Sudan: “Russia in 1917 must have felt like Khartoum 2019”

Sudanese soldiers welcomed by protestors who regard them as protection against security forces (photo: wikimedia commons)

The overthrow of Omar al Bashir by the Sudanese masses on 11 April is one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Sudanese masses, on the continent and in the Middle East. It has simultaneously inspired the masses throughout Africa and instilled fear in despotic regimes in the region.


A Financial Times journalist observing these tumultuous events was moved to write: “One cannot know for sure what Russia felt like in 1917 as the tsar was being toppled, or France in 1871 in the heady, idealistic days of the short-lived Paris Commune. But it must have felt something like Khartoum in April 2019.”

The London Guardian (5/05/2019) reports that “within days of the removal of Bashir, Saudi’s purse strings loosened. Along with the UAE, it pledged a $3bn aid package to prop up Sudan’s economy and thus the transitional military government…. Gulf News ran a profile of the current head of the transitional military council saying that “during the war in southern Sudan and the Darfur region, he served on [sic] important positions, largely due to his civic manners and professional demeanour”.

“The editorial started with a panicked homage to Sudan as “one of Africa’s and the Arab world’s most strategic countries.” A senior United Arab Emirates minister last week tried to frame the sudden interest and largesse towards Sudan as a wise precaution after the tumult of the Arab spring. “We have experienced all-out chaos in the region and, sensibly, don’t need more of it,” he lectured.

“But this newfound affection for oh so strategic Sudan and its civic-mannered military leaders has more to do with the Saudi royal family’s heightened insecurity about its own fate than it does with maintaining stability. The danger of a Sudanese revolution is in its optics, in the sense of possibility that it suggests…regime change.”

The fact that Bashir had been able to overcome several crises before had led to delusions of invulnerability. This uprising was different. Whereas brutality had preserved his regime before, this time, the widespread repression including the arrest of activists and a death toll of approximately, 60, the masses would not be deterred.

That courage and determination was reflected in the fact that the masses chose the 6th April to take the revolution directly to the seat of his dictatorship, the military complex that housed his residence where the masses have set up camp ever since. Within five days, Bashir’s 30-year reign had ended.

The movement was precipitated by the Bashir regime’s decision to follow the advice of the IMF by cancelling fuel and wheat subsidies. In a country where only 3% of the national budget is allocated to education and even less to health, and expenditure consumed by the cost of dealing with insurgencies in the South Kordofan, Darfur and the Blue Nile regions, the burden of these measures fell directly on the working class and the poor in city and countryside.

The lifting of US sanctions in 1997 had failed to provide economic relief. The economic situation had deteriorated significantly since the independence of oil–rich South Sudan in 2011. It meant the loss of oil revenue, concentrated in South Soudan. Accelerated by the devaluation of the Sudanese pound on IMF advice, inflation soared to 72%, the second highest in the world after Venezuela. The economic crisis was aggravated by rampant looting which had placed Sudan at number 175 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Suitcases loaded with more than $351,000, €6m ($6.7m; £5.2m) and five billion Sudanese pounds ($105m) were found at Mr Bashir’s home.

In these circumstances, although the IMF-dictated measures serve as the straw that broke the camel’s back this movement was not going to end as in so many other countries, as just another “IMF food riot”. Starting in mid-December in Atbara, a city in River Nile state, about 180 miles from Khartoum, they spread across the country, swept along even marginalized peripheries like El-Gadarif in eastern Sudan and Nyala and El Fashir in Darfur, where thousands have been killed and hundreds of villages destroyed in counterinsurgency. This is the longest, most widespread and sustained movement of the Sudanese masses in the post-colonial period.

The intensity of the protests caused panic within the coalition of generals, security chiefs and Islamist politicians within the ruling National Congress Party. The hard-liners pressed for a brutal crackdown, but army commanders argued for restraint. These internal conflicts were reflected in the intervention by rank-and-file soldiers in the army to protect the crowds when militia forces and units of the feared National Intelligence and Security Services fired heavy tear gas and bullets at the protesters.

Under the hot breath of the revolution, the military was compelled within twenty four hours to replace al Bashir’s replacement, Lieutenant General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, rejected by the masses as too close to al-Bashir’s regime, with General Abdel-Fattah Burhan.

At the time of writing, the stalemate between the masses and the military that resulted from the revolutionary uprising that forced Omar al Bashir from office continues. Fearing that the overthrow of the former dictator by the direct action of the revolutionary movement would pose the question of the construction of a new order led by the masses themselves, the military took action to head off the movement, carried out a coup, forcing Omar al Bashir from office. This was as much a palace coup against Bashir, as it was a counter-revolutionary act by the army generals against the masses.

Posturing as sympathetic to the aims of the masses, the army is warning about “chaos and anarchy” in favour of an “orderly transition.” The military has set up an interim Transitional Council, headed by lieutenant-general Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, who has promised to “uproot the regime,”vowed to restructure state institutions and end the night curfew. The army suspended the constitution, dissolved the government, declared a three-month state of emergency, imposed a one-month curfew, and closed the country’s borders and airspace. Lt. Gen. Burhan also announced the release of all political prisoners.

The stand-off between the organisation which called the masses into action, the Sudanese Professional Association, and the military is over the composition of the transitional Council. The SPA is demanding a 15 member council with 8 civilians and 7 from the military. The military’s counter proposal is a 10 member council with 7 for the military.

Experience of 2011 Arab Spring

The experience of the 2011 Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, where a regime even more repressive than Mubarak’s has now taken power after the military was able to posture as the “people’s army”, has left its imprint on the consciousness of the Sudanese masses. The Arab Spring has taught the masses to be completely distrustful of the posturing of the military. The military’s immediate aim is to ride the revolutionary wave, portray itself as a neutral independent arbiter sympathetic to the democratic aspirations of the masses, wait for exhaustion to set in, and then to move decisively to reestablish “law and order”.

Military council member, Lieutenant General Salah Abdelkhalik, responding to reports of army plans to disperse the protests, told reporters security forces “will never use violence against protesters”. He also distanced the council from the former government of al-Bashir, saying: “We are part of the revolution and not part of the former regime as people view us.” (Al Jazeera Online — 30/04/2019)

The Sudanese incarnation of the Arab Spring of eight years ago is determined to avoid the fate of that magnificent uprising. Confronted with the same counter-revolutionary machinations of the military as in Egypt in 2011, the masses have met these measures with defiance. Protests have continued with the masses demanding that the military hand control back to the people. In a country in which more than 60 percent of the population is under 25 and around 20 percent is between 15 and 24 years old, it is the youth that has been to the fore in the movement. Most significantly an estimated 70% of demonstrators are women.

The massesare determined that there will be no repeat of a return of the old order or direct military rule.Reflecting the deep suspicions of the masses, theSudanese Professionals Association (SPA), thrust into the leadership of the movement against al-Bashir’s regime has stepped up the pressure on the army. “The military council is a copy cat of the toppled regime. The army is trying to disperse the sit-in by removing the barricades,” the SPA said.” (Al Jazeera Online — 30/04/2019)

Responding to threats by the army to put an end to the “chaos” the SPA called for a “million strong march” on 2nd May to break the deadlock over the composition of the Transitional Council. What in reality is playing itself out is a trial of strength between revolution and counter-revolution. This stalemate cannot endure indefinitely. It must be resolved in favour of the masses or in favour of the ruling elite.

The Sudanese uprising is a resounding confirmation of one of the foundations of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution – the complete incapacity of the colonial bourgeoisie to carry through even the most basic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution much less fulfill even the most modest aspirations of the masses. The post-independence elite has not only presided over economic dislocation, the failure to keep Sudan together as a single state, but also allowed the country to become the playground of competing regional powers in the Gulf and their imperialist masters.

In determining the way forward, the Sudanese masses will not only use the Arab Spring, the greatest achievement of which, the ousting of a dictator, they have already achieved , and whose limitations – the return of the old order under the military, they remain determined to prevent, as a point of reference. They will also reopen the pages of their own rich history of struggle.

This is the 6th military coup since independence. Importantly, from the standpoint of the way forward for the revolution, three of those coups were in fact carried out to cut across and suppress the mass uprisings. But the lessons of the October Revolution of 1964 and April Intifada of 1985 were that both succeeded against the military. The former ousted the Sudan’s first military regime, the latter the second.

There can be no trust in the military. As well-known activist figure, Ali Elhasan, arrested in January, and taken to the so-called “refrigerator” at Shandi prison, but returned immediately to the protests the day before Bashir was ousted, points out: The old regime “is still represented in the security forces and in the economy. They have militias and they still have guns and they have money. We have a window of opportunity … We can’t wait.”

The organisation at the forefront of the movement, the Sudanese Professionals Association, is an umbrella association of 15 different trade unions first formed in October 2016. Under its umbrella are the Forces of National Consensus, the Sudan Call and other political parties including the Sudanese Communist Party. It campaigned for the introduction of a minimum wage and participated in protests against the rising cost of living in Sudan. Prominent in the SPA are lawyers, doctors and university lecturers.

The SPA proposals for a Transitional Council that will include the military suggests that it has not drawn the lessons of either the Arab Spring, the October Revolution of 1964 and the intifada of 1985. They reflect the middle class character of the SPA leadership and the inclination to find an imaginary middle way between the Bashir’s dictatorship and a genuinely democratic regime based on the working class and the poor.

The activist Elhasan is among a group that began pushing early in the protests for daily demonstrations, in opposition to the SPA, which wanted a more incremental approach.“I have been sleeping here since I got out,” he said at a pavement cafe at the sit-in. “We won’t allow decisions to be made away from people. It has to be transparent. We’re here to keep up pressure on the [opposition coalition] so that they understand that their negotiations with the Transitional Military Council are on behalf of the protesters.”

The military includes General Auf who is a graduate of the Cairo Military Academy and maintains close links with Egyptian strong man president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It is led by Durhan, responsible for Sudan’s operations alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The deputy leader Mohammad Hamdan aka Himeidti, is the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, a private military force which was partially integrated into the military and security services. The unit is regarded by many as a re-branded version of the Janjaweed militias of which Himeidti was himself a part, which carried out massacres in Darfur in 2003. He has 7,000 troops stationed in Yemen on the Saudi Arabian payroll. It also includes the ruthless and ambitious chief of the intelligence services, Salah Abdalla Gosh, who controls powerful forces in the capital, and has close links to intelligence services, including the C.I.A., and has recently been particularly associated with the United Arab Emirates.

Class collaborationist policies

It is enough to set out these facts to recognise the grievously mistaken approach of the SPA. Nor does the Sudanese Communist Party offer a way forward. It calls for “Freedom, peace, justice” and goes on, “Revolution is the people’s choice. The Sudanese Communist Party and all the opposition forces are adamant in their resolve to continue the fight until the establishment of a civilian government that represents the masses and implements the democratic alternativeprogram accepted by all the forces, the Professionals Alliance, and the armed groups.”

This position unfortunately is drawn directly from the class collaborationist policies of Stalinism that have aided the counter-revolution in many countries. It is the direct opposite of the policy of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the 1917 revolution who opposed joining any government committed to working with capitalism and campaigned to win majority support for a workers’ and peasants’ government that would break with capitalism.

Until now the unity and resolve of the masses remains unbroken. Attempts by religious leaders to discredit the movement were repulsed. Claims that the movement was inspired by the Sudanese Liberation Army in Darfur were met with the defiant chant: “We are all Darfur.”

Reflecting the close cultural ties between the SPA leadership and the Sudanese elite, it issued a call for a cleaning campaign in which women should be in the forefront because: “because you care more about it.” It was met with outrage and an apology from the SPA. Amongst the repressive measures against women are compulsory dress codes for the violation of which they are flogged. There is no gender equality in the mainly Muslim country, where female genital mutilation is still practised – almost 90% of Sudanese women have been cut. The SPA was forced to retract that insult.

The energy of the movement has been sufficient to bring the uprising to its present conjuncture. But, in the absence of a mass workers party, the SPA has stepped into the vacuum. However the SPA, while opposing military rule, is attempting to form a civilian led capitalist government. But such a government, even if called “transitional”, would by its very nature not break the grip of the ruling class and imperialism, something that would, sooner or later, pose the threat of counter-revolution, something seen before in Sudan and in other revolutions.

The masses need to establish their own power, counterposed to that of the same regime that continues without Bashir and even to the SPA upon which pressure must be exerted to break completely with the military. The fraternization between the rank-and file soldiers that occurred when the hardliners were preparing to crackdown in April shows the potential power of the masses themselves.

What is now urgently needed is the consolidation of the unity that has propelled the movement forward till now. The action committees in areas such as in Atbera where the uprising began, must be replicated throughout the country as a step towards laying the groundwork for the independent power of the masses. The basic steps of organisation that have been taken at the mass occupation outside the military headquarters, Sudan’s Tahrir Square, including the establishment of committees to feed people, for security, to control traffic, even a clinic, must be taken into the rest of the country, to take control of workplaces and production.

Linked together these committees, including local unions, workers, and other forces of the revolution, a local, state-wide and national level, workers’ committees can provide the basis for an alternative state structure that can seize power from the military and form a government led by representatives of the workers and poor.

Sudanese society can overcome the impasse of capitalism only through a socialist revolution. This requires a mass party of the working class on a socialist programme. Such a programme must include the idea of a planned economy, democratically controlled by the working class and the poor.To win affordable prices for food and fuel, wage rises and a shorter working week, it is necessary to fight for nationalisation of the major industries and the land of the big landowners, under working class democratic control and management. On the basis of a socialist plan it would be possible to invest in job creation, decent housing, health care and education.

It must call for:
• the immediate scrapping of all discriminatory laws oppressing women
• freedom of religion and a separation of church and state
• defence of democratic rights
• the repudiation of foreign debt
• the withdrawal of troops from Yemen and the cessation of military repression of oppressed nationalities and the recognition of the right to self determination
• a government led by democratically elected representatives of the workers’ and poor
• for a socialist Sudan united on a federal basis


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May 2019