In December 2018, protesters took to the streets in response to austerity measures[i] imposed by then Sudanese president Omar al Bashir. Bashir had discontinued government sanctioning of products like bread and petrol, with the intention of relieving the country’s economic decline and 70% hyperinflation, a precipitate of political incompetence, corruption and the three quarter loss of oil output following the secession of South Sudan.
The demonstrations began in the East and spread to the capital city of Khartoum, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), made up of health-workers, lawyer, and teachers, among others, emerged as the orchestrating body. On 19th February Bashir declared a national emergency and banned all unauthorized gatherings, giving the military permission to quall protests.
On 6th April protesters staged a sit-in outside military headquarters, toting the slogan “bread and dignity”. The chosen date was evidently in commemoration of the 1985 coup in which people were also protesting bread prices and lack of democratic rights. On 11th April the military declared that the dictator of 30 years had been overthrown. They tried to impose the Vice President Ahmed Ibn Aouf but he was rejected by the masses and forced to stand down within the day. Next a seven-member Transitional Military Council (TMC) was formed, headed by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. The council declared itself a safeguard to order and security, but the general population anticipated their authority as a re-articulation of the old regime, vowing to continue with the demonstrations until a civilian government was instated.
Throughout the month of Ramadan[ii], protesters occupyied the streets by day and after the Iftar (break fast) meal in the evenings, held political speeches and debates, formulating the direction of the revolution and further educating one another on the country’s history, dictatorial leadership and the imperialist forces at play. Moral was high as people chanted “a civilian government or a revolution forever”. The protests became simultaneously a celebration of Sudan’s culture and history, the old blue, yellow and green flag, which had been exchanged for the pan-Arab colours after a military junta in 1970, was reintroduced in murals[iii] on the walls of protest areas.
The prominence of women in the protests inspired a patriotic remembrance of the ancient Kush kingdom and its Kandaka (Nubian queens), who had once ruled Ethiopia, Sudan and part of Egypt. This evocation by male protesters however was recieved critically[iv] by women, who saw it as unnecessarily elevating and essentially exclusionary, on top of its glaring hypocracy in light of the extreme gender inequality in a society where almost 90% of women still undergo female genital mutilation, and medics having reported[v] rape and abuse of women throughout the protests. Sexism was manifest even within the purportedly progressive SPA, who received serious backlash when they called for a day of street cleaning instead of protest action, and entreated upon women in particular because they “care more about it”.
Conflict and Negotiations
Discussions took place throughout Ramadan between the TMC and the Alliance for Freedom and Change – the umbrella group leading the protest movement. The opposing parties agreed upon a three-year period of transition to civilian rule, and for the new government structure to consist of a sovereign council, a cabinet and a legislative body. On 3rd June however the TMC retracted all agreements with the Alliance and declared instead that new elections would take place after 9 months. On the same day the military were sent in to suppress the demonstrators, along with the Arab nationalist paramilitary group known as Junjaweed. Live rounds were fired and cellphone footage compilations reveal the close range shooting, beating and targeting of medical personnel. Deputy-head of the transitional military council, General Mohamed Hamden Dagalo, ‘Hemetti’, is widely credited with authorizing the attack. In the aftermath the TMC attributed blame to vigilantes and expressed their “sorrow for the way events escalated”, that it had been “trouble makers and petty criminals” that were targeted. They announced the death toll at 61 but doctors reported it at 128. Doctors also reported hundreds injured and expected many to still be unaccounted for, as bodies were being pulled out the River Nile.
In the aftermath, Alliance leaders declared “total civil disobedience” and mass strikes ensued. In an attempt to help broker an agreement, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed flew to Sudan for discussions. On 11th June the prime minister’s envoy announced an agreement to cease strikes in exchange for resuming negotiations and the releasing of political prisoners.
Forces Behind the Counter - Revolution
Sudan’s military council received significant support from Saudi-Arabia in their attempts to suppress the revolution. This can in part be attributed to their fear of a successful revolution catalyzing the same in Saudi-Arabia, especially considering that when the Algerian dictator Bouteflica was ousted by the people after a decade of rule, it inspired Sudan to do the same with Bashir. The second of Saudi-Arabia’s concerns is that should Sudan become a democracy it would likely mean they withdraw their military support of Saui-Arabia’s war in Yemen.
After Al-Bashir was deposed on 11th April, Saudi-Arabia sent Sudan 3 billion in aid, 500 million deposited in the Sudanese central bank and the rest in the form of food, medicine and petroleum products. The aid arrived amidst the fraught negotiations that took place between the TMC and the opposition groups demanding civilians should lead a two year transition period. The hand-out alleviated economic pressures on the TMC to some degree. Furthermore, in his corruption trial in August, Al-Bashir admitted[vi] to receiving 90 million dollars in cash from Saudi Royals. 7.8 million was found in the ex-president’s residence after his removal, which he revealed to be a portion of the 25 million given him by Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, to be spent outside state budget. These ties to Saudi Arabia must be accounted for when interpreting the militant backlash against the movements to create a democratic government.
The support provided by Saudi Arabia expresses their fear of ideological influence, the Sudan revolution itself having been catalyzed by the removal of Algerian dictator Bouteflica (on 3rd April 2018?). Saudi Arabia’s concern is that should Sudan become democratic they would likely withdraw their military aid for the war being waged in Yemen. This would greatly jeopardize the Saudi’s position, and situated right on Yemen’s border and home to at least 8 million Yemeni, a disruption in Yemen’s dictatorial regime could precipitate a similar uprising in Saudi Arabia.
International response was largely critical, the US and UK holding the TMC entirely responsible. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt however publicly urged discussion but did not condemn the military violence. Hemetti met with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman Saud to affirm that Sudan would continue sending troops to Yemen.
Will the Revolution Succeed?
The negotiations between protest and military leaders resolved on a power-sharing deal[vii] that will run Sudan until elections are held in just over three years. The protest movement had to concede considerably, the transition entailing military leadership for the first 21 months before the instatement of a civilian for the last 18. The ruling council will consist of five civilians, five military and an eleventh agreed upon by both parties.
Some view the move as a positive and concrete movement towards a free and democratic Sudan. Spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association Mohand Hamid, described the deal in an interview as “a breakthrough” and “a success and a great step forward toward establishing democracy in Sudan”.
The head of the Military council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, told the TV chanel Al Haddath that “this is the agreement the Sudanese have been waiting for the independence” from Brittain in 1956. The Arab League have also welcomed the deal. On the other hand Payton Knopf, an adviser to the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace, claimed that “It essentially just gives time and space for the military and Hemeti to further consolidate their power.” The Arab League has also welcomed the deal.
The negotiations also involved discussion around the fate of the Rapid Support Forces, concluding that the forces will be directly overseen by the Sudanese Army. Concerning the prosecution of military officials responsible for the numerous deaths during the protests, Mr Hamid explained that the agreement stipulates that immunity of convicted military officials can be lifted based on a vote by the legislative body, which is made up of representatives from pro democracy movements.
[v] Byaruhanga, C. (15 June 2019). Rape and Sudan’s revolution: ‘They were crying and screaming’. Sudan, Khartoum: BBC Africa. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48634150 [Accessed 20 August 2019]
[vi] Walsh, D (19 August 2019) Al-Bashir Trial in Sudan Opens with Claim of $90 Million Payment From Saudis The New York Times., [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/19/world/africa/al-bashir-sudan-corruption.html?searchResultPosition=4 [Accessed 20 August 2019]
[vii] Rashwan, N. (4 August 2019). Sudan Factions Sign Agreement Paving Way for Civilian Rule. The New York Times, [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/04/world/africa/sudan-agreement.html?searchResultPosition=5 [Accessed 20 August 2019]