New Books | Learning from uprisings in Africa and Asia

In their chapter in this book edited by Jade Saab, Azza Mustafa and Sara Abbas glean the lessons to be learned from Sudan’s December Uprising.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from the chapter “Learning from Uprisings: Sudan’s December Revolution” by Azza Mustafa and Sara Abbas in A Region in Revolt: Mapping the Recent Uprisings in North Africa and West Asia (Daraja Press & TNI, 2020) edited by Jade Saab.

December 2018: Protests grow into a revolution

The popular movement in 2018 began with a demonstration on 13 December in the city of ad-Damazin, in the Blue Nile region. This was followed by a demonstration on the 19th in the city of Atbara, home to the once powerful Railway Workers Union. Protests quickly spread to different cities. Initially against skyrocketing prices, especially of bread, they soon became an umbrella for a range of grievances with one demand: the fall of the regime. In the weeks that followed, the slogan “tasgut-bes” (loosely translated from Sudanese Arabic to “just fall – that’s all”) became a rallying cry across the country. It announced that the intention of the movement was not to negotiate or equivocate, but to keep going until the regime was no more. The regime arrested several Darfurian students, forced confessions from them and accused them of being members of rebel movements and fomenting the unrest. This was rejected by protesters who chanted: “The whole country is Darfur!”

The banned Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) rallied behind the protests. People responded to the SPA’s first call for a march on the Presidential Palace on 25 December 2018. The march was successful despite the usual repression. The SPA had already begun coordinating in secret with other political forces. After 25 December, using its Facebook page, the SPA announced protest schedules. Tens of thousands started to adhere to the weekly schedules of marches, starting with neighbourhood mawakib (processions) who made their way through the teargas, bullets and arrests to join with other mawakib in one, or several central locations. Youth, especially those under 30, known in Sudan as “the Inqaz generation”, rallied around the primary tactic: non-violent civil disobedience.

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Under the leadership of the SPA, a “Declaration of Freedom and Change” was signed, uniting most of the opposition political forces. 1 January 2019 was symbolic: it was the 63rd anniversary of the country’s independence. The declaration further galvanised the movement around a concrete set of demands. It called for:

  1. An immediate and unconditional end to the regime. 
  2. The formation of a representative transitional government of “qualified people … receiving the consensus of the majority”, which would rule for four years during which it would: negotiate peace, secure voluntary return for the displaced, address the root causes of conflict, oversee the dismantling of the one-party state, stop the free-fall of the economy, redirect state resources to health, housing and education, secure women’s rights, and hold a constitutional conference and credible elections.
  3. An immediate end to violations against peaceful protesters, the repeal of all laws restricting freedoms and the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against the people.

The declaration ended with a vow to “continue taking to the streets and leading the nonviolent struggle” until demands are met.

The declaration was signed by 22 entities including the SPA, the National Consensus Forces, Sudan Call Forces, No to the Oppression of Women initiative, MENSEM (a coalition of women’s groups and activists), the resistance committees and others. The signatories formed the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a main player in the revolution since.

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The killing of young people and the violence against protesters further highlighted the extent to which a continuation of the status quo was no longer possible.

The protests gained steam in early 2019. The SPA’s statements and civil disobedience “schedules” posted on the group’s Facebook page became, almost, revolutionary law. Most protesters did not know the names of the individuals who made up the organisation, with the exception of a few of its spokespersons (those in Sudan had been imprisoned early on).

Sudanese in the diaspora began to organise, holding solidarity protests in cities such as Berlin, London and Washington DC, funnelling money into the country to treat the injured and using social media to disseminate information and calls for solidarity.

In February 2019, with the uprising growing, al-Bashir dissolved the government and declared a year-long state of emergency, banning all unauthorised gatherings and giving security forces sweeping powers to quash the protests. Civilian, NCP-affiliated governors of the states were also removed and replaced by military governors. A nightly curfew was imposed but was broken continuously by protesters through localised protests.

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In the weeks leading up to April 2019, the SPA called for a millioniya (a march of millions) on 6 April 2019, a highly symbolic date: the day in 1985 when the Intifada succeeded in removing the regime of Nimeiri. People turned out in droves in many cities around the country. They were met with violence. In Khartoum, protesters faced tear gas and bullets in the area in front of the General Command of the Sudanese Armed Forces. In defiance, they occupied the area, erecting barricades to defend themselves. Pitched battles ensued with the military, security forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

On 6 April 2019 and the days that followed, more protester lives were lost. Some of the lower-ranked soldiers, who had been ordered to attack the protesters, defended them instead, with some losing their lives while others were court-martialled. Between 6 and 10 April, the Khartoum sit-in swelled and sit-ins were held in at least 12 other cities across the country.

On 11 April 2019, the military removed the dictator from power, taking al-Bashir and the top regime officials into custody. As in 1985 and 1964, the military formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC). General Ibn Ouf, closely affiliated with al-Bashir, headed the Council. Hundreds of thousands, if not a million, gathered to celebrate, chanting: “The revolution has just begun!” The coup was rejected by SPA and FFC and the protesters.

Revolutionary actors

The most important actors in Sudan’s revolution are the millions of people who chose to join in collective civil disobedience at great risk to themselves. In a country where 61% of the population is under the age of 25, this was a revolution of young people. They had been dispossessed of a future, hated the regime and distrusted politicians. Even those who graduated from university faced a life of crushing unemployment. Others, who came from areas of the country that have long been looted by the state and targeted by its war machine, its extractive apparatus and its militias, faced even worse odds. For many, immigration to Khartoum or other “safe” but economically depressed cities in Sudan, or to the Arab Gulf, Europe or beyond, has for decades been one of the few options for survival.

Although refusing to join political parties, many young people have nevertheless been active for years in political groups on university campuses, taking part in student demonstrations, or as part of protest groups such as Girifna, Change Now or regional or ethnically based associations. Many more joined voluntary groups such as the “Nafeer”, “Street of Accidents”, “Charity” or others. These initiatives, built on Sudanese ideals of mutual aid and cooperation, have focused on providing social services and disaster relief that the state was unwilling to deliver. The regime had often tried to suppress or coopt them. As such, civil society is a major terrain of struggle, even if not explicitly political, but rather focused on self-help and service provision.

Sudanese men, women and children displaced from the rural areas and the war-affected regions were an important constituent of the protesters. Sudan has one of the highest internally displaced persons (IDP) populations in the world. Many were forced to move into the peripheries of cities, often with no running water, electricity, proper roads, safe housing, schools or reliable transport. Their displacement created a centre-periphery divide where the police assumed the role of “guardians of the affluent urban areas against perceived political and social threats from the countryside and peri-urban regions of the towns, which have been treated collectively as sources of criminals but not of victims”.

Thus, the mass sit-in in Khartoum was not only an occupation by protesters of the heart of the city’s real estate, but also an occupation by the displaced from the peri-urban areas of the city’s centre – usually excluded unless they found work. Furthermore, processions began arriving, between April and June 2019, from all over the country to reinforce the sit-in.

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Not only were women an integral part of the processions and sit-ins – often more numerous than men – but also many mawakib, especially those from the war-affected areas and from displaced communities, were predominately made up of women. While women played important roles in both the 1964 and 1985 uprisings and opposition women’s groups have long resisted the regime, women’s mass participation and leadership in the December Revolution was unprecedented in Sudan’s political history.

In terms of institutional actors, the SPA was the main organised revolutionary actor. The SPA is part of the rich history of unions and trade associations in Sudan, a history that is deeply intertwined with the legacy of resistance to military dictatorship. The threat posed by unions and trade associations in organising and leading the overthrow of authoritarian regimes is the reason that among the first orders after the coups d’état of 1969 and 1989 was the dissolution of unions. Some of the earliest projects of those regimes was to replace them with unions under state control.

The beginnings of the SPA can be traced to 2012. Faced with austerity measures by the government, the Teachers’ Committee wrote a memo to the Congress of the Legitimate Doctors Union. The memo proposed forming a united body of independent unions and associations. That year saw strikes by doctors and teachers and the beginning of the revival of several other unions and associations. Responding to the call by the Teachers’ Committee, eight bodies joined together to form the SPA in July 2012: the Teachers’ Committee, the Legitimate Doctors Union, the University Teachers, the Doctors’ Association, the Journalists’ Network, the Free Lawyers’ Front, the Association of Bank Employees and the Initiative to Reclaim the Engineers’ Union. In the struggles of subsequent years, some of these groups left while others joined as new bodies emerged. In December 2013, the first formal meeting of the SPA’s Council took place, during which it drew-up a charter and plan of work.

In August 2018, the SPA carried out a study on wages. On 18 December 2018, SPA members protested in front of the buildings of the General Federation of Sudanese Trade Unions (the state-controlled union body). The latter refused to receive the SPA’s memo demanding a raise in the minimum wage and an improvement in living conditions. That same day, the media committees of teachers and doctors issued mobilisation notes to their members, making the case for the unions to join the protests. They changed a planned 25 December 2018 march for professionals into a general call for a march on the Republican Palace in Khartoum. From that point on, the SPA clearly and unequivocally joined the movement for the fall of the regime.

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The FFC, brought together by the Declaration for Freedom and Change, is another actor within the revolution. It is made up of complex alliances and at times competing agendas. Since 2019, some groups have left while others have entered the coalition. In the public eye, the presence of the SPA and the civil society bodies in the coalition has been key to the acceptance of the FFC as a voice to speak on behalf of the protest movement. This acceptance is cautious, however, since some entities within it have flirted with the regime in the past.

In stark contrast to the political parties who make up the FFC, many of whom are perceived by youth to represent worn out modes of politics, stand the Resistance and Change Committees. While some of these committees predate the revolution, most emerged during it. They are the main innovation of the December Revolution. These are grassroots organisations, mostly neighbourhood-based, working in secret during the early months of the revolution to help with communications between the SPA/FFC and local people. They also organised local protests, mobilised for strikes, undertook barricade-building and defence actions, helped the families of the injured and killed, kept the memory of the martyrs from the area alive, organised the mawakib, and many other activities. The committees were established in a decentralised manner enabling each area and region to make decisions that made sense in their particular context. Resistance committees became a challenge for the security services as they were difficult to control and were frequently targeted by them.

The resistance committees’ role during the revolution was to implement protest plans as well as to ensure that the SPA and FFC were aware of local demands and ensure that these were taken seriously. They collaborated with the FFC but were not under its control. They see themselves (and have increasingly become seen by the public) as the safety valve of the revolution. 

Neighbourhood service committees also emerged during the revolution, overlapping often with the resistance committees. They provided (and continue to provide) services that the local areas need in the vacuum left by local government. 

The resistance committees became a key revolutionary player especially from April 2019 onwards, when they helped organise and defend the sit-ins. They also imbued the revolution’s demands with music, lyricism and language, animating the resistance and helped to form a protest culture. Their rise as a pressure group and as a political force has meant that they cannot be ignored by either the FFC or the military. Their emergence represented the emergence of a new form of popular resistance and a new, powerful actor in the Sudanese political arena.

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