In December 2018, a sudden rise in bread prices sparked demonstrations in several localities across Sudan. Before long, people across the country, galvanized by decades of austerity policies and deteriorating socio-economic conditions, began to join in and the demonstrations morphed into a nation-wide uprising calling for the country’s 30-year dictator, Omar Al-Bashir, to step down. In the months that followed, two very different images from the Sudanese revolution went viral. One is the now-iconic image of Alaa Salah in a flowing white dress standing on the hood of a car surrounded by demonstrators as she leads them in rhythmic protest chants outside the headquarters of Sudan’s armed forces. The other, that circulated just two months after the first, shows 40 slain bodies of demonstrators pulled from the Nile River in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.
Ahmed Isamaldin is a visual artist-designer and blogger from Khartoum. He studied physics at the University of Khartoum and graphic design and photography in Cairo. His practice focuses on immigration and psychology, as well as the processes of revolutions, de-colonial design, and technology. He has participated in various exhibitions between Khartoum, Cairo, and Berlin, and is currently studying Visual Communication at Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin.
Depending on which image one chooses to focus on, different stories of the revolution appear. The first shows Sudan’s December 2018 people’s uprising as a triumph of peaceful political transition linked to broader democratic consolidation across the region. The second, in contrast, shows the grim reality that potentially awaits those who dare to breathe the genuine air of liberty. Both are stories of the same Sudanese revolution that began in December 2018 with a blank page titled “Freedom, Peace, and Justice.” By homing in on these two images, this piece will unpack and reflect on some of the Sudanese uprising’s complicated political and social realities, with the aim of beginning to sketch a map of political actors and trajectories today, two years into the revolution.
The Image of the Powerful Leading Woman in the White Dress
On 6 April 2019, the Sudanese Professionals Association issued a call for a march to the headquarters of the armed forces, which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators heeded. The mass sit-in in front of the military headquarters that followed marked the successful culmination of five months (or 30 years, depending on one’s perspective) of movement organizing and demonstrating. By occupying the space and refusing to leave, the scattered revolutionary forces finally made themselves a headquarters, a physical platform. When Alaa Salah stood on the hood of a car leading chants in her white dress, outside of the frame, comrades' bodies were swaying and colliding with joy, for the first time celebrating their mobilization’s achievement. The scene conveyed a clear image of the protest movement as a united front, banding together against “a regime of economic austerity construed in Islamist jargon at a moment of deep crisis,” as Magdi El Gizouli and Edward Thomas put it. In just a few days, the broad alliance convened at the sit-in achieved its first victory when, on 11 April, the military removed Omar Al-Bashir from power, figuratively chopping off the regime’s head.
The mobilization that led to that moment, combined lessons learned from three different past attempts to sustain a successful movement within the last 10 years. The first lesson was to form a united revolutionary front. Here, the Sudanese Professionals Association’s January 2019 “Declaration of Freedom and Change” surfaced as a document that could consolidate scattered forces ideologically. The declaration’s nine demands were based on minimum consensus between different groups comprising the revolution’s main social forces, from the women’s movement, which played the most prominent role in mobilization, to the workers’ movement and even reformist political parties. The declaration played the part of the sit-in’s constitutional document, and the sit-in itself was the most significant political assembly in the country’s history. While radical forces viewed the declaration as an articulation of principles, some reformists saw it as a basis for negotiation, which later came to jeopardize the revolution’s outcome.
Removing Omar Al-Bashir from power was not the only or main ambition of the revolutionary movement that convened a new constitution and commune at the sit-in. While Al-Bashir’s generals seized power to contain the uprising, the outdoor sit-in (the National Assembly) had begun chanting for a “Civilian Authority,” showing the maturity of its political demands and its depth of understanding of Sudan's political history. Sudan’s military forces were complicit with Al-Bashir’s 30-year authoritarian rule, after all, and have a long legacy of suspending democracy and freedom and abetting socio-political injustices stretching back to British colonial rule. The people’s demand for a civilian government showed that the movement sought to pierce prevailing power’s bone and soon paved the way for more radical social and economic action.
New and stronger social forces began to emerge from the political praxis of the sit-in. The feminist movement, in particular, started cultivating the anti-patriarchal crops of political struggle. MANSAM, an alliance of women from Sudanese civic and political groups, issued its first statement on 14 April 2019, demanding 50% representation in the upcoming transitional government. Driven by women’s leadership in the protests, demands for broader justice system reform circulated among the sit-in.
Workers also played an important role by organizing general strikes, both on 12 May 2019 and again on 28–29 May. As activist Muzan Al Nile described it, the latter strike especially “succeeded at clarifying the state’s biases and allies. It also succeeded in showing the power of workers, even to themselves. In some situations, the workers’ gatherings applied these lessons upfront and employed them to achieve their demands.” The mature organized workers’ movement that flexed its power in the revolution to push for radical economic reforms posed a challenge to the neoliberal state model that neither reformist nor military forces, or their regional allies, would tolerate for long.
Last but not least, another crucial social movement formation in the revolution were the neighborhood resistance committees, which organized and expanded with the swelling of the sit-in, organizing citizens geographically and bringing new means of power. As El Gizouli and Thomas described it:
Novel in content and form, the “resistance committee” is an open-access node of political power extraneous to the state that has stood its ground beyond the testing phase of mobilization and protest and has managed since to divide, capture and exercise a good fraction of local authority. Indeed, the “resistance committee” is arguably the gift of Sudan’s recent revolutionary experience to the world, a bold attempt at reclaiming the city and its hyper commodified resources, and the product of a globally recognizable collision of community and capital accumulation.
Sensing the actual power of the working-class, neighborhood resistance committees communicating vertically, a new movement was formed to carry the revolution forward in the year to come.
Meanwhile, by the end of May 2019, reformist and reactionary forces mostly comprised of sectarian and neoliberal political players prepared to leave the revolutionary train and seek their own power, as the military regime looked to its regional allies for legitimacy. The stunning image of Alaa Salah draped in white, hand and voice raised as she led the crowd in chants against the regime, was fading away, replaced by an atmosphere of extreme polarization. Fear of the radical revolution loomed over Khartoum and the conditions were ripe for a backlash that would lead to the second gruesome image.
The Image of 40 Slain Bodies on the Banks of the Nile
In light of the developments outlined above, the counterrevolutionary forces – comprising a mixture of the Sudanese military, Gulf-country allies, and armed tribal militias – decided to crush the uprising just as it was reaching the level of maturity needed to enact significant political and social change. After highly organized resistance committees foiled a military attempt to evict the sit-in on 22–23 May 2019, the armed forces struck again on 3 June, launching a ruthless massacre that killed over one hundred demonstrators and injured many more. The eviction of the sit-in was the most brutal moment in Sudan’s revolution to date, crushing the emergent powers of the organized movement in what El Gizouli and Thomas have described as a “moment of baptism for an upcoming generation in the fire and sword of Sudanese power games.” Rape was used as a weapon to crush women’s political leadership and General Himidti publicly threatened workers in the dark days that followed the eviction. Intervention from the international community came too late, as its desire to keep the neoliberal structure of the Sudanese state meant international actors also largely feared the revolutionary movement’s radical demands. The image of 40 activists’ bodies pulled from the Nile marked the end of the Sudanese revolution’s radical formation.
On 21 June 2019, Germany hosted a meeting of the newly formed organization “Friends of Sudan” to form a containment plan in the wake of the scattering of Sudan’s revolutionary movement and dismantling of its sit-in platform by counterrevolutionary forces. The meeting was held without Sudanese representation, dismissing the people’s will and replacing it with a neoliberal international agenda. The “Friends of Sudan” group – including the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt – has come to play a monstrous role in sidelining the demands of the evicted sit-in, generating instead a deal that allows the Sudanese Army and counterrevolutionary militias to maintain power on the condition that they share some of it with a civilian-led government.
In October 2019, Sudan’s interim prime minister issued a decree forming a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the June 2019 massacre. Chaired by a prominent lawyer with human rights credentials, the all-male committee includes representatives from the defense and interior ministries, the very same institutions implicated in the bloodshed. In June 2020, the Commission’s head said that he was not bound by any timetable for stating his findings, which in any case will not be revealed to the public, but delivered directly to judicial authorities. As anticipated, the Commission of Inquiry into the events of 3 June 2019, not unlike the expanding list of other committees set up to investigate incidents of state violence over the past eighteen months, has proven to be a mechanism for blackout and bureaucratic delay.
Sudan’s transitional government is comprised of conventional party members, international NGO employees, and members of the armed forces. Since it was installed, the transitional government has kept driving the country with the same economic policies that sparked the December 2018 uprising in the first place. On 27 February 2020, Sudan’s currency hit record lows against other world currencies, fueling further price hikes for essential goods and leading to shortages of bread and fuel in certain provinces. In El Gezira State, the price of a loaf of bread on the black market was reported to be as high as 5 Sudanese pounds in February 2020, more than double the price in September 2019. Demonstrations demanding bread and fuel and calling for members of the old regime to be sacked, as they still wield enormous power inside the state apparatus, have taken place in Khartoum and White Nile.
Through the beginning of 2021, the bread and fuel queues continued to grow and experts argued about the best way to tackle the economic crisis. Predictably, the message from those following the script set by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF has been a call to deepen neoliberal economic reforms, including lifting subsidies on bread and fuel. For almost two years now, the transitional government has yet to form any legislative body that would allow revolutionary forces to come together again, to exercise their power, and potentially realize demands on the political level. The drafted constitutional document that constitutes the transitional government also legitimizes armed tribal militias. The transitional authority spent more than one year discussing a peace agreement that resulted in changing the government structure to ensure power-sharing with the armed revolutionary movement (SPLAN, JEM), without ending the actual armed conflict on the ground—just as Al-Bashir’s toppled regime had done before.
If we look at the first image from the Sudanese revolution – of the powerful leading woman in the white dress – from a neoliberal perspective, the revolution could be framed as a success, indicating that the second wave of uprisings in North Africa and West Asia fared better this time around. However, if we shift the camera to look at the second image – of the slain bodies of demonstrators lined up on the banks of the Nile – the bloody and destructive consequences of the neoliberal counterrevolution come clearly into focus. Between these two images, hope remains. Even if they are presently dispersed and weak in the face of local and international neoliberal forces, it is only a matter of time before new revolutionary formations and visions emerge, perhaps this time with widespread regional and international solidarity.