Sudan has been rocked by extensive anti-government protests since December 19, unprecedented in their geographic scope and duration. People in the diaspora have come out in large numbers worldwide in front of Sudanese embassies to showcase their solidarity with the heroic struggle of their brothers and sisters. In contrast, most media outlets in neighbouring countries have been silent about this new stage of the brewing Sudanese revolution, afraid that the collapse of Omar al-Bashir’s three decades long dictatorship might provoke a new wave of uprisings across the region.
The immediate trigger of this enraged outburst was the removal of state subsidies on flour, which has greatly increased the price of bread – the umpteenth move in a long series of anti-poor policies adopted by the regime of al-Bashir. These measures were enacted by the regime to comply with International Monetary Fund “recommendations”. The government has exceeded its borrowing limit from the IMF and to pay its debts back, it is following what the IMF dictates, which is to make the Sudanese workers and poor swallow ever more austerity pills.
The first demonstration started in Atbara, historically a working-class hotbed of anti-government protest and the birthplace of the Sudanese trade union movement, located in the north-eastern state of River Nile. Afraid that an increase of the prices of bread in the capital Khartoum would carry too much political risk, the regime had decided to use the River Nile State as a testing ground for its move. The price of bread tripled overnight, and the regime’s tactic backfired, provoking the biggest protests in this part of Sudan for years.
After the government announced that the costs of school meal would more than double, school students in Atbara took to the streets and were joined by hundreds of people in their march to the city centre. Protesters set fire to the main office of the ruling party (National Congress Party, or NCP) as well as the local government headquarters and ransacked offices of the notorious NISS (security services). Protests continued into the night and spread to various other towns of the same state, as well as in Port Sudan, the capital of the Red Sea state. Slogans targeted the regime and the worsening living conditions. A state of emergency and curfew was declared in Atbara and all schools were shut down in the city.
On the second day, demonstrations continued in all the River Nile towns despite the state of emergency, and also spread to Al-Gadarif in the far east of the country, where at least six people were killed by the security forces, including from snipers’ bullets. Protests started in Al-Obeid, the capital of the state of North Kurdufan, in Dongola in the North, where protesters torched the government secretariat buildings and burned it to the ground. Protests also erupted in dispersed areas of the capital Khartoum, the largest being in Jackson’s Square, the main public transport hub in downtown Khartoum, where protesters chased the police away.
On 21st December, after the Friday prayers, demonstrations continued to spread, and angry protesters in the White Nile state burnt down the ruling party headquarters and the local state building. By then, five states had already declared a nighttime curfew. To try and stem the expanding movement, the government banned all social media apps, shut down the internet, and the Education Minister suspended classes and closed all universities and schools. From the next day, cities and towns in the western parts of the country started to rise up in protest as well, including in North and South Darfur.
From the beginning, the regime and its security forces opted for cold-blooded repression, and were often taken aback by the determination of enraged protesters, particularly women and youth. A CWI supporter living in Khartoum reported nightly scenes of “urban guerrilla warfare” in the capital’s outskirts, with young protestors lighting fires in various street locations and using Molotov cocktails to trick and exhaust the police and the heavily armed NISS units. At least 37 people have been killed so far and hundreds wounded; scores of protesters have been detained and tortured. But this bloodshed has not deterred people from keeping the struggle going. Among the slogans chanted in the streets against the regime are: “Bullets don’t kill but submission does”. This reflects a widespread sentiment among the Sudanese people that the situation has become so bad that nothing is as worse as doing nothing, even if that means putting one’s life on the line. As one Sudanese woman interviewed by the BBC put it: “Whether you go out and die in a protest or stay in and die of hunger…Well, let’s protest then”. This mood explains why the repressive actions by regime forces have so far only helped the movement to propagate and radicalise itself.
An economy in shambles, a regime in panic
The bread subsidy removal was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. Inflation is already running at close to 70% according to government data (some economists put the real inflation at double the official rate), and the Sudanese pound has plunged in value. The end of US economic sanctions in October 2017 has seen no improvement in the life of ordinary Sudanese; instead, with the sanctions removed, the regime found itself naked in front of its own people, with no one else to blame.
Most people are struggling to afford essentials, and shortages in several commodities including bread and fuel are recurrent across many areas including Khartoum. Reports describe people sleeping in their cars for two days waiting to fill up on gas, and queues of hundreds of people lining up to buy bread or withdraw cash from the banks. In the capital city, there are no jobs even as people migrate from other parts of the country to look for work and a better life. The city is overcrowded, there is a lack of affordable housing, violence and crime are rampant.
All these factors have compounded a generalised anger. But importantly, the protests have quickly moved onto the political plane, adopting from day one an explicitly anti-regime character. Slogans and chants to overthrow the despised, oppressive rule of al-Bashir are widespread, finding echoes even in football stadiums, and there is a perception in the streets that the current movement has the potential to sound its death knell. It is reported that in some localities, imams calling for obedience to the authorities were removed from their mosque pulpits, and that demonstrators in al-Nuhud and Al-Gadarif stormed the depots of the Zakat chamber and claimed the stored food for themselves. Such fervour and fearlessness are testament to the nurturing of a revolutionary situation.
A sense of helplessness, hesitation and panic is perceptible in the ruling strata, in the face of a movement that has hit even in the NCP’s heartlands, exposing the collapse of the regime’ support base. A local observer commented: “The shock of the past few days is that the very people to whom the government has long appealed to, as the guardians of northern Sudanese chauvinism and beneficiaries of riverine advantage, are drumming with their feet for the overthrow of the regime.”
Al-Bashir himself is wavering: on the one hand, adopting a conciliatory tone calling on the security forces to respect the right to protest and promising economic reforms, and on the other hand, issuing vitriolic denunciations of protesters as traitors, mercenaries and foreign agents. On Tuesday 25th December, a march on the presidential palace demanding al-Bashir to step down was organised by an array of professional unions and opposition parties in Khartoum. It was the biggest of its kind in years, with thousands of demonstrators chanting slogans like “The people want to overthrow the regime”, and “Freedom, peace, justice and revolution”. It was fended off by security forces, who resorted to brutal beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, mass arrests and live ammunition. Yet al-Bashir himself had left the capital in fright ahead of the march.
Other reactions from parts of the state machine have betrayed signs of weakness, divisions and fear. “I have never seen them panicking like this”, commented an activist quoted in the New York Times. The ranks of the army, in particular, seem to show no appetite to intervene against the movement. Elements of the Sudanese army were captured on smartphone cameras intermixing with protestors in Atbara and Al-Gadarif, and even protecting protesters from the deadly repression carried out by the police, the NISS and the regime’s militias. But even the police itself stepped aside on more than one occasion.
Although days into the protests, the military command came up with a public statement in support of the country’s leadership, it significantly did not mention al-Bashir by name, as if to keep its cards open for the various political scenarios opening up. Later in the week, the main leader of the “Rapid Support Force”, a vicious pro-government paramilitary unit, was filmed telling several thousand troops that they should show “solidarity” with the Sudanese people and that the government was to blame for the inflation that sparked the protests. On 27 December, the Health minister of the Northern State resigned, the first high-ranking official to leave since the revolt started.
Sudanese doctors and medical staff launched an indefinite strike on 24 December aiming to “paralyze” the government, calling on members of other professions to join their nationwide work stoppage in solidarity with the movement. On the 27 December, journalists followed suit with a three days strike in protest at the “violence unleashed by the government against demonstrators”, and also at the regular confiscation of newspapers by security agents and the beatings and arrests of media workers covering protests.
A number of independent professional unions (doctors, pharmacists, engineers…) have called for a general strike, but this hasn’t materialised yet. Official workers’ unions are tightly controlled by the government and have therefore remained silent on the burning questions facing the mass movement. Yet the social anger is running deep underneath, and the strikes initiated by some professional sectors along with the intrepidity of the youth could embolden the most downtrodden sections of the working class to make a move.
Sudan has a long history of workers’ struggles. If now the Sudanese working class could come together in protest through mass strike and protest actions, it could spell the end of al-Bashir’s rule, as it did with the military rules of Abboud and Nimeiri in the past. The removal of pro-regime union officials from the workplaces, their replacement by genuine workers’ representatives, and the creation of independent workplace bodies and trade unions are burning tasks of the day. The professional unions and grassroots activist networks should not wait before setting a date for a general strike and start a mass campaign across the board to that effect, calling on students, young people, poor farmers, unemployed and small traders to join in a mass show of strength to bring down the current regime.
It is reported that in some places, like in Atbara, popular neighbourhood committees have emerged. Such bodies can help structuring the struggle locally, to put people together and discuss all the practical and political questions of the day. If enlarged in all communities, workplaces and amongst the ranks of the army, they can help coordinating the resistance against the regime and its repression, maintaining order, organising vital supplies, etc. Above all, if structured on a local, state-wide and national level, they can provide the backbone for an alternative power structure based on the will of the revolutionary people, that can seize power from the corrupt and repressive al-Bashir regime, and pre-empt the political hijacking of the current struggle.
Indeed, while the masses have shown their relentless determination to act, there is a lack of leadership and most of the political parties and opposition forces do not have a clear programme to take the movement forward. Indeed many of them actually fear a mass movement of the workers and poor as something that can threaten the capitalist system they defend. Some of them, like the National Umma Party, have compromised into regular alliances with the regime in the past.
The call issued by the Sudanese Communist Party to “unite and work together to coordinate the movement” is a welcome step insofar as it pertains to strengthening the mass movement that exists. However, addressed as it is to “all opposition parties”, it unfortunately fails to draw a line with those sections of the political opposition in Sudan who are keen to see al-Bashir ousted, but who do not represent a break from big business, and whose primary interests are objectively opposed to the class interests of the living forces involved in the current uprising.
The overthrow of the regime must allow for a radical restructuring of society and should not end up as a cosmetic surface-level change which keeps all the oppressive hierarchies and the brutal economic exploitation of the masses intact. A CWI article already commented in 2014, “The NCP’s sinking ship has meant that both imperialism and sections of the ruling class are planning for the future. They hope that they will be able to restrain the movement of the Sudanese people by replacing the NCP’s regime with a new government that will ensure the continuation of capitalist rule. This is why we, as socialists, oppose the idea of some kind of a ‘consensus’ government, because that would mean no fundamental social change, the capitalist representatives in such a government would not agree to breaking with capitalism, the basis of their power.”
Today’ situation invites similar warnings. The organisers of Tuesday’s march, while correctly demanding al-Bashir to step down, also wanted to submit a petition demanding a “transitional government of technocrats with a mandate agreed upon by all segments of Sudanese society.” Unfortunately, past revolutionary experiences have shown time and again what can be expected from such a “technocratic government”: the removal of the discredited figurehead of the regime, and its replacement with a nominally civilian rule but coupled with the preservation of the pillars of the old state machine and of the riches and economic power of the plundering capitalist elite.
Such a ‘technocratic’ formula; a military coup; the recycling of old political faces; the involvement of ‘fresh’ figures from the pro-capitalist opposition; or variants of the above solutions, won’t address any of the fundamental problems facing the Sudanese masses. To be successful, the revolutionary movement can solely rely on its own struggles and inner organisation. The building of an independent left force is urgent, so as to provide a powerful political instrument campaigning for the interests of the workers, women, peasants and all poor people in struggle to coalesce in a revolutionary government of their own: a government armed with a programme of taking over the assets and wealth of the corrupt ruling clique, nationalising Sudan’s major industries and large farm holdings, and drawing up a democratic socialist plan of production that put the needs of the majority of the population at its heart.