the martyrs- those protestors who were killed), would possibly implicate him and perhaps Burhan as well. But though they have some agendas in common, it very much seems like the RSF is not really under military control. So that dynamic is volatile and alarming if you think of the potential for violence. The military itself turning to violence is less likely I think, though I may be just comforting myself with that thought. The lower ranked soldiers have defended the revolution since April 6th and some have given their lives for it. I don’t think the military can make them shoot at protestors. I hope this is the same for both Khartoum and elsewhere. The military has always been ruthless in its killing fields in Darfur, Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains- those areas where they deem the inhabitants as a problem to be exterminated. But I don’t think the revolutionaries anywhere will settle for this anymore.
RM: Selective and targeted violence has always been the preferred methodology of the Sudanese military state, the proliferation of militias and the rise of Hemedity and the RSF is proof of that. Two points should be taken into account when conceptualizing the possibility of violence, first is that its administration in the center and the capital specifically is a new and unmastered phenomena, as opposed to the violent application of legal frameworks that also act as tax systems, so they tread with caution. The second is that it seems like the state’s monopoly over violence has been broken or at least undermined, this is possibly a combination of internal mutiny within the ranks of the security and armed forced by the younger officers combined with their inability to procure the appropriate type of weaponry in light of depleting finances and the scrutiny of the international community which paradoxically usually provides them.
The peaceful nature of the protesting has also played a role in how the uprising is being perceived and defined in the global resistance landscape. The use of force requires a degree of legitimacy usually inferred through wobbly conceptualizations as defence for reinstituting order, this proved difficult in the case of Sudan’s uprising despite the internal (Darfur cells spreading insecurity/ usual racist propaganda ) and external (Syria and yemen fate) deterring rhetorics employed.
ME: At the current moment, the only card that the FDFC have in their hands is our occupation, and our barricades. There have been multiple sly attempts to try to get rid of them, and this hasn’t worked. Lately however, just before negotiations resumed with the military council and the FDFC, revolutionaries began building barricades across the nile road, an important artery in Khartoum’s road system. It was apparently in response to a closure of a bridge that the Rapid Support Forces were in control of. But by hours, these barricades took a life of their own, and eventually even moved even beyond the control of the FDFC. The message was clear, if we don’t move towards a civilian government and the military council continues to stall, then regardless of the FDFC and even the Sudanese Professionals Association, we will up the ante until negotiations work in our favor.
In a press conference, Hemedti of the RSF declared that the revolutionaries were “bringing chaos”, and that the “chaos ends today.” The RSF was deployed, and on the 8th of ramadan protesters behind the barricades were shot and killed. Despite video evidence, and perhaps because of being accustomed to a culture of impunity, the RSF tried to deny it and even pinned it on lower ranked soldiers in the military. This only further had the general public turn on them.
All of this is to say that the RSF is quite unpredictable, at least in Khartoum. In Darfur, and the peripheries, they show their true nature. But even here, just for the sake of demonstrating their power, they are willing to kill one or two revolutionaries.
The Red Sea coast and the Bab al-Mandeb strait are important geographical vantage points that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are keen on due to their position between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean through Egypt’s Suez Canal. This is why their preferred model for Sudan is the Egyptian model of military dictatorship. What is the role of Gulf capital in Sudan and
EEK: Are there other forms of regional and international counter-revolutionary forces exerting pressure on the military council?
SA: Yes though a lot of deals weren’t public, so I’m speculating in my answer below. Saudi and UAE and also Qatar have other commercial interests. Al-Bashir’s regime gave Gulf countries land leases for terms as long as 99 years, which they are using to grow various crops. They’re not even paying for irrigation, it is apparently provided free. These deals are threatened, as is Sudan’s participation in the barbaric war in Yemen. The Saudis and Emiratis are not willing to risk their own troops in ground warfare, so it’s important for them to have the Sudanese “boots on the ground”. Many of these soldiers are reportedly children from poor families. They go to Yemen to kill and be killed. I worry about what sort of psyches are being created in that war, who will return carrying all that violence inside them. Same as what was happening in the war in South Sudan, the ugliness of it. This is scary to me in terms of a future.
But to go back to your question: Turkey also has commercial interests in Sudan that are threatened by the transition. For example, it apparently leased the Suakin port in Red Sea state, down the coast from Port Sudan. Egypt has agricultural leases too, but also, is clearly threatened by a people’s revolution in its back yard (as it seems Sudan). Sisi has used his chairmanship of the African Union to buy the military time (Sudan should have been suspended until constitutional order is restored).
The Russians were accused of pressuring the military to repress the protests more violently. If true, I’m unclear what their interest is economically. It is believed though that al-Bashir was trying to woo them, and that’s the context of his visit to Bashar Al-Assad not long before the revolution started.
The UK and the US have backed the revolution in recent months, but less in policy (at least outwardly) and more in words and visits to the sit-in. I assume their economic agendas in future will be the usual- securing favorable deals for their countries, promoting privatization etc. For the US it’s almost certainly got its eye also on the oil (should South Sudan settle its conflict, it still relies on Sudan to get the oil to the ports on the sea). Not to mention that the US must be making some calculations in relation to its counterterrorism agenda. What is intriguing of course is that the US seems to be backing the revolution while its major ally, Saudi Arabia is working against it. But the latter’s to the TMC support is active while the former’s to the revolution is not.
Finally, neighboring Chad’s authoritarian leader, Idris Déby, can not possibly be happy with what is happening in Sudan, and in fact the revolution has inspired some unrest in his own country. He has influence, especially over some groups in Darfur. And Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, is also concerned regarding the changing order. He reportedly gave shelter to Bashir’s second wife, notoriously unpopular in Sudan for her corruption. Whether Déby or Kir is actively supporting the counter revolution, I can’t say.
Otherwise- the EU is not supporting the counter-revolution per se, but its externalized borders policy since 2014 has helped make Hemedti the powerful and rogue player he is today. And while the EU has come around to supporting the demands for a civilian administration on paper, its response beyond that, concretely, is inadequate.
China was until the country’s partition, which resulted in 70% plus of the oil fields going to South Sudan, a major business partner of Bashir’s regime. I don’t know how much investment it still has in the country, and what its stance.
Finally, Sudan’s gold deposits, which are significant, are being smuggled out of the country for some time now. That’s big business, for which countries are involved.
ME: Sarah has pretty much covered all of the ground on the power players. To answer the inverse of the question, there seems to be the lack of political will to counteract the support that the military council has. The African Union demanded an immediate transition to civilian government within 15 days, and when those 15 days passed (and because of the lobbying of Egypt), the African Union only expressed “regret”. The EU and western imperialist powers in general have written strongly worded letters, but that’s pretty what they do, right? Meanwhile, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have provided material support to the military council. The difference between the two, the FDFC and the military council is that the latter have billions of dollars behind them. That’s huge leverage in negotiations, and just makes the transitional military council want to hold power for even longer.
EEK: After the Sudanese protesters publicly rejected the $3 billion dollars in aid from the UAE and Saudi Arabia and protesters continuing to refuse to leave the streets until a civilian government is formed, do you think Sudanese protesters have finally reached a level of consciousness that renders them immune to the counter-revolutionary wave or do you see a possibility of a counter-revolution forming in the near future?
SA: I believe the 3 billion was given to the military in cash and materials, part of which they tried to “buy” protestors with, but as you said, protestors kicked those trucks out. I think the level of consciousness is high. But I don’t think anybody is immune to the counter revolution. My main worries are (1) The military and/or RSF will agree to a deal only to buy time while it plots during the transition, with foreign backing, a re-take over and (2) populism. I worry that figures from the old regime will rehabilitate themselves and cast themselves in new garb. Even figures like Hemedti, unless he turns the full might of his violent machine on the protestors in the “center”. Darfurians know better, but those outside Darfur who identify as “Arab”, well, some of them are susceptible to this type of populist discourse that is dangerous, flexible and regressive. The counterrevolution may also find a window in through the need to demobilize armed movements and integrate them in the political system. We’ve seen in one country after another than armed movements often have a rocky and incomplete transition to political parties, and that the mentality of “winner takes all” and “might is right” lingers.
Even in a best case scenario where none of the above happens or we overcome it, the real challenge is how to make sure our democracy is a redistributive one, not a bourgeois one that feeds the masses elections while it secretly or openly concentrates wealth in the hands of a few. In Sudan, we idolize democracy partly because we’ve had so little of it. But the world is full of democracies where some people still starve while others throw away food at every meal.
ME: Excuse my pessimism, but despite the strides that the revolution in Sudan has made, revolutionary pessimism dictates that we have to even expect counter-revolution to happen. For one, I am quite enthusiastic about the SPA, but feel very pessimistic about the FDFC, particularly its more moderate wing: the Sudanese Congress Party and the Umma Party. I feel that it is likely Hemedti will have some kind of role to play in the transition, which means that the day we receive the civilian government is in fact the day that the counter-revolution begins. Whenever turns like these happen, there are usually celebrations, and within hours sober moments of silence and declarations by revolutionaries on the street that “the revolution has just started”. I like this attitude. We have a long way to go, and in my view, if done correctly then the next frontier is the struggle waged by the neighbourhood councils.
EEK: Do you think Abdel Fattah Burhan’s recent crackdown on many officials accused of fraud, including two brothers of Omar al-Bashir, will be enough to convince the protesters to leave the streets?
SA: Nothing will convince protestors to leave the streets while they still perceive the military to be in power. And they may well take to the streets again if some of the key demands are not met earlier rather than later in a transitional period, including transitional justice (esp. retribution for the killings and removal of regime loyalists from the civil service, an improvement in the economic conditions and an end to the wars.
ME: I agree with Sara here. The protestors have a slogan, “If it falls, of if it doesn’t, we’re staying.”, to which the chant continues, “even if it falls, we’re still staying.” It will take a lot to convince people to leave the occupation, and this is for one main reason: many other occupations understand themselves as congregations of people with a shared demand. This occupation understands itself as leverage for revolutionary leadership. It seems like a subtle difference, but this occupation understands that revolution isn’t an event but a process. As another chant puts it, “revolutionaries, freedom fighters, we’re finishing the journey”
EEK: There is talk of fractures within the opposition leaders that seem to be more preoccupied in distributing cabinet seats between themselves rather than ousting the military council. Is this the reason why the public announcement of civilian rule did not reveal cabinet members? Or is there another reason?
SA: Most definitely. Between the SPA and some of the more established parties in the coalition (e.g. Ummah, the Sudan Communist Party). In recent weeks they have been issuing confusing statements. This has been very bad for morale and made many protesters angry. The FDFC has just announced that they’ve resolved this issue and only the FDFC will release statements now, not individual parties. I do believe some parties are only grudgingly with the SPA in a coalition and don’t like having to follow it. And follow it they must because it has the legitimacy on the street they lack. For example, al-Sadig al-Mahdi of the Ummah Party, who was twice, briefly prime minister in the decades before Inqaz, clearly thinks he deserves to be the leader in the transition. He has his followers but I bet if he ran right now for president against Mohammed Nagi al-Asam, one of the SPA’s spokesmen who is a doctor in his 20s, al-Asam would win easily.
Also, some of the armed movements that are signatories to the Declaration for Freedom and Change, e.g. Sudan Liberation. Movement- Minawi, have tensions with the political parties. I believe these tensions are less about the vision of the transition, and more about which positions they want to secure for themselves. Again, I worry because our organized political class in Sudan is generally speaking, doesn’t inspire confidence (to put it mildly). I hope we don’t end up with a government more invested in squabbling than in turning the country around. Because honestly, the Sudanese people have suffered enough and deserve better.
RM: Historically speaking, governing political collations in Sudan tend to fail, the 89 coup was led and rationalised in the aftermath of the 1985 elected government failure to agree on policies which in turn caused state collapse. This, like Sara stated hardly inspires confidence given that those the same parties we inherit following every military-civilian cycle. Today, there is concern that the idea of a ‘technocratic government’ was concocted to stem and gloss over the internal rifts of the DFC. The transitional non-alliance myth we have been sold, should it materialise, is quite dangerous because it undermines the accountability of government to those governed supposedly through a political contract, reducing power relations to concepts of ‘management’ as per the neoliberal ideal.
EEK: There seems to be a general consensus in the Arab World that the hopes and dreams of the first wave of Arab uprisings are now being materialised by the Sudanese and Algerian protests. How important is solidarity with the Syrian, Moroccan, Egyptian and other uprising around the region?
SA: It’s critical. We Sudanese have always been seen ambivalently by the Arab World. Many if not the majority perhaps of our population thinks of itself as Arab, yet the Arab world, due in part to racism, has often treated Sudan in a patronising way. Perhaps this revolution has righted some of those perceptions, and made it clear that we all have something to learn from one another. Leftist Arabs eventually began to pay attention and to support us and many are genuinely rooting for us. The first wave of uprisings was a turning point for us. It reminded us of our own history of revolt (which goes way back before 2010/2011). But it also expanded our imagination. The kind of organisation on the ground in the Tahrir Square occupation you can see partly reflected in the sit-in/occupation now of the area outside the Military General Command in Khartoum. The Arab uprisings came at a devastating moment for us- the year in which our country was being partitioned. While some northerners like myself wholly stand by the right of the southern Sudanese for self-determination, especially given their criminal and racist relegation to second-class citizenship by “Arab” Sudanese society, in my heart I believe the answer is not more nations, but greater equality. Otherwise we are just replacing one prison for another. We in the north also lost hope in change from inside the regime, or from the international community, after that. We went through increasing economic deterioration and seemingly never-ending wars. We became utterly depressed. And we saw the counter-revolutions win (for now) in most of the region. But we also know from our history that even failed uprisings change our subjectivities, and leave traces in the form of organizational knowledge, networks, symbolism, songs and stories, both oral and written, that we draw from. I actually think hunger is what started the revolution, but organizing is what turned that spark into a massive fire in which everyone threw their grievances as kindle : poverty, racism, lawlessness, dispossession, patriarchal oppression. The first wave of Arab uprisings taught us some cautionary lessons also, for example about how fast and deep the counter-revolutionary attacks come, and that we should not dismantle our street movements too soon because they are all we’ve got. Looking to the future now, on a very strategic level, we need to support each other (not just in the Arab world but in the Middle East and Africa more broadly) because every victory makes the ground beneath our own revolutionary currents more firm. And every dictator and repressive regime that remains standing works to undermine our movements across the region. Most importantly, we need to move from nationalism to internationalism. This is a tall order for this region, I know. But we must. It’s ok to have pride in your nation, I do, but nationalism is a two-edged sword. It simultaneously mobilizes and blinkers. Part of moving to internationalism, as a first step, is stopping the competition on who is suffering the most. Our sufferings are not unique; our oppressions are shared and so must be our resistance if we are to prevail.This is not to stay we must resist exactly the same way. What Sudan and Algeria show us the power of drawing on our unique cultural and historical register to inform our resistance tactics. Without songs and poetry, our dialects, the Sudanese revolution may not have been able to sustain itself on the streets for cloee to half a year now.
RM: The internationalisation of the struggle is important to identify and address the root cause of the crisis, historically the colonial structure and more recently a contemporary neoliberal order that has subdued the state to the whims of foreign capital. Whereas every struggle has its own history and particularities they all share the commonality of labouring under the spectre of the industrial military complex. Its soft arm, International Financial Institutions a fancy term for money lending sharks working under the guise of international relations and its globalised institutions, the World Bank and the IMF have prescribed a deep neoliberal path of privatization and labour peculiarity, these two policy formulas have altered the social contracts in a way that makes it impossible for states in the global south to stand accountable to its constituency. The more belligerent arm of the neoliberal order, military interventions and the armanamnet of society to maintain enclaves of power and money has been the prescribed path for some of the aforementioned countries. Sudan’s long history of neoliberal soft policies has lead it down the path of its belligerent strain. How else would it be possible in the aftermath of a revolution, for center stage to be occupied by our constant violent periphery politics, while financially backed by the same powers that saw the destruction of the region.
Here, its is necessary to emphasis that constructive solidarity starts at home, the Sudanese middle-class has had a tendency to overlook the periphery. Globalisation had made it possible for them, through identity politics, to associate with an international mobile middle-class that shares their values and aspirations. Debates around Afro-Arab recognition are highly exclusive and inbuilt into a geographically restricted configuration of Sudanese nationalism, designed to fit the international and regional narrative more than find solutions to questions on the relationship between citizenship and identity. In a recent piece Magdi Elgizouli had correctly highlighted that al-Bashir was only being punished for failing to deliver the kind of lifestyle the urban middle-class was accustomed to, never mind these benefits were acquired through violent extraction in the periphery.
EEK: The Sudanese diaspora around the world has played an essential role in spreading the message of protesters back home and sustaining on Sudanese embassies and representatives around the world. How crucial was this participation and what would the role can the diaspora play in the future?
SA: The diaspora’s role has been critical. To understand that, it’s important to understand that the millions of Sudanese abroad mostly fled or left the country due to political persecution, economic devastation, war-related physical insecurity or any combination of the above. Even those who are more privileged, i.e. who left by “choice” and who had “marketable skills”, hate al-Bashir’s regimefor making the country a fixture at the bottom of so many tables of socio-economic indicators, and for making the Sudanese passport a liability. The Sudanese diaspora mobilized almost as fast as the protestors inside Sudan. Our role was especially to get the word out through social media, to lobby journalists to cover it, politicians to support it etc. But we also worked to first and foremost show the protestors inside that we are with them. We organized our own protests, info sessions, exposed ambassadors. We raised money for the injured to be treated, and for Ramadan to make sure protestors can stay on the street. Once the international media began to cover it, around the time al-Bashir fell, we had to correct a lot of misconceptions and misinformation. Many in the diaspora also wrote, made music or artistic interventions in support of the revolution. In terms of the diaspora’s desired role, it is to return and help rebuild the country. If a genuine transition occurs (not certain at all this will happen, since things are very precarious), my guess is some of the diaspora will return, others won’t. People have built lives and raised families elsewhere, so it’s complicated. But what’s more complicated is that the educated diaspora is asked to contribute through technical knowledge. That makes sense and is fine. But this “technocratic” vision of the future is also a form of neoliberalism. And neoliberalism has created misery even in those countries in the “civilized world” that so many in Sudan aspire to emulate. So I see that some of our role to share that too, and to help build a more powerful vision capable of delivering the revolution’s three demands: freedom, peace and justice. That’s a battle whose outcome will be what makes the difference between an uprising that topples a regime, and a revolution that transforms society.
RM: The Sudanese diaspora played a tremendous role in terms of advocating for the success of the uprising, this work has had a large effect on the safeguarding as well as the continuity of internal mobilization. The financial campaigns provided a lifeline for the sit-in, now in its second month. Biweekly fund raisers collecting half a million dollars or more were used to supplement the basic needs of the protestors from food to life saving health care, these initiatives served more than sustenance as they reactivated old bonds between those who have left and their institutions back home be them familial, professional, geographic or whatever cause the contributors chose to acknowledge with their aid. This gave agency to both parties, a sense of national responsibility towards one another that could easily serve in the future as a constructive framework to rift the ethnic, geographical and generational divide.
Another diaspora particularity that served the revolution is that in the aftermath of the NCP’s repressive policies, many politicians either fled or were exiled to western capitals, these became external political hubs for the largest political parties and movements now part of the DFC. Thanks to access they were able to advocate on behalf of their constituencies back home, providing much needed political advocacy which set the international narrative on Sudan in its right course. These actions were not only confined to high level meetings and petitions but included some old fashioned protesting and public work across Europe and America. Sudanese professionals in the diaspora, with help from their colleagues flooded the public media with accounts on Sudan, some media and academic accounts proved informative even for those in country.
There is a risk however of this support turning into ‘intervention’ especially with the resistance narrative being deployed in terms of achieving liberal democracy as an ends and not a means of achieving rights to equal socioeconomic access of the state’s resources. The diaspora, comes with its own risk of neoliberal ideals about citizenship, consumption and cosmopolitanism, already we are witnessing phenomenons where the diaspora is nominating their technocratic caders for the civilian transitional period, people they view as educated and capable but who are also of their class and social circles, their ideology of success is that of apolitical western acquired qualifications, commendable but not what Sudan needs right now. Some of the most worrying trends that I noted over the past few months engaging in public work abroad in support of Sudan is how the older generation, specially those who still possess political clout are trying to shape the outcomes of current political processes through referencing their pre 89 experiences.
It has proved a struggle to push against the ‘qualified technocrat’ logic despite the exclusive class dynamic it employs, the diaspora are at risk of acting as it main fodder if they are not careful.
EEK: How do you see the relation with South Sudan if a civilian government is formed?
SA: The South Sudanese regime is, like Bashir’s regime, a nightmare. So any civilian, democratic government worth its salt can not in good conscious have good relations with it. But there will be dialogue I imagine since reunification is a not so secret wish of the revolutionary masses. Either way, I hope the civilian administration cultivates care and protection for the South Sudanese, as opposed to their government. Northern Sudan helped create the nightmare they find themselves in, and dispossessed them for generations. A public acknowledgment of that, restitution even, to me is key. But this is my own dream, I don’t see it reflected in the revolutionary discourses. The least a civilian administration can do though is restore citizenship to south Sudanese living in the north, and anyone who wants to return to Sudan. Right now those people are living in limbo, as strangers in their own land. And these are some of the most dispossessed and precarious communities in Sudan. They have not managed to make collective demands in the revolution even though many participate in it as individuals. And I don’t see what I suggest above in the Declaration for Freedom and Change or reflected in the proposed interim constitution. The focus is on removing obstacles to reunification, but for me, this is a critical first step, and the decision would have to rest with the South Sudanese.
RM: Both countries rely on each other for political stability, the formula upon with this dependency is built on is unfortunately corrupt. The elite of Sudan need the south’s oil revenue, the southern elite require the experience and resource of Sudan security state to keep their many fractionated militias in line and at bay as pronounced in the recent peacekeeping attempts brokered in the South. However, as Sara mentioned the politics of Sudan and South Sudan aren’t exclusive to elite politicking, transnational kinship, internal migration and displacement, peripheral relations of production all place the south sudanese interests at the heart of Sudan’s struggle to achieve structural reform.
The reunification agenda is much more complex that reinstating a civilian government, it runs the risk of presenting the South Sudan crisis as one product of the islamist security state whereas it is much older and reflective of Sudan’s postcolonial class hierarchy in which ethnicity is situated unfavourably.
EEK: Where do things stand?
SA: The FDFC has been pairing up negotiating with the military council with the strategy of “revolutionary escalation”, with the threat of a general strike if there is no rapid progress. On Monday May 13, the negotiation teams made headway- agreeing on the structure of government and roles. That night however, protestors on the edge of the sit-im were violently attacked, leading to mass injuries and some casualties. This has caused a political crisis and an atmosphere of anger, fear and defiance. Negotiations continued the next day and made headway on some issues, notably the composition of the transitional parliament and the length of the transitional period (the compromise is three years). The FDFC also demanded the military investigate who killed the protestors. The FDFC was acting under pressure from the masses on this, since many felt the negotiations should be suspended until the killers are brought to justice. The RSF is suspected of carrying out the attack, and as such, the military was asked to keep them away from the area of the sit-in. After making progress that day in the negotiations, the military all of sudden suspended negotiations today. To me, it indicates an internal crisis. My guess is there is tension between the RSF and the military, but this is as of yet unsubstantiated.
Meanwhile, the FDFC, esp. the SPA, are spending a lot of energy urging people to keep the revolution peaceful. They have also decided on the borders of the sit-in/occupation, which has expanded over the last month to cover a massive area well beyond the military HQ. They are trying to reign it and concentrate it so its borders can be secured and better defended.
RM: An internal rift in how the revolutionary process towards civilian ship is managed can be discerned if you look closely, this to me is perhaps the most accurate measurement of the competing and uneven power dynamics within the revolution’s camp as well as in relation to the TMC and other counter revolutionary forces as well as their implications post revolution. A preoccupation with the spectre of political islam as a tool of governance amongst the liberal left has suppressed alternative narratives on redistribution in relation to antique power relations.
For many at the sit-in at the barracks the outcomes and style in which the negotiations were conducted did not meet their revolutionary thresholds, early calls to boycott and scale up the peaceful resistance through a country wide political strike that brings things to a halt was perceived to embolden the popular’s authority sending a message to counter revolution camp that winning through concessions is impossible. The DFC was more reluctant to scale up things despite the public signals and opted to test the political grounds instead. Where it isn’t lost on the public the unseriousness of the TMC in handing over power in good faith, its leaders should be able to recognize this more clearly. The absence of a formal narrative in response to these pertinent issues of what model to employ and what the limits of concessions should be as well as a channel to communicate the youth’s frustration is both problematic and opportune, mostly because it creates a space for the masses to question all elite politics left and right in relation to their aspirations and choices. After weeks of disgruntlement among the revolting masses the SPA called for a mass strike after their latest negotiation round faltered. The response from almost all sectors overnight has been overwhelming, which speaks to a collective sense of responsibility and resistance amongst the Sudanese, a strong bargaining chip if used correctly. While the political strike no doubt will secure concessions on the part of the TMC the DFC must be strategic in terms of how they will use the last card under their belt. The strike has provided a renewed opportunity, especially the youth (40 and younger) to assert their contribution and voice in relation to the developments, whether to the DFC or Hemedity, their signed signs speak loud.
- Mohammed Elnaiem is the minister of Foreign and Domestic Affairs in 400+1, a black liberation organization based in the United States. He is also a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where he studies the relationship between capitalism, slavery and patriarchy.
- Sara Abbas is a doctoral candidate in political science and a feminist who researches social movements in Sudan. She has written for Transition magazine, OpenDemocracy and The Nation. The views expressed are her own and do not represent those of institutions she is affiliated with.
- Raga Makawi is a Sudanese comrade who works for Zed Books and is based in London.
Interview posted on Historical Materialsim May 27, 2019
- Arabian Peninsula
- Book review
- Human rights
- Middle East
- North Africa
- Saudi Arabia