Hope rises for a third revolution in Sudan

Hope rises for a third revolution in Sudan

Comment: The recent unprecedented protests against dictator Omar al-Bashir have rekindled the hope for radical change, writes Tarek Cheikh.
10 min read
16 Jan, 2019
Sudanese police fired tear gas on protesters chanting 'Peace, justice, freedom' in the capital [AFP]
After his arrest at the beginning of the 1970s, the popular Sudanese poet Mahjoub Sharif uttered the following prayer on his way to jail,

When will the sky over, Our cherished Khartoum become clear, When will the wound, Of our country be healed?

A few decades later, his wish seems on the way to becoming true.

On the morning of December 25, the Sudanese capital woke up to the thundering clamours of a marching crowd made up of various opposition forces. It was the largest and most impressive demonstration in the country since the the Islamist movement's coup d'etat in 1989, despite some more minor troubles that have shaken the regime since then.

The call to mobilise was launched by the "Union of professionals" which regroups large unions of physicians, engineers and lawyers and has resonated deeply within the population and political parties; a response that has gone beyond anything seen in the last decades.

Events are moving very fast, and this mobilisation could prove challenging not only for the government, but also for the organising leaders, as it's the first such movement since the power takeover of the Revolutionary Commandment for National Salvation (al-Inqaz) in 1989.

At outset, the official goal of the Union of Professionals in the capital was to present the government with a note of protest from the unions against its economic policies.

But the political escalation raised the ceiling of demands, which have now reached the presidential palace in the shape of a letter openly asking for president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to step down.

This impressive mobilisation has gained footing in Sudanese towns big and small, and the government does not appear to know how to contain it, hesitating between being cunning or repressive, between appearing amenable or using excessive force as it has repeatedly done in the country for the last three decades.

An unprecedented movement

These protests are completely different from those that have come before.

Since its independence in 1965, Sudan has been shaken twice by popular revolutions, both times ending in the toppling of a totalitarian dictatorship: Ibrahim Abboud in 1964, and General Gaafar Nimeiry in 1985.

The protest has strength and enthusiasm but what particularly worries the government is the clarity of its political goals

Those protests had relied on unions at the top of their strength, and a political movement structured in Sudan's larger towns, including the capital.

Today's movement on the other hand picked up momentum in the towns at the furthest northern point, starting from Atbara, a working-class town also known as the birthplace of Sudanese unionism.

It quickly spread to other nearby northern towns, such as Berber and Damer then Danqala and Karima before reaching Eastern towns such as Qadarif, Port Sudan and Kasla and finally towns in the west such as Abyad, Rahd and, finally, the White Nile.

The movement has been quite heterogeneous, regrouping many social-professional categories of the population. The powers that be were caught by surprise and unable to apply their usual technique of directing police force into the streets of the capital to avoid the possibility of a coup.

The protest has strength and enthusiasm but what particularly worries the government is the clarity of its political goals. Those are no longer restricted to the economy, despite a context defined by hunger and poverty.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated that more than 20 million people live under the poverty threshold in Sudan, representing more than a third of poor people in all Arab countries, or 66 million people.

President Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989 when, as a brigadier in the Sudanese Army,
he led a group of officers in a military coup that ousted the democratically elected government
of prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi [Getty]

Protesters have rallied around cries of an essentially political nature, with "Liberty, peace and justice" the most common expression, as well as "Revolution is the people's choice." Both show the depth of the people's aspirations as well as the strength of the idea of a revolution. This has raised the game suddenly, and to and to previously unseen heights. 

Despite hunger and poverty, the people have clearly expressed their desire to put an end to the regime and witness the dawn of a new era.

Just as clear is that the Islamist movement has reached the end of its mission, leaving the country in complete disarray: economically, politically and culturally the government is in shatters. Even religion, paradoxically, has suffered when looking at the toll taken by the 'evil' mix of religion and corruption.

When speaking to Sudanese media editors, Chief of Intelligence Services Salah Gosh described the protests as spontaneous and unattached to any political party.

This is the most impressive demonstration seen in the country since the Omar al-Bashir coup in 1989

The implication was that the movement had no future and political parties no role to play in it. This version was contradicted by the subsequent events, which led Salah Gosh to blame subversive forces for the incidents.

According to him, agent provocateurs trained by and under orders of the Israeli Mossad infiltrated demonstrators, and he especially targeted members of the Movement for the Liberation of Sudan, a group of rebels led by Abdul Wahid Al-Nur.

This accusation laid bare the shock felt by the leading party in the face of the revolution. The regions where local chapters of the leading party have been destroyed - the National Congress in Atbara, Damer and Berber - have a negligible Darfurian population. Rather they are considered, by the government at least, as hubs of the Islamist movement.  

The most impressive protest yet

The popular uprising is going strong and all seems to indicate that people in cities have taken the lead and will continue to defy the government.

In many cities the population has flouted the state of emergency and the curfew imposed by the state. The most significant event arguably took place on December 25 in the capital, where neighbourhoods became inundated with floods of protesters.

At the head of the processions were representatives of all the unions, professional sectors as well as leaders of the political parties, forming the most impressive demonstration seen in the country since the Omar al-Bashir coup in 1989.

The use of excessive force and the real bullets shot at the protesters to disperse them have not dissuaded the population from defying the government and sending it a clear message: The revolution is underway and it is stronger and more alive than ever.

The centre of the capital now looks like a battlefield where tanks and troops roam. In the short term, the unions have been successful, as demonstrated by the statement sent by the Union of Professionals, denouncing the authorities' use of "security forces, thousands of troops, tanks and real bullets shot at protesters in order to prevent them and members of the civil society, political parties and the Sudanese population to get to the palace, where they aimed to hand over a memo demanding the dismissal of the President."

The unions were pleased to reach their goals by providing a unity that had not existed for decades.

"We have expressed our position with conviction, and it is that of a united people." Confidence is high as the united forces feel they have won a hard-fought first round, during which 40 people died, according to medical sources.

The feeling is widely shared. On December 25, before the demonstration of the Union of Professionals, the forces of the opposition chiefly represented by the coalition of the Forces of the National Consensus (Ij'maa) and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (Nidaa al-Sudan) had held a meeting at the headquarters of the Communist Party in Khartoum.

In order to bring about the fall of the regime, they decided to look beyond their differences and coordinate their efforts, reaching a consensus for the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, the establishment of a Presidential Transitional Council and a government of technocrats whose mission would be to prepare the return to a political life of true pluralism of parties, leading to a new regime.

But to get the president to step down, the fight would have to intensify.  

Meanwhile, the Islamist members of the government cannot decide on an attitude to adopt toward the cities' uprisings.

The Islamist movement is made up of several, rival factions that include the Party of Popular Congress led by Ali al-Hajj, the al-Islah movement led by Ghazi Salahuddin and the Islamist Movement's Shura Council led by al-Fatih Ezzedine.

They held their own meetings on Friday December 21st, desperately trying to keep up with the race towards change and met with the Army Chief General Kamal Abdul Maaruf.

Read more: Defiant Bashir says Sudan protests 'will not change government'

The idea of a power coup by the military is said to have been put forward. Abdel Maaruf was in favour and charged with consulting with other members of the military.

On the same day, the delegation also met with Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the al-Ummah party and with some leaders of the opposition such as the coalition of Nidaa al-Sudan led by al-Mahdi in order to lay the ground for future negotiations about the dismissal of the president, establishing a transitional period and a technocrat government.

The unknown power of the youth

But a new factor has come to light and should influence the course of events - the powerful force of the young people; the true engine of the popular revolt in every city in Sudan.

This new generation was born in the shadow of the Islamist government, far from the past regimes so familiar to political parties from before Omar al-Bashir.

The new generation is deeply rebellious and has grown away from the old religious polarisation. Many young people are trying to rise above the usual arrangements between parties and wish to see the current movement go beyond the usual compromises that end with mere a changing of governments.

Instead, they aim to change regimes, far from the influence of religion over the political world.

The new generation is deeply rebellious and has grown away from the old religious polarisation

This aspiration to a true revolution found its expression in the slogans shouted by the young: "freedom, peace, justice". Their decisive actions are now a full element of political life. They bring a new vision of the future, and want to break with old traditions to establish a modern state based on equality, law and new values for a new life.

Many of the current political leaders, notably those of the opposition, are past their prime, and people in the streets have a natural tendency to turn towards young leaders who demand real change. The next few weeks should be one of greater political agitation, crucial choices and serious dangers.

The Islamist movement might try to surprise everyone with a palace revolution, which would be met with strong popular opposition.

Alternatively, the last handful of Islamist factions might collude with influential political forces such as Sadiq al-Mahdi, who seems more amenable to compromise. This would agree with his vision and soft-landing programme: Bring an end to the power of the National Congress, and set up a transitional period with a Congress made up of every political force in Sudan - including the Islamists - to debate the future government.

This solution would also be rejected by the population, in particular the young generations, but also by other forces such as Ij'maa (the opposition coalition) led by the ex-president of the Sudanese Bar Association, Faruk Abu Issa.

The third possible option and the people's favourite, would be that of radical choice: Pushing the Islamists away from power and breaking from the political past.

The paradox is that this solution, favoured by the young and the forces of the revolution, is more likely to lead Sudan back to the table of modern states but also more likely to be fought by traditional, religious forces and the Islamist movement.

The centre of the capital now looks like a battlefield where tanks and troops roam

The current movement might collide with the Islamist movement militia, which might decide to act and open fire on the protesters.

The question is how long will military forces and the police stay impassive in the face of such dangers. Will they join the movement, as some hope, and bring victory to the people as happened during the popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985?

It looks like the Sudanese population's uprising is gaining strength and maintaining its aim of bringing the current regime down, while in parallel, day-long negotiations between several parties and political forces are taking place with the hope of finding a way out of the crisis.

Tarek Cheikh is a Sudanese journalist. 

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This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.