One year after Bashir's downfall, Sudan's revolutionaries sleep with one eye open

One year after Bashir's downfall, Sudan's revolutionaries sleep with one eye open
In-depth: Hopes for peace and justice remain unclear a year after the start of Sudan's revolution, Mel Plant writes.
12 min read
20 December, 2019
Protesters toppled Omar al-Bashir's regime after nearly 30 years [Getty]
The story of Sudan's revolution began not on 18 December 2018, with the bread protests, but in mid-1989, with the treacherous coup led by Omar al-Bashir against a democratically elected government. Bashir would go on to rule for three decades with abject brutality.

Knowing that popular uprisings had previously unseated two presidents, Bashir and the National Islamic Front led by his Islamist ally Hassan al-Turabi were keen to ensure that their own turn in power would not be short-lived.

The then 45-year-old army colonel and his henchmen were quick to introduce a raft of new oppressive measures after they seized power in the June military coup that year.

Dozens of opponents, including deposed Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, were locked up, thousands more purged from the military and civilian apparatuses, the independent press crushed and an extreme interpretation of Sharia law imposed on the country.

Crucially, the new regime cracked down on the voices that had led the country's 1969 and 1985 uprisings by barring the powerful trade unions and lobotomising universities.

Mahdi was not alone in his cell in the capital's notorious Kobar prison. Alongside Communist Party leader Mohammad Ibrahim Nugd, the former prime minister shared his new abode with Turabi himself - one of the two men leading the coup plot.

Indeed, in an unconvincing attempt to appear as a victim of the coup, Turabi would remain in Kobar until December, after which the true brutality of the new regime was unveiled.

The first to taste what was to come was Magdi Mahgoub, a young businessman accused of possessing foreign currency recently made illegal by the new regime.

He was sentenced to death in a Khartoum show trial and swiftly executed by hanging in a case that continues to provoke heartfelt outrage. Tragically, Mahgoub's mother told Al-Jazeera earlier this year that the cash found during an unwarranted search on their home had been left behind by Mahgoub's late father as an inheritance for his children.

Two others - a Coptic Christian pilot named Gergis al-Qus and a southern Sudanese student named Arkinglo Ajado - were reportedly hung to death that December for foreign currency possession, the first of many to be executed on similar trumped-up charges.

In the years to follow, many more would be spirited away into the so-called 'Ghost Houses' and tortured by the security forces. Thousands of women would be sentenced to flogging for violations of the cruel and puritanical new public order law, which policed women's dress and behaviour.

Dissent would be crushed with an iron fist. Rebellion would be punished with a bloodthirsty ethnic cleansing campaign and numerous more crimes against humanity.

Omar al-Bashir addresses a rally, 1992 [Getty]

Thus an entire generation of Sudanese grew up under the Bashir regime, not believing that the dictator would ever face trial in their own country, let alone be extradited to the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted on charges of war crimes and genocide.

Just shy of 30 years after taking power, Bashir was unseated in another bloodless coup on April 11 this year, four months after protests against his regime began to spread across the nation. Now, on the anniversary of Sudan's revolution, Bashir sits in the same Kobar prison, where he awaits trial on charges relating to the 1989 coup.

He is also expected to be charged with crimes against humanity committed throughout the course of his rule.

Last week, Bashir was sentenced to 10 years in prison over the possession of foreign funds. As Sudan's criminal code says no-one above the age of 70 can serve a jail term, Bashir will spend two years in a "correctional" facility instead.

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His sentencing is in many ways a mirror on Sudan's fledgling transition to democracy. For some, the sentencing is a step on the road to justice for the victims of his regime, many of whom never imagined Bashir would face his day in court.

For others - especially those recalling the legacy of Magdi Mahgoub - it is a slap in the face. 

Prosecutors also plan to charge Bashir with more serious offences, including torture and crimes against humanity in the Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan conflict zones. 

But many Sudanese struggle to trust in the new justice system. That distrust spans beyond the treatment of Bashir to the defining issues of the transitional period: to transitional justice, prospects of peace and the very nature of the new Sudan.

Read more: 'A portal into tomorrow's Sudan': Inside the sit-in that brought down Sudan's dictator Bashir

Since the ecstatic ousting of Bashir in April, Sudanese protesters have been taken on a rollercoaster ride rapidly cycling from moments of joy and hope to fragments of despair and loss.

Demonstrators were overjoyed when their outrage at military rule prompted General Awad Ibn Ouf to resign after just a day, but spirits were dampened when repeated attacks on demonstrators hampered power-sharing negotiations. 

Having learned a lesson from Egypt's revolution, Sudanese protesters were resolute that they would remain on the streets - and at the sit-in that prompted Bashir's ousting - until a civilian-led government came to power. 

Near the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, forces in military fatigues raided the sit-in camp with exceeding brutality, beating protesters with sticks and raping scores of people, including medics.

Sudan plunged into an internet blackout as observers struggled to understand the tragedy of what had just occurred. It later emerged that around 130 had been killed, with dozens of bodies weighed down with bricks and thrown into the Nile to obscure the massacre.

Activists point to the role of Mohammad Hamdan Daglo, a former camel trader who helms the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an officialised offshoot of the Janjaweed militias of Darfur accused of perpetrating war crimes, including mass rape and genocide.

Eyewitnesses and human rights organisation say RSF troops led the horrific Ramadan raid.

At the time, their commander was deputy leader of the transitional military council then governing Sudan.

Despite the deep wound of the massacre, protest leaders were able to come to a final power-sharing agreement with the military in August, inaugurating a new joint civilian-military sovereign council and a civilian government headed by a former United Nations economist who promises an end to conflict and crucial reform for the economy and human rights. 

Hundreds of thousands of people joined the Khartoum sit-in between April and June [Getty]

"We have achieved many milestones," said Ahmad Shomokh said, a 29-year-old IT specialist from Khartoum, noting the appointment of two women, including one Coptic Christian, on the sovereign council, and the landmark selection of the country's first woman Chief Justice and Foreign Minister

"This is a huge victory and step towards enforcing one of our revolution's slogans, 'justice'," he added. "These are monumental steps in our people's history that are only possible because of our revolution which was lead by our women and youth."

Activists tell The New Arab that Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is doing the best that he can, considering the circumstances.

They say he has already made significant progress in rehabilitating Sudan's international image and great strides towards Khartoum's removal from the United States state sponsors of terrorism list, a major hurdle to lifting the country out of its economic crisis. 

At home, Hamdok's government has repealed the reviled public order law and signalled plans to scrap blasphemy and apostasy laws.

Conflict-torn areas of the country's south have been opened up to international aid for the first time in years. Arbitrary arrests and assaults on press freedom and the freedom of assembly have almost altogether ceased, according to Ahmed Alzobeir, Sudan researcher for Amnesty International.

Read more: Little hope for change among Sudanese refugees fleeing violence in Darfur

But the civilian-led government is hamstrung on many matters by the power-sharing deal that places major decisions in the hands of the sovereign council. Although it has a small civilian majority, the council will be led by the military for the first 21 months of transition.

In the top spot is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, previously leader of the military council that seized power from Bashir. His deputy is none other than Daglo, who is better known by his nickname Hemedti.

The prominence of Burhan and Hemedti - both accused of complicity, at the very least, in the killing of protesters, as well as war crimes in Darfur - in the new regime casts doubt on the possibilities of transitional justice for many. 

Those killed during the June 3 sit-in massacre "are only a fraction of the deaths he's ordered and caused over the years", a Sudanese activist who did not wish to be named said of Hemedti, who began his rise to the upper echelons of power as a commander in the Janjaweed. 

"He had years to hone his skills in Darfur, so his victims there are in the thousands," the activist claimed. "As long as Hemedti is in power, there will be no retribution for those killed before and after the revolution."

Thousands participate in a vigil for the victims of the June 3 massacre in Bahri, Khartoum, in July [Getty]

Such sentiments are understandable when egregious rights violations continue in Darfur, as documented by Amnesty and independent Sudanese media outlets, despite the promise of peace. "Killings, abritrary arrests, and incidents of looting and rape" still occur on a regular basis, Alzobeir said.

In many cases, eyewitnesses point to RSF troops as the perpetrators, an accusation Hemedti - who is leading new peace talks with rebel groups in Juba - has rebuffed.

There are "too many killers", Sudanese-American activist Hatim Eujayl said. "What we need most is to prosecute institutions, commanders, not just the people who fired the bullets."

Transitional justice is a long and hard road, and with so many crimes to account for - from the killing of nearly 300 protesters this year and more than 200 demonstrators in 2013 to the forced displacement of millions in Darfur - the unfortunate truth is that Sudanese will have to live with those reviled as war criminals and killers, at least for now.

Yet for many, this is a bitter pill to swallow. "Reconciliation with the people who ordered [and] executed the massacre is impossible," said Lubna Muntaser, a 20-year-old law student in Khartoum.

Muntaser, Vice Chairman of the Sudanese Women And Children Support Organisation (SWACS), joined the protests in January. "I have gained so much warmth and love from participating in the resistance committees... I made a home at the sit-in," she said.

"However, I made friends in the same alleys [where] I experienced the worst kinds of fear and was chased by monsters and suffocated by tear gas. The home I made at the sit-in was torn apart and burnt by the RSF."

Read more: Sudan's transition to democracy: Will it be smooth?

Sudan's civilian officials must somehow find a way to weather the transition period scheduled to last another three years with members of the military who some see as all too close to the old regime by their side and many view as responsible for much of the violence over the past year. For better or worse, the two were wed in August.

An authoritarian regime cannot be dismantled in one day. Shomokh sees the partnership as a relatively successful one so far. The sovereign council and Hamdok in particular have taken on the "aspirations and the goals of the revolution", he said.

There is a caveat, however. "We always sleep with one eye open," Shomokh said. Indeed, the job of the thousands who drove Bashir out of power and demanded civilian government is not done yet; they must now act a "keepers and watchers" over the transitional regime.

"What happened on the morning of June 3 can't succeed," he said. So the "delicate power balance" between civilian leaders and the armed forces must be maintained.

It is a balancing act many Sudanese were forced into; with the armed forces already holding the reigns of power, protest leaders did not have the option of choosing the technocrat-led government outlined in their revolutionary manifesto. Instead, they came to a compromise.

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So too did the military. For some, the willingness of Burhan, Hemedti and other generals to commit to the power-sharing agreement, peace talks and reforms such as the repeal of the public order law signals real change.

For others, these concessions prove the Keyzaan - the not-so-affectionate name granted to the country's brand of Islamists - are willing to adapt to remain in power.

"While Bashir's regime has fallen, the Keyzaan - who kept him in power - have adapted," Eujayl said. "I don't feel comfortable just labelling Burhan and Hemedti remnants of the former regime… they're no longer loyal to him, but they are maintaining many of the fundamental principles of the former regime's ideology."

"They are making concessions to update the former regime to last longer," he said. They are "merely expanding the floor of the cage rather than setting people free".

Sudanese cannot yet be sure of the outcome of transition, nor can the civilians in charge themselves. "They have a long and hard road ahead of them, and will make mistakes," the activist who preferred to remain anonymous said. 

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The transitional balancing act requires civilian leaders to put their trust in the generals to have any power at all, perhaps in spite of their better judgement. At the same time, it necessitates a degree of suspicion, engineering a tricky game that requires civilian leaders to neither give too little nor too much. 

"It seems to me that the military portion of the government is still calling the shots, and that the civilians aren't going to even try to step on their toes," Eujayl said. "They're alarmingly willing to concede to the military, and I don't have any faith that this will change."

Civilian leaders have been in a concessionary stance from the beginning. They "negotiated from a position of weakness instead of a position of strength," the activist said. "When things are built on a weak and shaky foundation, the long term outlook becomes very uncertain indeed."

Sudanese opinions on the health of the transition vary in the extreme, but what is sure amid the unfolding uncertainty is that change does not occur overnight - nor does it occur over a year. Sudanese are still suffering from the same economic circumstances that triggered the initial demonstrations against Bashir. Revolution, like economic overhaul, is a slow process. 

"The transition to democracy is going to be very slow, and whatever is slow is dreadful," Muntaser said.

But Sudanese hope something better exists at the end of that long, painful overhaul.

When many activists talk of the Sudan of tomorrow, they discuss a country that rejects the very principles of the Keyzaan - a belief, Eujayl explained, that a particular group of Arab Muslim men have the God-given right to rule Sudan, and that "it is their right to mobilise state resources to violently punish those who challenge this hegemony".

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sudanese youths discuss a Sudan of inclusivity, tolerance, equality and religious freedom. "The biggest thing I hoped we'd eliminate in Sudan is the idea that anyone can claim to govern in the name of God," the activist who did not wish to be named said. 

"A large portion of Sudanese were Muslims before the regime came to power, and they remain Muslims after we overthrew the regime," Shomokh said. "We will continue to build our nation state along with our citizens of all religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. That's the Sudan we want, and that's the Sudan we revolted to see. 

"That's the Sudan which the regime for three decades attempted to tell us can't happen."

Mel Plant is a journalist at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter: @meleppo