The People of Sudan Don’t Want to Share Power With Their Military Oppressors

After a coup in October faced strong popular resistance, Sudan’s military has cut a deal with civilian politicians that leaves its power intact. But the resistance committees that have led the struggle for democracy aren’t accepting this betrayal.

Women chant during a demonstration calling for a return to civilian rule in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, on November 21, 2021. (AFP / Getty Images)

International diplomats and governments involved with Sudan have been repeating the same line about the need for “restoration of a civilian-led government” since the military coup of October 25. That line is currently attracting curses and mockery against international mediators from the Sudanese people.

A nation usually obsessed with being on its best behavior around strangers and maintaining the image of the polite Sudanese is drowning the tweets of these diplomats with sarcasm and vulgarity. The reaction to the deal between the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and the coup leaders, which was announced on November 21, was similar, as those who had been in the streets protesting against the coup condemned Hamdok’s willingness to bargain with its instigators.

A lot has changed in Sudan in the few weeks since the coup, but it has been the culmination of a three-year-long journey. The latest attempt to contain the struggle for democracy and justice will run into strong resistance from the Sudanese people, who have already shown the capacity to organize themselves in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

From the Revolution to the Coup

On the morning of Monday, October 25, the people of Sudan woke up to a total internet shutdown. International radio channels were scrambled as rumors spread that members of the civilian cabinet were in detention.

These events marked the end of a two-year-old power-sharing arrangement between the top ranks of former Sudanese ruler Omar al-Bashir’s military-security apparatus and the opposition leaders after a popular revolution had ousted al-Bashir’s three-decade-long dictatorship. Regional and international players such as the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates supported and praised this fragile arrangement. Its advocates promoted it as the best solution to the demands of the Sudanese revolution of December 2018, namely freedom, peace, and justice.

In December 2018, the people of Sudan had begun protesting the increase in bread prices and the dire economic situation under a corrupt military dictatorship. The protests lasted for more than four months, fueled by economic grievances, historic injustices, and new anger against the state’s violent response to the ongoing protests. By April 2019, the protests had grown to sit-ins around military headquarters in fourteen Sudanese cities, including the capital, Khartoum.

On May 28 and 29, 2019, workers launched a countrywide political strike against the military regime, with the strikers and protesters chanting for civilian rule. On those days, the strength and persistence of the revolutionaries were clear and undeniable. The threats of the military had no impact on them.

One of the clearest examples of this strength was the “fire me” banners that took over Khartoum in response to a speech from Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), the head of the Rapid Support Forces militia, who threatened to fire anyone who went on strike and replace them with his soldiers. The revolutionary vigor grew as threats turned into action. After the detention of workers from the National Electricity Corporation (NEC), the NEC workers’ association issued a statement threatening to cut the supply of electricity to all military buildings and institutions. Their colleagues were immediately released.

In the face of this revolutionary power, the military resorted to extreme violence. The massacre of June 3, 2019, ended the fourteen ongoing sit-ins simultaneously. More than a hundred people were killed by the army, with the bodies of many victims tied to bricks and thrown into the Nile. Dozens were raped. Hundreds remain missing to this day.

However, less than a month after the massacre, under conditions of total internet shutdown, there was a million-strong march against the military, showing that the people of Sudan were still committed to ending military rule.

A Botched Transition

Nevertheless, within two months of the June 2019 massacre, the leaders of the opposition signed a power-sharing agreement with the military. Regional and international powers that rewarded the killers with a share in the government had engineered this turn of events. It was also the work of an opposition leadership organized in a coalition called the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), mainly comprised of political parties.

The FFC pushed the “realistic” idea that only by entering a partnership with the killers could one stop the bloodshed. Such a partnership could not achieve the demands of the revolution for freedom, peace, and justice: that would require minimizing the authority of the military, holding its leaders accountable for their crimes, and ending military control over Sudanese national resources and a large industrial complex that was unregulated by the Ministry of Finance.

The civilians in the government, who were incapable of fulfilling their promises to the protesters, depended on the self-styled international community for support and legitimacy. The International Monetary Fund and the Paris Club of rich creditor countries offered debt relief and modest amounts of aid but also demanded the implementation of economic liberalization policies, including currency devaluation, the removal of subsidies of basic goods, and privatization schemes.

The economic policies of the new government were thus indistinguishable from those of its predecessor. However, its supporters now denounced protests against those policies as acts that weakened the “transition to democracy.” Western governments were satisfied by the technocratic image of the new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who had formerly worked for the United Nations (UN) and was now implementing their policies of choice and paving the way for investment.

These policies led to terrifying levels of inflation and an increase in the cost of living that exceeded 300 percent in the past year alone. The leaders of the recent coup used this economic situation and the failure of the “civilian” leadership to justify their maneuvers. The military and its militia allies may have seen the levels of public frustration with the situation as an indicator that their coup would have a chance to succeed.

Resisting the Coup

But they were wrong. The people of Sudan marched in the streets as early as 6 AM on the morning of the coup, chanting for a return to revolution or the restart of “the delayed battle,” as many in Sudan called it. The masses built barricades under the leadership of resistance committees. Several unions were ready to strike at the moment of the coup, with bank employees taking the lead.

The Sudanese people were ready for the coming coup. In contrast, the US government claimed not to have received “any sort of heads-up from the military,” even though US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman had left Sudan only hours before the coup.

With the leadership of neighborhood resistance committees and in spite of a countrywide internet shutdown for weeks, Sudan is still protesting. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) promoted the concept of these resistance committees in early 2019 as a tool to paralyze state violence via decentralized protests. Since then, the committees have become the voice of the street, confronting the transitional government’s unwillingness to create tools of democratic participation in political decision-making.

The committees are currently leading the protest movement in the country, taking the position occupied by the SPA two years ago. The committees are more connected than the SPA to their popular base in the neighborhoods. They are therefore more committed to improving the material conditions of their base than they are to political alliances or international donors. Their choice of tactics reflects this, as does their total rejection of compromises with the military and closed-room negotiations with Sudan’s political club.

The geographical nature of the committees will be a weakness in coming battles that require clearer ideological framing. Those battles can only be won by a revolutionary political party, which the committees are not. Nevertheless, these grassroots organizations have brought politics back to popular reality and away from meetings to which the public has no access. This has meant basing the response to the coup on its impact for advancing justice for the people, both criminal and economic, and away from the question of how the international community reacts.

The resistance committees have continued to utilize barricades, strikes, and civil disobedience against the violence of the military, which has killed a confirmed number of forty-two civilians in the past four weeks, with more than 500 injured. There have been arbitrary detentions of hundreds of activists and random assaults against young people in the streets who were stopped, beaten, and had their heads shaved by the military as a form of humiliation.

The violence even extended to the invasion and siege of hospitals by the security forces, which left them unable to provide urgently needed care to the wounded, resulting in deaths that could have been avoided.

The Three Nos

The international and regional players who are seeking to return the country to the failed partnership of 2019 have ignored these crimes. US diplomats have presented the demands for full civilian rule as unrealistic. The British ambassador promoted another call for dialogue with the killers. Diplomats have repeated the phrase “civilian-led” in an attempt to deceive protesters and dilute their rejection of any military interference.

Outside mediators are recycling their tools from the 2019 deal, reaching out to opposition leaders and respected public figures to tame the streets, while promoting negotiations behind closed doors and dialogue with military killers as the only way to escape bloodshed. But the Sudanese people are not biting.

The resistance committees leading the protests are deeply connected to their communities. They represent a population that has experienced firsthand for two years how Western governments praised “the partnership of blood,” as the protesters call it, in exchange for “stability” and Sudan’s “reintegration” into the international community. This came at the cost of ignoring both criminal justice for the revolution’s martyrs and economic justice for the living.

It was therefore not surprising that the resistance committees turned down invitations from both the then detained prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and the UN secretary-general’s special representative, Volker Perthes. The statements in response rejected the idea of talks away from public scrutiny and confirmed the “three Nos” slogan: no negotiations, no partnership, and no legitimacy for the military. The committees promised to organize meetings for the prime minister in the streets if he wanted to talk to the people, for whom they are “just a voice.”

This courage and persistence in the face of a military killing machine and an international counterrevolutionary front will permanently change Sudan’s political history. By refusing to remove the protesters from the equation, the resistance committees in Sudan are redefining stability as a state of affairs where the people are satisfied and the killers are in check, not the other way around.

Rejecting the Deal

As the deal between the prime minister and the military coup leaders was announced on November 21, there were hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in the streets for a march that the resistance committees had previously called for as part of their weekly protest schedule. The marchers that had started chanting the prime minister’s name quickly created slogans cursing him. This was a clear rejection of the old logic that prioritized loyalty to political brands and individuals over commitment to the objectives of the revolution.

The new deal had much in common with the plans of the coup leader, General Abdel Fattah al- Burhan, which he had announced at a press conference the day after the coup. It removed the pre-coup civilian cabinet, reinstated Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister, and tasked him with appointing a new “technocratic cabinet,” while keeping the generals in place as members of the sovereignty council. This is a setup that legitimizes the coup, eliminates any chances of holding the military leaders accountable for their crimes, and extends their power over the political process in Sudan.

The Sudanese revolution rejected the deal and rose to a new level of strength at that moment. Nevertheless, the international counterrevolutionary front remains a stubborn enemy. Only an international revolutionary front of people who reject these actions of their governments can stop it. The resistance committees need support from fellow revolutionaries around the world. As protesters are chanting all over Sudan: “The people are stronger, retreat is impossible.”