In the early hours of Monday, 25 October 2021, the Sudanese military did what it does best: it staged a coup d’état, seized the airwaves, arrested the prime minister, dissolved the government, and declared a state of emergency.
Sara Abbas is a researcher working at the intersection of social movements, gender, and regime change with a focus on Sudan. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Nation, openDemocracy, ROAR, Red Pepper and Discover Society.
This power grab was the latest episode in Sudan’s ongoing revolutionary process that began with the mass uprising of December 2018 and culminated in the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s Islamic military dictatorship in April 2019. Yet the regime did not collapse completely — rather, what emerged in the wake of the uprising, known in Sudan as the “December Revolution”, was an uneasy power-sharing arrangement between the military and the civilian political forces, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC). The coup has put an end to this arrangement, at least for the time being.
The centrepiece of the political settlement over the last two years has been the constitutional document signed in August 2019. It spells out a transitional period during which the new government would ostensibly bring Sudan’s economy back from the brink of collapse, achieve peace, build new institutions capable of combatting corruption and delivering justice, and pave the way for a new, permanent constitution and credible elections.
Mediated by the African Union and backed by international players including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, European Union, and the United Nations, the document also integrated the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the highest levels of government. The RSF, a paramilitary group formed under the auspices of al-Bashir (and nominally attached to the military), was put together mainly from the genocidal Janjaweed militias infamous for the war in Darfur. The agreement gave the RSF a place, through its leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), alongside the FFC and the military on the Sovereign Council formed in 2019.
Earlier this year, the council was expanded to include members of armed movements that signed a peace agreement with the Transitional Government. Since its inception, the Council had been headed by the military, with Hemedti acting as deputy and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the military, helming it. However, according to the constitutional document, its leadership was to pass to civilians after a set period. The agreement also created a mostly civilian cabinet under the leadership of a prime minister, the economist Abdalla Hamdok, who was chosen by the FFC in 2019.
The two years of “transition” following the agreement have been tumultuous. Protests never ceased, not least due to continued conflict in areas such as Darfur, targeted for war by al-Bashir, and the intensification of violence in other regions, especially eastern Sudan. The peace agreements negotiated and signed between the government and different armed movements in 2020, known as the Juba Agreement, added to the already complex FFC-military-RSF formula that governed the country, as these actors also demanded accommodation in state structures.
Prime Minister Hamdok, who inherited a nearly empty treasury, focused much of his efforts on removing Sudan from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List, and by extension on the economy, pursing a largely neoliberal approach that has brought the country more in line with the international economic order and closer to debt relief. That said, his approach did little to address the deep-rooted inequality in Sudan, particularly between the centre, Khartoum, and the marginalized, resource-rich regions. In the wake of the revolution, inflation — a staple of the al-Bashir regime — reached new dizzying heights (304 percent in March 2021, according to the UN), making the cost of living (a trigger for the protests that ignited the revolution) even more untenable for most Sudanese.
Leading Up to the Coup
Tensions had been running high in the country for weeks prior to the coup. As November drew close, the deadline for the military to hand over leadership of the Sovereign Council to civilians loomed. Senior figures in the military began openly attacking the FFC and Hamdok’s cabinet, accusing them of mismanagement.
The streets responded to the military’s increasingly belligerent stance with mass mobilization. On 21 October 2021, the anniversary of the 1964 Revolution, millions came out across the country in support of civilian rule. The message to the military was clear: despite the crisis, conflict, and hunger, despite dissatisfaction even with the civilian component of the government, the Sudanese people remained firmly committed to a democratic transition and steadfastly opposed military rule.
Only four days later, the military coup took place under the pretext of rescuing the country from civil war and correcting the course of the revolution. This discourse is of course very familiar to the Sudanese, who toppled military dictatorships in 1964 and 1985 only to face military coups a few years later.
As part of its power grab, the military cut off the internet and disrupted telecommunications, detained prime minister Hamdok and several members of the central and state governments, dissolved the cabinet and the Sovereign Council, and began releasing well-known Islamists associated with al-Bashir’s regime from prison and reinstating regime members into the civil service.
Mass Civil Disobedience
As news of the coup spread in the early hours of 25 October, civic bodies — including the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the union of (mainly white-collar) trade associations that led the revolution in 2019 — began calling for mass civil disobedience against the military. Despite the systematic intimidation and terror waged by the military since, the campaign of civil disobedience has held strong.
Key to organizing against the coup have been the neighbourhood resistance committees, which have mobilized effectively despite the absence of the internet. Within hours of the coup, much of Khartoum was barricaded — a tried and tested tactic in Sudan. Barricades are used flexibly, removed at times to allow traffic and reinstalled or expanded when danger approaches, such as in the leadup to street protests. Instead of confronting the military and RSF’s monopoly on violence head-on, the youth building the barricades have instead played a game of cat and mouse with them. The barricades are of course more than physical — they symbolize the refusal to accept the military, RSF, police and security forces or allow them free rein. The RSF, whose units travel in pick-up trucks dubbed “thatchers”, are especially reviled.
The widespread strikes and general refusal to work by much of the population can also be said to form another type of “barricade”. The earliest strike, already underway on the first day of the coup, was held by workers in the banking sector. Other sectors soon joined, including doctors, railway workers, and teachers. Diplomats have also rejected the coup, with scores of Sudanese ambassadors declaring their refusal to recognize the putschists. Amongst those who have subsequently been “fired” by Burhan are Sudan’s ambassadors to the EU, China, France, and the US.
Groups like the Sudanese Workers Alliance for the Restoration of Trade Unions (SWARTU), which works to rebuild the power and independence of unions, have issued calls for solidarity to the labour movement globally. Most recently, the Alliance of Trade Unions, a group of 30 unions across private and public sectors, have also called for mass civil disobedience.
For its part, the military, led by Burhan, has responded with a host of attacks on the workers’ movement, from banning unions to arresting and dismissing staff that joined the call for mass civil disobedience or simply refuse to follow orders. The goal of the measures seems to be two-fold: to shut down workers’ ability to organize and to raise the stakes of refusal.
Workers in the oil and gas sector have been targeted. As the Preparatory Committee for the Petro-Energy E &P Syndicate wrote in a statement on 5 November, a campaign of violence against workers in this sector has been unleashed by the military and its agents in the Ministry of Energy. Both the buildings of the Sudanese Oil Company, Sudapet, and the Al-Jili station, a key oil refinery in the North of Khartoum, were stormed by security forces. Two employees, engineer Fadl Abochouk, Acting President of Sudapet, and engineer Mohamed Abdel Basset, Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for PetroEnergy P&E Syndicate, were arrested and taken to undisclosed locations. Several other employees were arbitrarily dismissed.
A number of teachers declared a general strike and organized a vigil on 7 November in front of the buildings of the Khartoum State Ministry of Education. The protest denounced the coup and subsequent reappointment of members of the al-Bashir regime. Many were arrested, raising the number of teachers detained to at least 119.
The March of Millions
On 30 October, and despite the internet blackout, civic groups led by the neighbourhood resistance committees organized large protests. Western media reported hundreds of thousands turning up, but eyewitnesses claim millions protested. What was supposed to be one large protest in Khartoum, for example, ended up being three, as the military shut down bridges to prevent protestors crossing the Nile to other parts of the city.
Several protestors were shot that day, bringing the total number of those killed since 25 October to 15, according to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors. The Committee warns that the actual figure may well be higher, as communication with areas outside Khartoum is limited.
Muzan AlNeel, a leftist activist in Khartoum, noted a marked shift in slogans between the 21 October 21 millioniya (March of Millions) and 30 October, with slogans becoming more stridently anti-military. This is indicative of broader shift in public opinion in the last months: what used to be a radical position in summer 2019 — the complete and immediate removal of the military from power — has today become a mainstream position embraced by millions.
The Resistance Committees Lead the Streets
Although the resistance committees, spread throughout the country and mostly organized at neighbourhood level, are key to understanding the revolutionary movement in Sudan, they are almost entirely absent from international reporting on the country. As AlNeel recently wrote,
The SPA called [in 2019] for the forming of neighbourhood resistance committees, drawing on the earlier experience of the grassroots committees that had been formed during the 2013 protests. The committees became the chief heroes of the uprising [in 2019], conducting impressive work organizing protests on the ground. Just before announcing the one-day strike in March 2019, the SPA had called for the formation of strike committees, or resistance committees, within specific institutions. However, the scope of these committees’ actions remained limited to on-the-ground resistance: an implicit public consensus had been reached that committees should work at the street level to overthrow the regime, while the political leadership should devote itself to preparing a new government and arrangements for the aftermath of the fall of the al-Bashir regime.
The last two years, in which the committees have had to fend off violence by the military/RSF and regime remnants as well as attempts by the FFC to co-opt them, have been nothing short of a laboratory of how grassroots leadership can emerge. Attacks against the committees and protestors have continued. At the same time, horrific revelations kept emerging regarding the extent of the regime’s violence. Scandals included the discovery of mass graves and bodies piled up and rotting in morgues, some thought to belong to those disappeared and murdered during the revolution. Furthermore, after the kidnapping and murder of Baha al-Din Nouri in 2020, it was revealed that the RSF runs its own, private detention centres. On the frontlines of the suffering of communities and their hopes for a better life, the resistance committees have organized themselves further, in some areas forming coordination bodies.
Despite garnering broad support and admiration during the revolution, the committees played second fiddle to the SPA/FFC in 2019, not yet mature or confident enough to do otherwise and excluded by the FFC from high-level decision-making. Today, the committees are no longer content to follow. Since the coup, the three coordination committees of Greater Khartoum (representing the committees in Khartoum, Khartoum North, and Omdurman) have issued joint demands. These demands have been backed by the SPA, various civil society bodies, the Sudanese Communist Party, and some unions. The committees’ position is encapsulated in the slogan: “No partnership [with the military], no negotiation, no compromise.” More specifically, they demand the following:
- Overthrow the military coup and hand over full power to civilians
- Hand over all members of the Military Council to urgent and immediate trials on charges of instituting a military coup
- No dialogue or negotiation with any of the members of the Military Council and members of its Security Committee and reject any interference by foreign powers
- Dissolve all armed militias and reconfigure a national armed force within a specified period and in accordance with a national doctrine aimed at protecting the country’s borders and the people’s rights to freedom, peace, and justice
- Remove all armed and police forces from the political process once and for all by criminalizing the practice of politics by the military
- Form all the structures of the transitional authority within a specific period, under the supervision of the relevant professional and academic bodies
- Complete sovereignty of the Sudanese state regarding all economic, political, and security decisions.
It is important to note is that the coup has only accelerated what was already happening to the committees — a process of growth and, at least in Khartoum, of convergence. It has given new urgency to the task of coordination and brought to the forefront internal debates not only on what is possible and acceptable but also what governance structure the committees should adopt. In the last week, several committees in the capital have announced their spokespersons, signalling the seriousness with which they take the need to speak clearly and visibly.
The role reversal between the SPA and the committees is noticeable as well. Two years ago, they rallied — as did much of the country — around the Declaration for Freedom and Change, spearheaded by the SPA. Although reluctant to accept the constitutional document, they left the national stage to the SPA and its broader coalition, the FFC. Internal divisions within the SPA and public frustration with the lack of implementation of the constitutional document, which the SPA backed and helped negotiate in 2019, have meant that while the SPA is still influential, it is not as effective as it once was, although efforts exist to address internal rifts and meet the challenges of the moment. Since the coup, the SPA has put forth a proposal to revolutionary bodies for discussion, hoping that it can form the basis of a unified political charter.
The resistance committees, which are spread out across the country, are of course highly diverse, and while they agree on certain demands, they are likely to represent various class interests depending on which areas and regions they are situated. In addition, the committees of Khartoum, by virtue of geographic and historical proximity to the seat of power, have much more visibility and “voice”, while for the moment — especially due to the internet black-out — the committees elsewhere have very little in terms of a national platform.
Finally, while no analysis of Sudan today can do the situation justice without highlighting the leading role of the resistance committees, it is crucial to understand that these committees do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are embedded in a context in which a plethora of currents and political formations are emerging, re-emerging, and coalescing — from demand-based bodies to unions, feminist and women’s groups, student activism, and initiatives by internally displaced persons. As such, any analysis that extracts one actor from this context and puts it on a pedestal will fall short. Rather, it is the web of relationships in Sudan — one that is becoming larger, denser, and more complex — that matters most in terms of revolutionary potential.
A Return to the Status Quo?
The two main slogans currently on the streets, “Turning back is impossible!” and “Down with the partnership of blood!”, encapsulate the mood in Sudan. The “partnership of blood” refers to the pact between Burhan and Hemedti, but it also extends to their allies — the shadowy remnants of the regime that still control the economy and parts of the security services, and the regional and international allies that fund and provide technical know-how to them. States such as Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated just how invested they are in Sudanese military rule.
Although much of the international community, led by Germany and the US (as well as its “troika” partners, Norway and the UK) have roundly condemned the coup, and Germany and the World Bank, among others, have suspended aid, the international community is invested in rescuing the constitutional document and with it the pre-25 October status quo. This position is premised on two assumptions: that the deal worked (more or less) and was only disrupted by the coup, and that the military is necessary to ensure stability in Sudan and therefore cannot be excluded entirely.
The problem is that the political settlement, represented by the constitutional document, was deeply flawed from the beginning. Lacking any mechanism for phasing out the military’s dominant role in politics and acting to legitimize the RSF instead of holding it accountable, it only deepened contradictions in the country’s governance. In other words, it delayed the confrontation rather than resolved it. Protestors were assured that the military and RSF would be gradually eased out of power and that those responsible for the killings and looting of the country’s resources would face trial.
The fact that the agreement gave the military control of the Ministries of Defence and Interior and legitimized the RSF as a parallel entity to the military has meant that any attempt to reform the security services is doomed to fail. This is exacerbated by the fact that the institutions envisioned as a counterweight to the military in the constitutional document never got off the ground: the Transitional Legislative Council, Constitutional Court, and independent commissions remain missing.
While some committees, such as the “Dismantling Empowerment Committee”, tasked with tracking and documenting high-level economic crimes by the regime, have made some progress, other efforts have stagnated. Most important, perhaps, is the committee formed two years ago to investigate the 3 June 2019 massacre, when the mass sit-in in front of the Military General Command in Khartoum was brutally dispersed. The dilemma has been clear: while most of the protestors point to the military and the RSF, especially the latter, as the perpetrators of the massacre, the people who control those two bodies sit at the highest levels of the transitional government. The committee has yet to issue its findings.
This constellation has meant that Hemedti and Burhan have only grown in power at the head of the Sovereign Council and amassed a long list of foreign backers with deep pockets and vested interests in continuing the al-Bashir project of turning Sudan into a client state. The two men, while allies, are also competitors, which makes their relationship potentially volatile should their interests diverge.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next. The situation on the ground has changed significantly since 2019, and the old prescriptions are unlikely to work now — in fact, they never did. Furthermore, the Sudanese people are not as likely to “trust in the process”, especially any process that fails to address the fundamental contradictions outlined above. Prime Minister Hamdok (who remains under house arrest) has very much resisted the overtures of the military to become a puppet prime minister. This has allowed him to rebuild trust and rise again in public opinion.
However, Hamdok’s rejection of the military is not the same as embracing a revolutionary path. The ongoing informal negotiations are intense, but not getting far. The FFC has stated that it will only negotiate with the military if Hamdok and other detainees are released and reinstated. So far, the military has not agreed, and in fact hardened its position this past week, announcing a new governing council headed by Burhan and composed of military, RSF, some armed movements, and old faces from the al-Bashir regime. Should negotiations proceed formally, we can expect factions of the FFC to advocate for “a soft landing” for the military. Groups like the SPA, which parted ways with the FFC in 2020, are not likely to agree, and the resistance committees as well as many other revolutionary bodies reject the negotiations entirely.
At the moment, a deal looks unlikely. Should one be reached in the coming months, however, it will first have to be sold to the street. Sociologist Sarah Dawi recently argued that the process of “manufacturing consent”, as she put it, has already begun, and the revolutionary movement needs to be ready to meet it head-on. Securing the consent of the revolutionaries will be even harder this time around than in 2019. The resistance committees already rejected an invitation from Hamdok to meet in private, saying they will not negotiate but are happy to organize public meetings instead.
The tricky part for the revolutionary struggle has been that, thus far, challenging Hamdok and his neo-liberal policies has at times played into the hands of the military and the regime’s architects of return. But as new bodies and alternatives continue to emerge, and more importantly, as they build their capacity to link up, organize together, and present a radically egalitarian vision of governance in Sudan, new possibilities open up. The revolutionary movement — although confident and clear-eyed — is not there yet. How quickly these alternatives can solidify remains to be seen, especially as the coup is also likely to solidify with time.
Meanwhile, given the sordid history of Germany and the EU’s collaboration with the al-Bashir regime on border control, it is critical for solidarity in Germany and beyond to focus first and foremost on confronting imperialist interventions in the country. The most important thing that Europeans can do for the Sudanese revolution is hold their own governments accountable for the wheeling and dealing that puts the demands and aspirations of the Sudanese people last.
Secondly, real pressure should be exerted to track and shut down the illegal sources of RSF and military funding, something that can only be done at the international level given that the predatory economy that fuels the counterrevolution is part and parcel of western capitalist economies.
A third and important aspect of global solidarity should focus on exerting pressure on the military to release detainees, restore telecommunications in the country, and refrain from using deadly force at protests and against dissidents and communities. From experience, we must also prepare for more violence should the military feel backed into a corner or want to improve its negotiating position.
At time of writing, 13 November, the revolutionaries are staging another millioniya and protestors have once again been met with bullets and tear gas, leading to more civilian deaths. Only one thing is certain: the pressure from the streets will not let up anytime soon.