How Sudan's civil disobedience campaign is raging against the coup
Mass mobilisations were held across Sudan on Saturday, joined by solidarity protests abroad, in the much anticipated 'march of millions' demonstration to reject the recent military coup and call for a civilian transitional government.
An estimated four million people marched in numerous cities throughout Sudan as well as worldwide. Protesters in the capital Khartoum carried Sudanese flags and chanted “No, no to military rule,” and “This country is ours, and our government is civilian”.
Amid a brutal crackdown, the nationwide protests resulted in the deaths of at least three protesters, while more than 100 were injured, based on a preliminary report by the Sudanese Central Doctors Union.
“The pro-democracy movement is proving that it has the political savviness and experience in developing networks and taking it upon itself not to allow the military to continue to dictate and dominate the political life in Sudan,” Raga Makawi, a Sudanese political activist and editor at the African Arguments website, told The New Arab.
Since top general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced the end of the transitional government and joint civilian-military Sovereign Council and declared a state of emergency on 25 October, thousands of defiant citizens have engaged in protests and acts of civil disobedience to denounce the military’s power grab that ousted Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and other leading civilian politicians.
"The civilian-military ruling body was always an uncomfortable partnership, and the Sudanese never really trusted the military"
The Sudanese public quickly reacted to the army takeover on the same day by mobilising in Khartoum and other major cities just hours after news of the arrest of government officials spread. Internet services were cut and phone lines were disrupted, some roads were shut, and Khartoum’s airport was closed.
Hamdok was allowed to return to his home after being detained for two days in the home of Burhan, though he remains under heavy security.
“People flooded in without proper organisation and unified on one thing, that is the complete rejection of Burhan and the military leadership,” Ramey Dawoud, a Sudanese American hip hop artist and activist now based in the UK, told The New Arab. “They unanimously rejected the coup and expressively said they want a 100% civilian rule”.
While living in the US, he had helped organise protests in support of the Sudanese revolution and is now constantly connected with a network of activist friends inside Sudan.
The rapper thinks the unity among the Sudanese today is stronger today than what was seen in the uprising two years ago. “I believe Saturday’s million-person protest will be a turning point to mark the beginning of the end of military rule in Sudan,” he anticipated on the eve of the march.
The coup d’état came less than a month before Burhan was supposed to hand over the leadership of the Sovereign Council that had run the country since the ouster of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 to a civilian body. The army chief stated that a government of technocrats would be formed to lead the country under the military’s control until elections in July 2023.
Dawoud made it clear that since 2019 many Sudanese had expected that the military would stage a coup nearer the time of the power handover as remnants of the old regime have remained powerful until today.
Kholood Khair, a managing partner of Insight Strategy Partners, a ‘think-and-do-tank’ in Khartoum that works on transitional policy priority areas, noted that people first turned up on the streets spontaneously, then, when they went back to their neighbourhoods, they started to mobilise in a very similar way seen during the 2018-2019 revolution without depending on digital tools.
“The civilian-military ruling body was always an uncomfortable partnership, and the Sudanese never really trusted the military,” Khair told The New Arab.
She added that anger has been rising since the failed attempt to overthrow the transitional government on 21 September, and it is now further growing as the military creates more victims. She also stressed that many families have not recovered from the 3 June 2019 massacre, when 100 peaceful protesters were killed by security forces following Bashir’s overthrow. To date, no investigation into the massacre has been published.
Despite violent repression from the military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which killed at least seven people and injured 140 on the first day of protests, the next day the opposition coalition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) called for civil disobedience across the country.
Security forces have kept up their heavy-handed response and launched sweeping arrests of pro-democracy figures and other activists. There were reports of the military going house to house in Khartoum detaining protest organisers in the run-up to Saturday’s demonstration.
"Civil disobedience has been successful in Sudan in the past, it's one of the most effective tools the pro-civilian protest movement has"
Yet, the campaign of civil disobedience has taken root in Sudan with a wide array of participating professional groups, trade unions, and associations such as those of doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, university professors, central bank employees alongside workers from federal and state ministries and civil service institutions.
“Practically every profession has come out to say they are not going to work, they’re observing the civil disobedience campaign,” Insight Strategy Partners’s Khair pointed out.
Workers at the state oil company Sudapet also announced they would join the disobedience movement. Hospital workers declared a national strike except for emergencies and said they would withdraw from military hospitals. There were also reports of a general strike among airport workers.
"We urge the masses to go out on the streets and occupy them, close all roads with barricades, stage a general labour strike, and not to cooperate with the putschists and use civil disobedience to confront them," the Sudanese Professional’s Association (SPA), the main activist coalition and organising force behind the uprising against Omar al-Bashir’s regime, said in a statement on Facebook following the arrests of cabinet members.
Separately, the Sudan Popular Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the country’s main rebel group, as well as the mainstream Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) also called on the Sudanese to resist the coup.
Street protests have continued in the capital and elsewhere, the majority of government and educational institutions have stopped working, and several businesses and banks have remained closed as many people responded to the calls by the SPA, according to sources in various parts of Sudan.
With phone and Internet access restricted, people on the ground have largely relied on Sudanese in the diaspora to get the word out. Through family and friends abroad, they have also been kept connected, informed, and updated about what is happening in other areas of Sudan.
Since the coup, neighbourhood-based resistance committees, which include more than 50 grassroots organisations, have barricaded streets in their areas, burned tyres, clashed with soldiers, and stepped up collective action in recent days. Members of the committees and activists have arranged speeches in public places, held vigils and nightly marches, handed out programmes on the streets, and scheduled more demonstrations.
"Practically every profession has come out to say they are not going to work, they're observing the civil disobedience campaign"
Demands include a full handover of power to a civilian government and an end to the civilian-military partnership, the handover of coup leaders to the courts for urgent trials, no negotiation with any members of the military council, and the dissolution of all armed militias and a reconfiguration of the people's armed forces.
Makawi indicated that the SPA has restructured itself in the last two years and drifted away from mainstream politics to work “at a grassroots level” and coordinate with the resistance committees allowing them to be at the forefront. She remarked that people have been able to organise effectively through these local committees operating across all the different regions of the country to coordinate their activities.
The Sudanese activist is a strong believer that labour striking is an impactful tool, “not just because it weakens the position of the autocratic regime but also strengthens the political position, which Sudan really needs in order to move toward democracy”.
“Civil disobedience is an extreme form of peaceful protest to tell those in power that, if they want to rule, people won’t cooperate and squeeze the country dry until their demands are met,” Dawoud said. He said that the campaign, besides hurting the military leadership, affects people in their livelihoods, though many are willing to pay such a price for the greater good down the line.
Discussing how the committees function, Khair explained that having a rotating head at a neighbourhood level ensures that a few people hold key information and pass it on to others who will also possess another set of tactics so that, if any committee member is arrested, the full extent of the plans will not be known by the security forces.
“Civil disobedience has been successful in Sudan in the past, it’s one of the most effective tools the pro-civilian protest movement has,” she affirmed, while expressing doubts about how long it can be sustained in the midst of a hard-hitting economic crisis.
For now, there are two main hurdles that stand in the way of keeping up resistance to the coup. Firstly, direct violence from security forces, for example, going after people in their homes and physically attacking them or forcing them to go back to work through threats of dismissal.
And, secondly, divisions within the disobedience movement whereby businesses colluding with the military leadership bribe strikers or union members to break their strike or weaken the terms for returning to work.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec