It would be hard to overstate the bravery of the Sudanese people — youth, women, professionals, unionists, leftists, small farmers, industrial workers, produce sellers in the open-air markets — who won the overthrow of 30-year dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
But it would also be hard to overstate the danger threatening their goal of real, lasting change — because the blood-soaked military that backed Bashir’s brutal regime is still in charge.
“Freedom, peace, justice!” The mass protests began in the union town of Atbara, a little over 200 miles from Khartoum, the capital city. A drastic spike in the price of bread was the immediate spark, but economic conditions in general had become intolerable for workers and the poor, thanks in large part to austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund. A United Nations program estimates that half of Sudan’s population lives below the poverty line.
The rebellion is political as well as economic. From the start, the people called for Bashir’s ouster and civilian rule. A common chant, rhyming in Arabic, reflects this: “Freedom, peace, and justice! Revolution is the choice of the people!”
The backbone of the revolt is the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a union umbrella group of doctors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, engineers, pharmacists and artists, joined more recently by factory and railroad workers. The SPA is central to the broad leading alliance called the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change (FDFC), which includes the Communist Party and other opposition parties.
Among other groups in the FDFC are the youth-led Girifna Movement and two feminist organizations, the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative and the Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups. The FDFC coalition demands that 40 percent of legislative seats be reserved for women and calls for an end to all forms of sexist oppression.
Women’s issues and leadership are so key to the uprising that it is popularly called “a women’s revolution.” Their militant activism, like that of many other groups who are rebelling, extends back through the decades of Bashir’s rule. And this is despite legal hindrances under Sharia law and fierce repression, including rape and torture, by the military.
Downfall of a dictator. The defiance that started in December 2018 was swiftly met with violence and arrests by the state. But the people would not be denied.
They continued to mobilize even after Bashir declared a state of emergency on February 22, 2019, dissolving the government and replacing state governors with military and national security personnel. On April 6, the anniversary of the overthrow of an earlier dictator, tens of thousands of people protested near the army headquarters in Khartoum.
Agents with the feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) attempted to disperse people with tear gas, but failed, as new waves of protesters overwhelmed the site.
Urged by the Sudanese Professionals Association to stay the course, the huge crowd did just that, and the rally became a days-long sit-in, organized in shifts. They persevered even though the security forces killed dozens of people.
At that point, military leaders decided that to save the regime, they needed to chop off its head and symbol, Bashir. The military deposed him on April 11 and put themselves in charge, saying it would be for a two-year transitional period.
A deal with the devil. In recent years, the Sudanese military has left a trail of bodies and blood from Darfur in the west of the country to outside its borders, in Yemen and elsewhere. With only brief interruptions of civilian rule, it has been in power in Sudan for 50 years, the partner to one autocrat after another.
Its deadliest wing is the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), essentially a new name for the infamous Janjaweed militias. It is responsible for genocide in Darfur and for crushing insurgencies in other parts of Sudan. It is commanded by a butcher named Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti or Hemeti.
A prime demand of the rebellion all along was an end to military rule. So, after Bashir was booted, protests continued, demanding that the Transitional Military Council give way to a civilian government. General Hemedti, although officially the council’s number two man, is believed to be calling the shots.
On June 3, the RSF attacked a protest camp in Khartoum. During the raid and a two-week crackdown that followed, they massacred at least 128 people, dumping bodies into the Nile. The violence included rapes of 70 people or more.
After the main assault on June 3, the ruling military council shut down Sudan’s internet for a month. Despite this, news about the horrifying events spread around the world.
In July, Ethiopia and the African Union stepped in to sponsor negotiations between the opposition and the military. The two sides announced the outlines of a power-sharing agreement on July 5. The deal would create a joint council for a transitional period of a little more than three years designed to lead to elections, with a military leader heading the council for the first 21 months.
After all the deaths and suffering, many Sudanese saw this as the beginning of the end of the turmoil, and celebrated in the streets. But many others were wary of where this pact would lead — especially after seeing the military hijack the revolution in Egypt, first in 2011 and then in a U.S.-backed coup in 2013.
They are right to be wary. Some rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers have supported the protesters, but the heads of Sudan’s military have no interest in a peaceful, democratic Sudan. They are not to be trusted for a minute, let alone 21 months.
And perhaps the negotiators on the side of the rebellion are having second thoughts; as of this writing in mid-July, they have postponed signing the agreement several times.
The Sudanese fighters for freedom have sacrificed a tremendous amount to get this far. But to stop with the military in charge would mark the end of the road — at least for now. To continue on, they need all the international support workers, feminists, and radicals can give them.
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