Sudan's neighbourhoods and workers vs the military coup

Submitted by AWL on 9 November, 2021 - 8:07 Author: Hamid Khalafallah
Sudan democracy protests

On 7 November a new wave of protests and a mass strike began in Sudan to overturn the military coup of 25 October. We hope to carry more next week. Sudanese civil society activist Hamid Khalafallah spoke to us on 2 November.

What happened after the struggles of 2019?

Many people feel this new coup was almost inevitable, because the arrangements created in 2019 were highly problematic. The military ousted Bashir [authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir] in 2019, and then they wanted to hold on to as much power as possible. In the course of the uprising, they killed a lot of people – for instance when they were dispersing the sit-in in Khartoum. These same generals then became part of the new governance structures as part of the power-sharing agreement that was made. They were central to the Sovereignty Council.

Many of those who had been on the streets were very much against this, and continued to advocate much more radical changes, and for the military leaders to be brought to book. However the politicians in the Forces of Freedom and Change coalition led the negotiations, and that is what they agreed to. In this context it was always likely the military would try to use their position to cause difficulties in the transition.

That is the big issue, but there were other problems too, like the large number of Islamists staffing state institutions, conflicts between different political parties and the integration of armed groups of various kinds into the political sphere as part of the power-sharing agreement. It was all a bit of a mess, and the military has exploited that. A lot of the key tasks, including the establishment of a transitional legislative assembly, were delayed.

Did Covid impact all this?

Yes, that was an excuse for the delays. We didn’t have very long lockdowns in Sudan, but there was a period of lockdown and then the government was very much consumed with responding to the pandemic, particularly with a crisis in our healthcare system. It wasn’t entirely an excuse, but it was partly, and in any case it suited various political actors.

In November the military were supposed to hand over the chair position on the Sovereignty Council, that’s why they’ve acted now. Fundamentally the generals don’t want to lose power because at some point that could mean them losing immunity and having to face justice.

I must say, I thought they would do something, but I didn’t necessarily think it would be an out-and-out coup.

They gained confidence from a few civilian politicians, and some leaders of armed movements, who have sided with them basically in order to gain positions. There is also a minority in society who see the chaos and believe only the military can provide a strong government. I want to stress that’s a minority – I think the military will have been very disappointed with how little popular support they’ve been able to create.

There was actually an earlier coup attempt, in September [on 21 September], but the top military leaders said it wasn’t them, it was a group of Islamists within the military, and they tried to portray themselves as heroes stopping that coup. I think they were testing the waters, with various possible next steps after that. But the general response was no, we will not accept military coups anymore: and people came out even though it was already reported that coup had failed. Then there were big demonstrations for the anniversary of Sudan’s “October Revolution” in 1965 [which overthrew the military regime of Ibrahim Abboud]. Then came the 25 October coup, which in a way is quite surprising given the strength of those protests.

Since then there have been daily demonstrations all over the country. The biggest ones so far were on 30 October. These are the biggest protests since the last uprising began in December 2018. There were also very big protests in the Sudanese diaspora, for instance thousands in London. If you look at the videos from Whitehall it is remarkable, packed with people. Moreover the whole tone and atmosphere of the movement seems more militant this time.

What are the movement’s demands?

Essentially it is for an end to the coup, for a fully civilian government and for the military leaders to be brought to book and held accountable, with speedy trials. Also there are slogan about opposing foreign intervention, but we will come back to that.

So not just to go back to the status quo before the coup?

There is a division there between some of the politicians, who mainly want to go back to the pre-coup situation, amended to weaken the military, and the grassroots movement which is much more radical. Do you know about the neighbourhood resistance committees?

Only the name really.

There are various types of geographically-based grassroots organisations, where people in a particular neighbourhood come together and organise and in some cases hold elections for people to represent the area. There are some committees that regulate life in the neighbourhood and oversee services, essentially a form of local government, though not entirely official. Then there are resistance committees which are there to monitor and act as watchdogs, to make sure the revolution’s demands are being met and everything is advancing.

These committees exist all over the country, though with varying degrees of organisation. In almost all cases people involved in the committees want the military 100% out of the political picture.

How did the committees first emerge?

In 2018-19, lots of people were looking for ways to organise and express demands. The established ways were political parties and trade unions. A lot of young people, especially, did not believe in political parties. They thought they were dominated by old men who only care about winning positions. Trade unions are sometimes perceived as dividing up the movement on the basis of profession. There is also a tradition of unions being coopted by the government. So to a lot of people organising on the basis of geography seemed to make sense.

I think there were some small examples of this kind of organising going back a number of years, as a way of resisting the regime, but then in 2019 they spread fast, partly as a way of people defending their neighbourhoods when they were attacked by the military. They have continued to exist and spread, as a way of trying to push forward the transition to democracy, and now in the last weeks they have surged up for obvious reasons.

Despite what you have just said about unions, in 2019 you and others said that workers’ organisations were important in the struggle, and that has been widely reported this time too. What’s the situation?

Ok, this is actually quite complicated. In 2018 and 2019 the Sudanese Professionals’ Association was actually leading the whole movement. In 2018 they organised protests about wages and so on and then it developed into a wider confrontation with the military regime. Since then the SPA has been divided by a political conflict between the Communist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which is a sort of religious party, but has a complicated background I won’t go into now. There was a fight over internal elections and last year the federation split.

The result is that the trade union movement is much more fragmented, with different unions acting on their own and less coordination. The trade unions are still playing a very important role but it is much less coordinated. However, though I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on this, it seems to me there are more groups of workers organising, and not just professional white collar workers – for instance truck drivers and mechanics have been striking and demonstrating, which I don’t think was the case in 2019.

One of the things the power-sharing government dragged its feet on was a law recognising trade unions, and yet despite that more and more workers have organised, which is obviously very encouraging.

Does the anti-coup movement also raise class demands, or just demands for political democracy?

In terms of this movement, it’s really just demands for democracy – and bringing the military leaders to justice. Over the last two years, though, there have been arguments and protests around the government’s economic plans, which involved so-called “liberalisation” at the behest of the World Bank and IMF. People were very divided over this, much more or even more than over questions about the development of democracy. No doubt this will continue to be an argument, whatever government we have.

This is essentially the same movement as 2019, but I think more people no longer trust politicians and believe we can't trust them to lead negotiations and make agreements in isolation from wider revolutionary forces. More people are organised now and more people are politically confident and articulate.

Do you know of any dissent within the army, either at the officer level or lower down?

It’s not visible, but there are reports or rumours that this is going on.

In 2019 when we protested at the army headquarters and held the sit-in there between April and June, there were multiple times when soldiers were ordered to attack us and refused to do so. More than that: when special forces came to shoot us, some of the regular soldiers shot back and cleared them out of the area so we could continue safely. However they would not allow us inside the headquarters. Eventually they cleared us out of the way and dispersed the sit-in.

Are Islamist organisations an important factor in the situation?

Islamists and people influenced by these kind of ideas are a very important factor in all kinds of institutions and sections of the economy. In broad terms they have had an alliance with the military leaders, but it is shifting and sometimes complicated. After the coup the military released a load of important Islamists who were in detention and facing trial after the 2019 revolution. Then the coup leader [Abdeh Fattah al-Burhan] dismissed the attorney general for releasing them and had them rearrested. These people can provide some of the support in society the military really lacks; but I suspect their release also pissed off some of its international allies, particularly Egypt given its problems with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. So the military may have calculated these international allies are more important than a little more support in the country.

So what is the role of foreign governments?

The Sudanese government was in a very bad financial situation, and now the financial support from Western government is suspended. They need support from other governments. In the region their backers are, in addition to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those two governments would be very happy to have a military regime which dispenses with all democracy while giving them greater access to Sudan’s economy. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have agricultural interests in the country. UAE want to take control the port in Port Sudan, in the east of Sudan. Egypt has economic, security and political interests; obviously you can see why don't want a popular movement overthrowing a military regime right on their border.

Beyond the immediate region, Russia plays a huge, very significant role supporting the Sudanese military. They want to have a military base in the east of the country. Many civilian politicians were quite opposed to that. Russia was very bullish in the UN getting any criticism of the coup watered down. There is lots of evidence of the military using Russian technology in its recent repression.

China has been silent. The US, honestly, has been better than I expected. As I understand it they are also putting pressure on UAE and Saudi Arabia to stop supporting the coup.

Another player that is quite important is Israel, because the military pushed for normalisation of relations with Israel and sidelined civilian politicians in these discussions. I think this was partly to please the US. Burhan has had a number of meetings with Netanyahu. There have been protests about this. Again, the US has pressured Israel to reassess this relationship now.

What do you think about the Israeli connection?

Many here are against normalising relations, largely from a pro-Palestinian point of view. On the other hand there is a feeling that this is part of establishing Sudan as a normal part of the region and strengthening international ties and so on, and the country will benefit from that. Particularly as other Arab states have recognised or shifted towards recognising Israel.

Of course I am pro-Palestinian, and I am totally against normalising ties because the military finds it convenient or the US has told us to or because Sudan might benefit, regardless of human rights violations. However, I’m not against having a genuine national discussion about normalisation, where we weigh the gains and losses. It should not be imposed without consulting the citizens.

In terms of the issues at stake, Israel is a serious abuser of human rights. But then there is a very long list of countries which violate human rights, and to some extent you have to be consistent. I certainly don’t want us to be at war with Israel or anything like that, and I don’t think you can just say this state shouldn’t exist. It is more complicated than that.

Do Sudanese activists discuss the parallels with Myanmar? It seems striking to me.

No, not at all really. What people have discussed a lot and continue to discuss is Egypt, for a host of obvious reasons. The Sudanese and Egyptian militaries cooperate extremely closely.

However, an important difference between the two cases is that lots of people, genuinely an important segment of the population, supported Sisi’s coup in 2013. That is not at all the case in Sudan with the coup now.

The other thing we discuss and try to learn from is the repeated history of coups in Sudan itself!

If the struggle against the coup here fails I think it will be a defeat not just for us but for struggles in the wider region and beyond. You look across the region and of course the ‘Arab spring’ and so on have not yielded much success. There are many failed democratic struggles in Africa too, for instance in Zimbabwe, Mali, Guinea… Ours was a more positive example and we need to defend it. International solidarity is important.

• Hamid also discussed with us in 2019, after speaking at our Ideas for Freedom event. See here.


Submitted by Yousif Sam (not verified) on Mon, 15/11/2021 - 12:18

I think one of the ironies in the Sudanese context is that the massive and collective civil movement that removed the NCP regime in December 2019 failed to work collectively during the transition. fragmentation and political disputes between the civilians has dominated the scene in the past two years and impacted negatively on the performance of the transitional government which failed to establish main transitional institutions, or implement reforms, or make progress in the justice  file. these factors contributed a great deal to the success of the military coup on Oct 25th because the military appeared as a steadier component in the transitional partnership. However, the mass groups of Sudanese rejected the and the Youth Resistance Committees continued to lead the streets in massive peaceful demonstrations against the military which used excessive force against them especially in the latest demonstrations on 13 November which resulted in the death of 6  individuals and injury of many others.  the military does not seem to care much  about the voice of the street and continued to establish a soverign council they can control which will be faced by more esclation from the street. as Sir Elton John would say,  it is a sad  sad situation, and its getting more and more absurd..

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