Sudanese protesters march against military rule following the coup on 25 October 2021, Khartoum, December 2021. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Not a week has passed since the military coup on 25 October 2021 without at least three major protests taking place across Sudan. Neighbourhood demonstrations are now daily events, and new forms of resistance are emerging everywhere. The coup government has responded violently: with gunfire, tear gas, alleged rape and sexual assault, raids on hospitals treating the injured, internet shutdowns, and by blocking roads with shipping containers.
Since the morning of the coup, the Sudanese people have been demanding the total removal of the military from their politics. International governments, meanwhile, have been keen to maintain some form of military rule in the country – and are helping the military wage a war on its own people.
How did we get here?
To understand the current situation in Sudan, we first need to understand the events that led to this point.
In December 2018, protests began across the country in response to rising living costs and deteriorating economic conditions. The following April, these protests culminated in the ousting of dictator President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for almost 30 years.
What followed was a ‘transitional period’ of government: a military-civilian partnership with the stated aim of returning Sudan to democracy, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – a technocrat who had formerly worked for the UN. This government was backed by regional and international powers including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK, alongside the IMF and the World Bank, which praised Hamdok’s commitment to economic liberalisation.
One key event during the transitional period was the signing of the Juba peace deal – a deal between the government and the armed movements involved in the conflict in Darfur. The result of this deal was that leaders of these movements were granted ministerial and government positions while the grievances that led to the conflict went unaddressed.
During this period, the movement on the ground in Sudan walked a fine line between prioritising their demands – namely, forming a parliament, an end to the further de-subsidisation of basic goods, and justice for the martyrs of the revolution – and, in fear of a collapse into total military rule, supporting the transitional government in spite of its economic liberalisation policies. These were policies that led to terrifying levels of inflation, such that the cost of living rose 300% in the year to October 2021.
By the autumn of 2021, a coup was in the air. In their speeches, military generals used the country’s economic deterioration as evidence of the failure of the ‘civilian’ leadership – and likely saw levels of public frustration at their living conditions as an indicator that a coup might succeed. On 25 October, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the military took control of the government, deploying military vehicles to the streets of the capital, arresting the civilian cabinet, shutting down the internet and disrupting radio broadcasting. Crucially, the coup found support among the leaders of armed movements who had joined the government after the Juba peace deal.
The movement, however, had been expecting the coup, staging protests against the takeover before it even happened. This was only possible because movements had been building on the ground for decades. ‘Neighbourhood resistance committees’, dating back to the 1990s, were revived during the 2018-19 uprisings to sustain the movement in the face of brutal state violence. These committees initially lacked clear politics and vision, but this developed during the transitional period in response to the failings of Hamdok’s government. The first post-revolution budget, for example, acted as a catalyst for alliances between the neighbourhood resistance committees and labour committees. Together with allies in ministries and the civil service, these committees organised against the neoliberal budget, and forced the government to hold an economic conference to discuss the country’s spending priorities.
On the morning of the coup, resistance committees launched mass protests demanding the total removal of the military from politics in Sudan. People took to the streets, closing them off with barricades and shouting anti-military chants. Over the following weeks, these protests became scheduled, and were held in strategic locations such as the presidential palace.
The world weighs in.
Since Bashir’s dictatorship was overthrown, international governments – including the UK – have played a counter-revolutionary role in Sudan.
During the transitional period, western governments were satisfied with Hamdok’s leadership, as he was implementing their policies of choice and paving the way for investment. They continued to support the implementation of economic liberalisation policies even as the conference on the country’s spending priorities was taking place. Interventions varied from tweets by the UK’s ambassador to Sudan shamelessly calling for de-subsidisation, to agreements between the IMF and the Sudanese government confirming the implementation of these policies, rendering the ongoing conference pointless and thereby showing total disregard for the will of the Sudanese people.
This pattern continued in the aftermath of the coup. Calls for the total removal of the military from Sudanese politics were described as “unrealistic” by the US state department, while the UK ambassador put out a video calling for dialogue with the military generals. Indeed, the international community’s commitment to maintaining some form of military rule in Sudan went so far as to support an agreement between the military and the very same prime minister the military had overthrown late last year. Although the agreement meant keeping the generals in power, and was fiercely opposed by the people of Sudan, international diplomats, including the UN secretary general, kept calling on the people to accept it. They did not, nor did they stop protesting – and their protests led to the agreement’s collapse.
This state of affairs – in which the Sudanese resistance calls for the creation of new, inclusive and sustainable forms of governance, while international governments continue to push for the implementation of their pre-set, counter-revolutionary plan – is still the basis of Sudanese politics today.
A new attempt to legitimise the coup and institutionalise the status quo is currently being led by Volker Perthes, the special representative of the UN secretary general for Sudan – this time in the form of a “dialogue process” that includes all “Sudanese political actors”. This initiative comes at a time when the position of the resistance is ‘no negotiation, no partnership, no legitimacy’ (the ‘three nos against military rule’). For the resistance movement, it is nothing but an attempt to blur the reality of the struggle in Sudan: for the people to have a chance at a life where their basic rights are protected, military rule, in all forms, must end. To support any kind of military intervention in Sudanese politics means condemning the people of Sudan to a life of injustice, oppression and violence. There is no middle ground – both sides are fighting for their survival.
These statements show the Quad’s commitment to maintaining some form of military rule in Sudan. However, they also show a track record of support for failed initiatives. This failure isn’t just the result of diplomats’ incompetency, but of a deeply flawed framework favoured by the international community. In this framework, only historical, commercial and military leaderships are viable. International players continue to imagine dreamworlds where agreements signed by leaders can stabilise nations regardless of whether or not these leaders have met the demands of the masses. While this may have achieved temporary stability under Bashir in the case of the ‘national dialogue’ process in 2015, since then Sudan has been radically transformed by the country’s organised resistance. As such, so long as the dialogue initiative maintains its pro-military agenda, it is doomed.
A revolution, not a crisis.
Accordingly, the new initiative doesn’t change much for Sudan’s resistance, which has committed to protesting regardless of how many diplomats call its goals unrealistic.
As opposed to the dialogue between leaders, what’s important to the Sudanese resistance is the dialogue between the committees, labour groups and other grassroots organisations regarding a new, shared vision for the form of government they wish to establish. Over the last two months, several groups have published draft, individual visions, and the tools they intend to use to achieve them. The streets are now abuzz with news of joint declarations, which are expected in the coming weeks, and which would strengthen the Sudanese resistance in facing down counter-revolutionary forces.
Perthes has described the situation in Sudan as a “crisis”. A statement from Mairno city resistance committee rejects this description, however – it isn’t a crisis, but a “revolution”.
This statement also directly appeals to people across the world to “pressure their […] governments to align themselves with the goals of our people and criminalise the coup”. Indeed, people worldwide can show solidarity with the revolution by uncovering how international governments are intervening in Sudan, rejecting their counter-revolutionary initiatives, and amplifying the voices of the resistance. With this solidarity, the people of Sudan can win this war, and a chance at a decent future.
Muzan Alneel is a co-founder of the Innovation, Science and Technology Think Tank for People-Centred Development – Sudan and a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.