WIDE ANGLE / People vs. power
Popular protests and a strategic shift amongst the security chiefs turned the tide against President Bashir’s 30-year-old regime in April. The military regime that replaced him opened fire on protesters demanding civilian rule
Sudan’s popular protests and a strategic shift amongst the security chiefs turned the tide against President Bashir’s 30-year-old regime. The securocrats do not want to hand over power and have turned their guns on peaceful protesters
Thirty years almost to the day after Chinese pro-democracy protesters met tanks and gunfire in Tiananmen Square, Sudan’s military men were planning a crackdown of their own. At dawn on on 3 June, the junta’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) raided the camp near the military headquarters in Khartoum where a continuous sit-in had been going on since the fall of President Omar al-bashir. As soldiers shot at the protesters, reportedly killing more than 100 civilians and injuring hundreds more in the worst violence since Bashir’s departure, video and audio flashed around the world, prompting rapid and categorical condemnation.
Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-burhan, the leader of the Transitional Military Council
(TMC), announced that all deals were off the table with the opposition coalition. For him, the sit-in was over; elections would be held within nine months. He blamed the protesters for the failure of the transition process.
Despite the outcry from civil rights groups and condemnation by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and the United States, activists have no great expectations of outside forces coming to their aid. “We have met the guns and the teargas with our bare hands,” said Omer al-digair, leader of the Sudanese Congress Party, which is part of the Declaration for Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) coalition.
A professional coalition
Digair, as part of the DFCF, had been negotiating with the military over the division of power on a supreme council that was meant to oversee the transition to civil rule. The composition of the DFCF offers some clues as to the confluence of factors that led the country to revolution. Uniting professionals, trade unionists and students, it also has the backing of those campaigning against Islamist groups such as the former ruling National Congress Party. Repressive of women and political freedoms, these are seen as part of Sudan’s entrenched ‘deep security state’.
“The number of young people and the women who form the backbone of this revolution, that’s a very notable thing,” says Digair. Activists in Khartoum say the social gains this year, empowering women and youth, cannot be rolled back even if the military obstructs a civilian-led transition. Now there are plans for a sustained civil disobedience campaign, seen as a way of spreading the revolution.
For Digair, who was president of the University of Khartoum Students Union in 1985, when an intifada toppled the Jaafar Nimeiri junta, this year’s demonstrations have historical resonance. The overthrow of that military leader paved the way for credible elections and a civilian government, although it only lasted for four years.
When the Sudan Professionals’ Association, the coordinators of nationwide protests, called for a mass sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum on 6 April to mark the anniversary of the overthrow of Nimeiri, Muhammad Osman, a communications consultant, thought that maybe a few, perhaps ten, thousand would turn up. “I went there myself to take a look. It was staggering. There were hundreds of thousands of people quietly sitting outside Alqiyada al Amaah, the military headquarters and defence ministry [...] the top security zones in the capital. By the end of the day, there were over 600,000 people there […]. There was this feeling of safety in numbers.”
The protests, however, had their source 350km from Khartoum in the eastern city of Atbara, and in Bashir’s catastrophic mismanagement of his country’s economy. Debt, military spending, the loss of oil revenue from the seccession of South Sudan and US sanctions caused the government to make difficult choices. It increased the price of bread, which lit the spark in December 2018. This is why the sight of a train bringing protesters from Atbara, the cradle of the revolution, to Khartoum will remain one of the most enduring images of Sudan’s recent history.
Activists from war zones across the country – Darfur, Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile – also arrived to tell the Khartoum activists about conditions in the hinterland. Nahid Gabralla of the Seema Center had been working with victims of the Darfur war. She said that she had gone underground at the beginning of the year, knowing she was likely to be a target for the security forces. “We have organised this revolution at the level of neighbourhood committees which provide services,” she says.
The organisers set up road blocks with checkpoints. They also set up committees to organise street cleaning operations. Doctors and a local pharmaceutical company offered free medical treatment.
At the same time, the myriad forces ostensibly under the command of President Omar alBashir started making their own calculations. For much of his 30 years in power, Bashir had fostered competing military factions to stop a rival mounting a putsch against him in the capital. That strategy was unravelling fast. There are three big groups: the Sudan Armed Forces, home to Bashir’s original base in the
Protesters from Atbara, where Sudan’s protest movement began, travel by train and on foot to a sit-in at the military headquarters in Khartoum
(Top photo) Demonstrators carry placards with photos of martyrs of the revolution – protesters who were killed during the sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum. Meanwhile, effigies of the regime’s hardliners are hung from a bridge (bottom right). The protests were marked by a wide range of people from all parts of the country
Mohamed Naji al-assam, a protest leader, speaks at a press conference