Why you should care
They’ve removed Sudan’s dictator. Now, they’re fighting to protect the uprising.
On April 6, after months of protests across Sudan, tens of thousands of mostly young people marched through the searing heat of Khartoum toward the military headquarters near the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile. Many were professionals — doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses — who had joined a national uprising determined to end the repressive 30-year regime of Omar al-Bashir.
Among them was Muzan Alneel, a slight 33-year-old mechanical engineer, who had been part of the demonstrations in Khartoum since they started in December when most participants were women. She had been arrested in January and imprisoned for six days but had immediately gone back out on to the streets. While she was in a cell, several protesters in Khartoum had been shot, galvanizing more people to join what was rapidly becoming a mass uprising.
“It’s nothing new for this regime to kill people, but they are not used to doing that to the kids from the class they usually get support from,” says Alneel, referring to middle- or upper-middle-class figures like herself. “There was no other way to have a good life other than to bring down this regime. Every step we took was one step towards that goal.”
Even though the regime confronted it with violence, the young people remained adamant to bring it down.
Nabil Adib, human rights lawyer
On that April morning, something strange happened. Though Alneel’s section of the march was tear-gassed and beaten back by members of the ruthless National Intelligence and Security Service, messages were flashing up on her phone that other protesters had broken through to the gates of the military headquarters itself. That suggested there were cracks in the military machine that had protected Bashir unflinchingly for 30 years. The struggle had entered a new phase.
That night thousands of demonstrators sat in front of the military compound, waiting anxiously to see how soldiers would respond. At one point, shots crackled through the air, but they were answered by gunfire from lower-ranking soldiers who appeared to have thrown their lot in with the protesters.
Hend Gomaa, a 22-year-old anesthetist, had taken a bus from her home in South Kordofan, several hours south of the capital, to take part in the sit-in. Over the next several nights, Gomaa and other medical volunteers treated dozens of victims of gunshot wounds, as elements of Bashir’s security forces attempted to disperse the crowd under the cover of darkness. “Twelve to 15 people died right here,” says Gomaa, pointing to a tent where they desperately tried to save lives.
For now, at least, the shooting has stopped. On April 11, generals mounted a coup. Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, the commander of a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, said he had received orders from Bashir to clear out the square, no matter what the cost in lives. He refused. He and other generals instead put the president under arrest and established a transitional military council. Declaring themselves “not greedy for power,” they said they would let civilians run the country — when the conditions were right.
Alneel and Gomaa are just two of hundreds of thousands of young people who have astonished Sudan’s older generation by seizing history with both hands. In a country with a median age of just 19 — the same as in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole — Sudan’s young people mounted a sustained uprising, turning what had been rural bread riots into a regime-toppling revolution.
How they did it, and what happens next, could have profound implications not only for Sudan but for nations everywhere, particularly in Africa and the Middle East where millions of talented but frustrated young people have access to information and technology but not to jobs or opportunity. Only a week before the Sudanese coup, in Algeria, big demonstrations persuaded the military to oust Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old president, who had wanted to run for yet another term.
In Sudan, a new generation, tired of a corrupt and economically incompetent regime, was stirred to action not by traditional political parties but by a network known as the Sudanese Professionals Association. In pushing out Bashir through peaceful means, the demonstrators won where countless armed rebellions on the country’s restive periphery had failed. The association used social media, posters and neighborhood committees to mount a well-coordinated campaign of protests leading up to the decisive April sit-in.
“The uprising was really amazing,” says Nabil Adib, a human rights lawyer who has represented many of those imprisoned and tortured over Bashir’s 30-year tyranny. “It took four months and, even though the regime confronted it with violence, the young people remained adamant to bring it down.”
Spearheaded by middle-class youth, Sudan’s uprising — which some are calling the Nile Spring — has an open, secular and liberal feel. In the days since Bashir’s fall, a carnival atmosphere has developed at the area in front of the military headquarters as people sporting a dizzying array of looks celebrate Sudan’s ethnic, social and religious diversity. Men and women mix freely in defiance of what had been a strict sharia code imposed by the Bashir regime.
“I don’t think Sudanese people have seen anything like this before. It’s reshaping the whole national psyche,” says Amin Mohamed, a teacher who participated in the protests. “Sudan is going to be a very enlightened society.”
These are heady days for the northeast African country of 40 million people, but the way ahead is far from clear. “Nobody can answer the question, what happens next?” says Osman Mirghani, a prominent journalist who was imprisoned for 37 days during the protests. “Is this a military intervention or a military coup? There’s only one centimeter between the two.”
Referring to popular revolts in 1964 and 1985, in which the military ended up reasserting control, Mirghani asks: “Is this going to take Sudan to a new future of real political reform, or is it just going to repeat what happened in the last two uprisings?” The military council may say it does not seek power, he says, but “they have the weapons; that is their power.”
For now, the council is talking to a broad coalition of signatories to a document known as the Declaration of Freedom and Change, signed, among others, by the Professionals Association.
Some want the military to step aside and hand power to a three-tier civilian structure to run a transitional government of technocrats for four years until meaningful elections can take place. They argue that the democratic institutions are so broken it will take that time to repair them.
The demonstrators’ only bargaining power is numbers. Nearly three weeks after the overthrow of Bashir, tens of thousands continue to congregate daily in front of the army headquarters. Unless the military council is prepared to shoot them, that gives them leverage.
So far, the military has made concessions. Just 24 hours after the coup, it dismissed the original head of the council, an Islamist closely associated with Bashir. His replacement, Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, is thought to be more moderate and has already accepted the resignation of three further council members with Islamist leanings.
As negotiations continue, the proposal gaining traction is for a hybrid “sovereign council” composed of both military and civilian members, though there is disagreement about the balance of power. There would also be a slimmed-down cabinet of 17 — about half the current number — led by a civilian prime minister and made up of technocrats. Finally, there would be some form of nominated parliament.
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a professor and human rights activist who is one of several names being floated as a possible prime minister, says the opposition has little option but to work with the military during any transition — a view not shared by all protesters. The army is needed, he says, to guard against militia activity and the possibility of a counterinsurgency. “We want to reform the army itself and train them not to do coups in the future,” Ibrahim says.
Hassan Elhag Ali, a political science professor at the University of Khartoum, says he is concerned about splits in an opposition divided between older and younger generations and between those who took part in the protests and the traditional political parties that mostly stood on the sidelines.
“The Sudanese Professionals Association would like to have a free hand in the coming four years to mold the politics of the country,” he says. But Sudan’s plethora of parties is unlikely to give the new movement carte blanche for that length of time. “I’m not optimistic that we are going to have a very smooth transition,” he says.
Even if a working arrangement can be figured out, any new government will face formidable challenges. Chief among them is an economy destroyed by years of mismanagement and the loss of South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011, taking three-quarters of Khartoum’s oil revenue with it. Sudan’s economy has also been wrecked by years of U.S. sanctions, imposed in retaliation for atrocities in Darfur, a region in the west of the country, over the previous decade.
The government, which spends a large slice of its limited revenue on fuel subsidies and the military, has been running a budget deficit of roughly 10 percent of gross domestic product. The central bank has been obliged to spin the printing presses to plug the gap, inevitably stoking inflation, now at about 45 percent a year.
There is also a desperate shortage of dollars, which are traded on the black market at a higher price than the fictitious official rate. The banking system has more or less collapsed. In arrears on some $50 billion of debt, Sudan has no access to multilateral funding.
Washington lifted some sanctions in 2017, but unless it also removes Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, no new western funding is possible. That leaves Khartoum dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf states that have little interest in encouraging democracy.
Last week, the two Gulf monarchies said they would provide Khartoum with $3 billion in aid, including $500 million in immediate relief. Both Lt. Gen. Burhan and Lt. Gen. Hamdan keep close ties with the Gulf, having coordinated Sudan’s supply of soldiers to the coalition fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Alneel, the mechanical engineer hoarse from giving speeches, says foreign interference is just one of the dangers to the revolution. Her takeaway from the Arab Spring, where uprisings ended in chaos or were hijacked by militaries, is that “half a revolution is the death of the nation.”
Protesters, she says, have to see this uprising through to its democratic conclusion and guard against backsliding by a military that still holds power. “If we can bring down Bashir with no support from anyone, we have the right to be idealistic,” she says. “That means we can do anything.”
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