After three decades of authoritarian rule, the news finally came on April 11: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, the infamous “butcher of Darfur,” had been forced out of power by incessant and effective street protests. Nothing like this had happened in Sudan since the April 1985 ouster of the military regime of Jaafar al-Nimeiri and before that the October 1964 ouster of Ibrahim Abboud. Soon after al-Bashir’s resignation, his appointed successor, Mohammed Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced on live television that he would head a transitional government. He pleaded with protesters to accept military-imposed curfews for the good of the country.
But the angry protesters who had spent six days camping in front of military headquarters were not pacified. “We do not replace a thief with a thief!” they cried. As the sun went down, protesters dug in their heels, defied the curfew, and vowed to stay put until their demands for a civilian government were heard. “We are going nowhere soon!” they shouted. Less than 36 hours after the fall of al-Bashir, his henchman resigned as well. But the appointment of still another military figure in his place meant that the struggle was not yet over.
The perseverance of Sudan’s protesters has captivated analysts of the region, most of them long since disillusioned by the failure of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions. It has even dared some to ask: Will the Sudanese people succeed where Egyptians and Libyans failed?
What has so far set this revolution apart is the protesters’ dogged tenacity and commitment to stay the course for the long haul—not entirely unlike the October 1964 events that took at least several weeks to play out. Nationwide protests against the regime of Omar al-Bashir erupted in mid-December 2018. The protests, which began in the northern city of Atbara as an outcry against a deteriorating economy, shifted into the demand “tasqut bas!” (“be toppled, enough!”). Young Sudanese from diverse ethnic, tribal, and religious groups came together for demonstrations and sit-ins in Khartoum, Wad Madani, El-Fasher, Nyala, Port Sudan, Gedaref, and Kassala. They faced teargas, rooftop snipers, and brutal beatings. Yet they continued protesting on a regular basis, several times a week, until the climax of April 6, 2019, when the street in front of the army headquarters became Sudan’s own Tahrir Square.
The Economic Situation Deteriorates
One of the driving factors behind the protests was the rapid decline of the economic situation. Between 1997 and 2017, the U.S. government imposed economic sanctions on Sudan owing mainly to its government’s links with international terrorist organizations. The lifting of those sanctions by the Obama Administration gave hope to the Sudanese people that economic growth would follow. But Sudan remained on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list, and companies and banks were still wary of doing business there. State corruption, widespread nepotism, and the international memory of the Darfur slaughter all conspired to make Sudan a decidedly unattractive place for foreign investment.
By 2018 the inflation had reached such an extent that ATMs were without cash to dispense. In a country without online banking and where credit cards have yet to be introduced, this generated a major predicament for the majority of population. In September 2018 the lack of cash cast a shadow over the nine million farmers who needed to harvest their crops in the eastern region of Gedaref. That same month the Bank of Khartoum saw fit to announce in the newspapers that it was not bankrupt. Since the government was aware that around 90 percent of Sudanese currency was in circulation, it employed various tactics to cajole the Sudanese people to deposit their money in the banks instead of hiding it in their homes. Yet people had lost trust in the banking system.
At the same time, shortages of basic commodities took a toll. The prices of subsidized bread were cripplingly high, and austerity measures regulated how many loaves each family could buy. Fuel supply was also becoming unreliable; every other week gas stations were running out of diesel or unleaded fuel. Basic medicines were also becoming scarce; malaria medicine was often unavailable outside Khartoum and insulin was lacking in country where 11 percent of the population is diabetic. Waiting in line for hours to get money, bread, or fuel, and being unable to travel by car, was becoming part of the daily routine in Sudanese life.
The Protests Begin
Small-scale protests preceded the December 2018 outbreak in Atbara, which has been widely touted as the beginning of the revolution. In August 2018, for example, a group of youth in Khartoum protested against the dire economic circumstances, and teachers staged a sit-in inside one of the banks to protest the fact that they were not receiving their monthly salaries. In October and December journalists protested the lack of press freedom in front of the parliament, and several were arrested. In early December the oppositionist Sudanese Congress Party and the National Umma Party proposed mass protests against the deterioration of the economic situation in Sudan. But these protests were sporadic and failed to unite the various assembled groups into one movement.
This changed on December 19, 2018. After a shortage of subsidized bread that lasted three weeks, the price of bread tripled. Hundreds of people in Atbara took to the streets. It is noteworthy that the wave of protests began in the periphery and not in Khartoum. This gave rise to an authentically national movement that stretched beyond Sudan’s major cities. All Sudanese could identify with the protests; all shared the same basic grievances.
Another factor that sparked the opposition movement was the return of opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi the day after the protests began in Atbara. Sadiq al-Mahdi is the head of the oppositionist Umma Party, the former Prime Minister of Sudan (1966-67, 1986-89), and the great-grandson of the self-proclaimed Mahdi who fought for Sudanese independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in the last decade of the 19th century. He is undoubtedly a popular political and religious figure in Sudan.
The effect of his return from self-imposed exile had been a subject of widespread speculation. Sadiq al-Mahdi arrived to a cheering crowd in Khartoum. Even though he urged his supporters to restrain from violence and did not publicly call for the end of Omar al-Bashir’s regime, the crowd felt emboldened by his return. That same night in Atbara the building of the National Congress Party—the political party of al-Bashir—was set on fire by the protesters. The genie was out of the bottle.
The Protests Turn Political
Once the protests had started, the protesters quickly shifted from demanding economic change to demanding the fall of the regime. More than half of Sudan’s population has never known a President other than Omar al-Bashir. The corruption of the ruling elite, the absence of civil liberties, the privileged status of people from certain tribes, restrictive rules on how to behave in public and private life, and the high youth unemployment rates were all reasons for protesters to call for the end of his regime.
Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989. In the initial years of his rule he allied himself to the Islamist Hassan al-Turabi and paved the way for the institutionalization of sharia law in the country. Sudan’s links to fundamentalist Islamic organizations and its invitation to al-Qaeda to reside on its soil in 1992 did not make the regime popular in Western eyes, and helped motivate the U.S. economic boycott.
During his rule, al-Bashir violently suppressed several regional insurgent groups, including the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in the western region of Darfur. The conflict between these groups and the government became a humanitarian disaster with millions of civilians being murdered, displaced, raped, and starved. The International Criminal Court contends that Omar al-Bashir is responsible for ethnic cleansing against non-Arab Sudanese tribes in Darfur beginning in 2003. This occurred in tandem with a rising tide of Arab cultural and racial supremacy in Sudan.
The protests of 2018-19 referred back to the injustice and tragedies of the past, as Sudanese of all backgrounds joined together to call for the regime’s overthrow. In an effort to provoke discord along the traditional Afro-Arab lines, the regime blamed non-Arab Darfurian “rebels” for using the protests to their own advantage. But protesters responded by raising the chant, “We are all Darfurian.” In doing so, they appropriated the trauma of the Darfurian genocide for the construction of Sudanese national consciousness, and for the shaping of a national identity for deployment as a means of mobilization and resistance.
The government responded to these protests with violence. The security forces fired live ammunition on the protesters and adopted a “shoot to kill” policy. In January 2019 security forces entered Omdurman Hospital, used tear gas, and shot at wounded protesters being treated in the emergency room. People hiding protesters in their houses or asking for mercy for the wounded were also shot at. Many protesters were arrested or simply disappeared. Nevertheless, the protests continued on a regular basis. The Sudanese Professionals Association organized regular demonstrations and sit-ins several times a week, which were announced in advance. Slowly but steadily the opposition movement acquired momentum.
The protesters come from all backgrounds. Women, comprising around two-thirds of the protesters, have been particularly prominent. Under the Public Order Law, passed in 1992 and amended in 1996, Sudanese women could be arrested or beaten for wearing tight or revealing clothes, uncovering their hair or being seen alone with a man who is not their relative. They have now seized on the demonstrations to fight for their rights. Displaced women in particular—who have been more vulnerable to arrests, sexual harassment, and the lack of basic commodities—are playing a major role.
A picture taken of a Sudanese woman standing on a car in the middle of the crowd and chanting against the regime became a symbol for the Sudanese revolution. Wearing a traditional white thobe and large golden earrings, people have compared her to the Nubian queens (Kandakat) who played an active political role in ancient Sudan. The picture went viral on social media, where many have commented that “the revolution is feminine.”
The Military Takes Over
The turning point was Saturday, April 6, 2019. This was a date with special meaning, marking the anniversary of the revolution that toppled the authoritarian regime of former President Jaafar al-Nimeiri in 1985. To mark that day, thousands of people camped out in front of the army headquarters for six consecutive days. Security forces responded with violence and a number of protesters were killed. Finally, on Thursday, April 11, the military announced the end of Omar al-Bashir’s rule.
The joy of the protesters quickly turned into anger when Defense Minister Mohammed Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf announced that the military would lead a two-year transitional government, and that a three-month state of emergency would be implemented with a curfew from ten p.m. until four a.m. Salah Gosh, the head of the National Intelligence Services, was also still in his old position. These military men were high up in the regime of Omar al-Bashir and played a role in the brutal suppression of the uprising in Darfur and the mass murder that followed. Ibn Auf was the head of military intelligence during the Darfur conflict. He was allegedly an intermediary between the Sudanese regime and the so-called Janjaweed militia, which carried out ruthless attacks on civilians in Darfur with the support of the government. He is also suspected of directing the assaults on Darfurian villages. Salah Gosh, the former national security advisor during the Darfur conflict, has also been implicated for war crimes during that period. From the perspective of the protesters, these men represented everything that was wrong with Sudan.
After hearing the news that al-Bashir had been replaced by his henchman, the protesters remained raised a new cry: “tasqut tani” (“be toppled, again!”). In less than 36 hours they had succeeded. Ibn Auf resigned from his position as the head of the military council. Soon afterwards the head of the National Intelligence Services, Salah Gosh, also resigned. Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan became the head of the transitional military council with Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo (“Hemeti”) as his deputy. This was a victory for the protesters, since Burhan, who was the former chief of staff of the ground forces, lacked a clear connection to the atrocities in Darfur. The military made another concession to the protesters by placing al-Bashir in the high-security Kobar prison and by arresting his brothers.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, representing the protest movement, are also demanding the removal from office of Burhan’s deputy, known as “Hemeti.” He had been the leader of an Arab tribal militia in Darfur, and had obtained support from the Sudanese government to use violence to suppress the uprising. Hemeti briefly defected from the government with thousands of heavily armed rebel soldiers in 2007, but in return for government subsidies, he rejoined it in 2008. He became the head of the Rapid Support Forces, which was just a new veneer for the former Janjaweed militia. For the protesters, Hemeti is part and parcel of Omar al-Bashir’s ancien régime.
Several analysts have expressed the fear that the current situation will escalate and turn into a bloody civil war. It is possible that if the military establishment resists the demands of the protesters, and continues to use violence to suppress them, younger officers in the lower ranks will turn against their seniors. It is possible, too, that Islamists will take up arms against the military establishment. There were reports of violent clashes in Darfur between people displaced by war and perceived collaborators with the old regime. These violent circumstances could bring Sudan to the brink and put it on a path toward failed statehood, along the lines of Libya and Yemen.
This would have disastrous implications for regional stability. In a state of anarchy with a free flow of weapons, cross-border militias could take advantage of the situation to destabilize neighboring states such as Chad, which is home to some of the same tribes as those living in Darfur. It could also affect already fragile states attempting to recover from brutal civil wars, such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. This would also put more pressure on Europe, which fears a fresh influx of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
There is also the Egyptian scenario, in which the military would stay united and keep a strong hold on power. In such a case there would be no dramatic departure from the essence of Omar al-Bashir’s government. The question is whether the protesters, who have sacrificed so much already, would put up with such a scenario, and what price they would be willing to pay to challenge it.
A third, more positive scenario remains possible. The perseverance of the protesters has thus far proven to be a successful strategy against a brutal regime. The momentum is with the protesters, and they know the legacy of October 1964 and April 1985, when, briefly at least, a military government was overthrown by popular protest from the street and democratic reforms followed. This time around the protesters have kept up the civil disobedience, marches, and sit-ins for months. They forced Omar al-Bashir’s “mirror image” military replacement to resign after one day.
The same cannot be said even for the protests that happened during the so-called Arab Spring in Egypt. Moreover, the Sudanese protests have been largely non-violent, which has prevented the downward spiral to civil war, as occurred in Syria. Given that early success, hopes remain that the unique Sudanese recipe for revolution will succeed—and that the fresh winds of freedom will return to a country that has so far had precious little experience of it.