On 9 June millions of people joined a general strike in Sudan aimed at opposing increasingly brutal repression, and dislodging the military leaders who seized power after a previous upsurge of popular protest forced Omar al-Bashir from office on 11 April. The immediate trigger for the general strike was the attack, on 3 June, on a sit-in outside the headquarters of the army in Khartoum. The sit-in that had continued for almost two months was crushed by paramilitaries, the Rapid Support Forces largely formed from the Janjaweed militia. Reports indicate that up to 100 people were killed, and 70 raped, during and after the attack.
The general strike, the occupation of public space and the barricade remain central weapons in the arsenal of a people in motion. From Sudan to Haiti, Palestine and, of course, South Africa, the thick, acrid smoke of burning tyres marks out the shifting front lines of the battles waged by the impoverished of the earth.
But from the Paris Commune in 1871 to the mass protests in La Paz, Bolivia, that brought down presidents in 2003 and 2005, to the occupation of Tahir Square for 18 days in 2011, the price for the entry of the people on to the stage of history has invariably been paid in blood.
Blood price of popular protest
The recent sequence of popular protest in Sudan has been no exception. The paramilitary forces acting in support of the military leaders have frequently resorted to massacre, assault and torture. A grim accumulation of bodies has been retrieved from the backstreets of Khartoum, and recovered from the Nile.
As in the Paris Commune, the cycle of protest that eventually brought Evo Morales to power in Bolivia, and the occupation of Tahir Square, women have been central to the new upsurge of resistance in Sudan. In response, the forces of repression have, as often happens, taken on a specifically gendered form with women protestors being presented as “immoral”, and rape becoming an everyday horror.
There are conflicting reports about the arrest of dozens of officers from the military and the police last week. The state insists that they were planning a coup, but other sources claim that they were arrested for refusing to participate in attacks on the protests. If this is true it would be an encouraging sign that the armed forces are not uniformly committed to sustaining an illegitimate order with repression.
The muscle of the junta
Nonetheless, the junta in Khartoum, which likes to be known as “the transitional military council”, should not be underestimated. It is ruthless and dangerous and receives significant support from the most authoritarian regimes in the region.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has used Egypt’s influence in the African Union, which Sisi currently chairs, to buy time for the junta. Sisi, who led the attacks on protestors in public squares in Cairo in 2013, including the massacre of more than 800 people in the al-Adawiya Square on 14 August of that year, runs a set of prisons – with Wadi el-Natrun, Abu Zaabal, Tora Liman (maximum security unit), Borg al-Arab and al-Aqrab among the most notorious – where tens of thousands of political dissidents are subject to horrific forms of torture. Electric shocks, having fingernails ripped out with pliers, beatings and rape are endemic.
The junta also has strong links to the dictatorships ruling the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which see the protests as a continuation of the Arab Spring of 2011 and, therefore, as a direct threat to their own authority. The Guardian recently reported that Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leaders of the junta, travelled to both countries, where they secured billions of dollars in financial backing. Dagalo travelled on to Jeddah to meet Mohammad bin Salman al Saud, the Saudi crown prince who became an internationally reviled figure after the murder of Saudi dissident author and writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
American power seems focussed elsewhere
In 2003 the conflict in Darfur in Western Sudan became a matter of intense interest to the United States. The Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani described Save Darfur, the American “civil society” campaign, as driven by “a contemptuous attitude” that functioned to mask “a big power agenda to recolonize Africa” and legitimate calls for armed American intervention.
Today the United States is governed by a man who is more buffoon than the blond beast of the fascist imagination. The United Kingdom seems set to soon have to endure its own ludicrous figure in the prime minister’s office. Political buffoonery carries its own dangers but it’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump or Boris Johnson mustering the focused political energies required to make a decisive intervention in North Africa. There does not appear to be the same intense interest on the part of the North Atlantic powers in the outcome of the unfolding drama that was so obvious in 2003. Trump’s attempts to sustain American domination seem more invested in an attempt to subordinate China to American corporations, and in escalating threats of war with Iran, than events in North Africa.
Nonetheless, the language of contemporary imperial power still creeps into much of the reporting on events in Sudan, much of which is mediated by non-government organisations. “Civil society” is substituted for the idea of a people in motion, and opponents of the dictatorship are shoehorned into the often-ill-fitting designation of “human rights defenders”. These rhetorical manoeuvres, which are deployed against more scattered and smaller popular struggles in South Africa too, are aimed at building a liberal, and therefore limited, vision of the future into popular struggle from the outset.
Badiou: 2011 and the rebirth of history
Against this deliberately constipated political language, we should recall that in 2011 a spark, first lit in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid and then fanned into leaping flame in Tunis, spiralled out through Cairo and into Athens, Madrid and New York. The French philosopher Alain Badiou declared that, against the post-Cold War attempt to reduce politics to claims to representation via electoral politics and NGOs, and rule by technocratic elites: “We find ourselves in a time of riots wherein a rebirth of history, as opposed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst, is signalled and takes shape.”
Badiou drew a distinction between immediate riots and historical riots. Immediate riots are located in the everyday territory of the rioters and aimed at local symbols of power. These riots, which are a routine feature of life in South Africa, usually burn themselves out after a few days and leave little in the way of sustained organisation or the generation of emancipatory ideas that can attain wider traction. Historical riots occupy a central urban space, forge direct connections between people from different areas and carry a clear and compelling demand onto the national stage.
In South Africa the closest we’ve come to anything like a historical riot during the last 25 years was the horrific xenophobic pogroms of May 2008. But as the protests of 2011 moved from North Africa, into parts of the Middle East, southern Europe and the United States they courageously opposed brutal United States-backed dictators, raised critical questions about the limits of liberal democracy and offered a compelling challenge to the American fantasy that what’s good for the billionaires is good for the people as a whole.
The Occupy movement and the ‘1%’
Yet, the return of the people to the historical stage in 2011 did not result in fundamental social change. Sisi returned Egypt to the hands of the military in 2014. Despite an electoral mandate for a left party, and an overwhelming referendum vote against European Union-imposed austerity, Greece was handed over to the bankers in 2015. In the United States, a majority of the white electorate chose racism over justice in 2016 and elected a dangerous racist to advance the interests of what the Occupy movement had called “the 1%”.
But the sparks in the ashes of the 2011 moment have not been entirely extinguished. In the United States, some of the spirit of the Occupy movement continues to cohere around Bernie Sanders and, particularly in Algeria and Sudan, the struggle against the dictatorships in North Africa continues.
In a time when electorates, from Australia to India and Turkey, are voting with their basest instincts, and more and more countries are falling into the clutches of the far right, the courage of the millions of people who have resolved to refuse the authority of the military dictatorship in Sudan is a potent reminder that ordinary people retain the capacity to make history. Solidarity, direct solidarity with people in struggle unmediated by NGOs, is an urgent imperative.