The political economy of Sudan's coup and uprising

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2021 - 8:48
Sudanese teachers protest against the coup

UK-based Sudanese socialist and student activist Mohammed Elnaiem, who was active in Sudan during the revolt of 2019, spoke to Solidarity.

On Saturday, we had a “Millions March” in Sudan, part of a schedule of protests called by the resistance committee – neighbourhood committees that are currently leading the rebellion. Two days before it, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced the composition of the new, post-coup “sovereignty council”. This added fuel to the fire. People in multiple cities not only demonstrated but effectively rose up and built barricades.

There is ongoing civil disobedience, with strikes in various segments of the public and provide sectors, and arrests of strike leaders.

Sudan has lost many martyrs. The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors and the Socialist Doctors’ Association have been providing information on deaths. At least nine were killed on Saturday, including 13-year-old Remaz Hatim al-Atta, who was shot while standing in front of her house. All those killed were under 35; the majority were teenagers. Over 200 have been reported injured in Khartoum alone, many with very severe injuries. At least ten are currently in intensive care.

The internet is still shut off, but people have been using VPNs and other means of getting access. This is how horrific footage of military violence has got out. There were also demonstrations by people in the Sudanese diaspora and our comrades in hundreds of cities across the world.

The next march is most likely going to on 17 November.

In your view, what is the character, significance and role of the resistance committees?

The committees were formed in a first wave of revolts in 2013, by a collection of unemployed youth with organising experience from university, working-class activists, civil society organisations opposing the regime like Girifna and Change Now, and members of cadre-based organisations including the Communist Party and the social-democratic Sudan Congress Party.

The committees came to national prominence in 2018/19 as underground cells organised on a neighbourhood basis. They worked very closely with the Sudanese Professionals Association [SPA]– a middle-class but militant group of journalist and doctors unions, which continued to grow and encompass various professions. If the Sudanese Professionals Association became the face of the Sudanese revolution, it was the resistance committees which did the work on the ground, including organising barricades, providing mutual aid, organising processions, providing political education, and helping to politicise the funerals of martyrs and keeping their legacies alive.

For a long time, the resistance committees subordinated themselves to the Forces of Freedom and Change, a coalition of mainstream political parties with the SPA. Since then however they have staked their own independence. The policy of most of the committees is to refuse to negotiate with the junta, and even with the deposed Prime Minister and UN officials. They have broken with the politics of backroom deals. This is incredibly refreshing.

Because, as Muzan al-Neel and others have argued, they are organised on a geographical and not a class basis, and because they are so horizontal, the resistance committees are open to co-optation and to security risks. Yet they are working in tune with the trade union movement. If they can unite along organisational and ideological lines, we may have the prospect of a socialist revolution – but only if, as Magdi Elgizouli has argued, the urban and rural divide is overcome. That is beyond the current mandate of the committees and even the trade unions.

What is the role of the Sudanese Professionals Association and trade unions?

It is important not to equate all unions with the SPA. In this new revolt, it is independent unions and the resistance committees which are the true protagonists and leaders. The struggle has never been more intertwined with the interests of the working class, although it is still an urban-led revolt – a huge weakness in a society dominated by rural capitalist agriculture.

Some fascinating proposals have been circulating. The most radical came from the resistance committees of the city of Sennar, which called for a joint government of the committees and trade unions, organised from the ground up in a federation of workers’ and neighbourhood assemblies. On 11 November the Solidarity Alliance of Sudan’s Trade Union was formed, representing 25 union bodies, including workers in the Kenana Sugar Company, employees at the Central Bank, the leader of the Petro Energy union (who was subsequently arrested) and the union at Sudan Airways.

We have much to learn from our brethren in Myanmar, but one difference here is the growing confidence among working-class organisations that rather than other bodies – for instance the National League for Democracy in Myanmar – being the solution, they themselves are.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, responding to the demands of the street to be more radical, has called for the constitutional agreement it previously brought into being to be scrapped, with no more military-civilian partnership. It has also suggested representation for resistance committees and unions in the government.

However even when the SPA speaks good sense, people are angry with them, for good reason.

The agreement of joint civilian-military rule, in 2019, was followed by the country descending into an IMF-mandate austerity hell. The SPA drifted away from the mandate it had received from the streets and striking workers, and into sitting around the negotiating table. This was partly connected ot the liberal and technocratic vision they had for Sudan.

The SPA sidelined the grassroots movement, the resistance committees, unions and civil society organisations - but found itself sidelined by political parties. Then it split because various parties wanted to sway it to their interests. The irony is that the parties, many of which in one way or another capitulated to the [pre-2019] Bashir regime at various times, only won newfound legitimacy because the “Forces of Freedom and Change” banner the SPA gave them.

Meanwhile for people who have lived through horrific austerity, many deaths in the pandemic and bread and gas lines, the SPA lost legitimacy.

For many, the military-civilian partnership and the FFC, a faction of which ended in supporting the military, were the brainchild of the SPA. There is a perception that the SPA will never break with them, even though as I explained above that is not entirely true.

That is why today the Sudanese people have turned to resistance committees and other trade unions. Where this will go next is uncertain. But there are many exciting developments, including the increasing trend for resistance committees to link up and adopt common political positions.

Could you say more about the question of austerity, economic policies and so on?

Sudan was closed from most off from most of the global economy under the old Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamist dictatorship [1989-2019], because the country was a pariah state. The US imposed sanctions; even after the revolution overthrew the dictatorship, the US blocked Sudan from joining the global economy until it paid reparations for the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya in 1998. Sudan, a very poor country, was forced to pay $335 million in compensation (about twelve times more than the UK paid 5,000 survivors of its atrocities during the Mau Mau Rebellion). Sudan was also forced, on the initiative of the Gulf countries, to start to normalise ties with Israel. Israel therefore put its weight behind the military as well.

In June the executive boards of the World Bank International Development Association and the IMF declared that Sudan had taken all necessary steps to receive debt relief. This was the single biggest proud achievement for the liberal sector of Sudan’s elite. Sudan’s external debt was reduced from $50 billion to $30 billion. If it completes further steps in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries programme, it will be reduced to $6 billion. It’s unclear what the new regime wants to do.

None of this was for free. “Macroeconomic stability” meant sharply devaluing the currency, the lifting of fuel subsidies (the issue which triggered the revolution in the first place), and the introduction of a floating exchange rate. Inflation went up to 400% at one point during the civilian-military partnership. For Sudanese workers, this meant huge bread and gas shortages, a country ill-equipped to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, and a feeling that the revolution had done nothing to change economic circumstances.

When Burhan took power, he thanked [deposed and jailed civilian Prime Minister Abdalla] Hamdok – and in this case he was quite sincere – for bringing Sudan into the fold of the global capitalist economy. The process was very violent for the Sudanese people, and jeopardised much of their hope in the revolution. Something similar happened in Egypt, which meant that many Egyptians were happy with the state capitalist regime of the military to bring “stability” where civilians supposedly could not (austerity is the best friend of dictatorship). I’m proud that that the Sudanese people have not lost hope in revolution in the fact of austerity and have, like the people of Myanmar, rejected the coup.

As I understand it, the leaders of number of armed movements opposed to the regime before 2019 have backed the coup. What is the significance of that?

If you look at the composition of the new, junta-led sovereignty council, it is something of an enigma. You have cadre members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then you have a Coptic Christian woman. You have the Rapid Support Forces, which Bashir brought to life to fight against armed resistance movements which have now sided with the coup and in the council too! From an outside perspective, the biggest backers of the military are UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for whom the Muslim Brotherhood is a great enemy.

As writers like Magdi El-Gizouli have argued, this because all these blocs in some way benefit from the militarised status quo which allows for the urban core to benefit from the exploitation of the rural peripheries in Sudan. (Or almost all: in the case of the Coptic Christian, it seems to be opportunism or cowardice.)

There is now, remarkably, a revolving door between the rebel movements and the Rapid Support Forces which previously repressed them. Rebels regularly leave their movements to join the RSF. This only makes sense if you understand the nature of capitalist agriculture in the rural countryside (al rif), a judicial environment where there is no element of collective bargaining and workers are subject to hyper-exploitation, paid peanuts for dangerous work and long hours. Where do these workers toil? In zones where rebel movements and the RSF have built their own mini-states buttressed by parastatal capital; and these armed groups call the shots. This was recently discussed by Raga Makawi in conversation with RS21.

The RSF once represented the Janjaweed, the Arab-chauvinist militia which committed atrocities in Darfur. But today peoples of various tribes, including those who suffered most in the genocide, join the RSF. The rebel movements and the RSF both send children to help the UAE fight in Yemen. People enlist because these movements have money.

The RSF sometimes does things like forcing workers to engage in harvesting crops at gunpoint. But it also engages in forms of charity work, for instance vaccine drives, which come from reallocating capital extracted from the various industries the military and armed groups have investments in (real estate, mercenaries for hire in Libya and Yemen, gold, etc). It can offer jobs sometimes, particularly to those made superfluous by economic changes. So it is able to develop a sense of legitimacy and a constituency.

As I’ve explained, the revolution allowed for necessary changes for those competing for the resources of state-backed private capital. However it also threatened them. One thing that should be particularly noted is the huge anxiety that both the military and members of armed groups sharing power with them felt towards the Empowerment Removal Committee – a new revolutionary institutions responsible for expropriating the funds of the former regime and capitalists complicit with looting money.

Malik Agar of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North in Blue Nile State, former national finance minister Gibril Ibrahim from the Justice and Equality movement of Darfur and Minni Minnawi of the Sudan Liberation Movement in Darfur – all had complained about the committee. The military and RSF shared their complaints, and these forces even came together to organise a rally against the committee, calling for a coup just weeks before it happened!

The military and the RSF have investments in gold, oil, gum arabic, sesame, telecommunications, constructions, real estate, the list goes on… The armed movements engaged in this political marketplace by ensuring a cut of the profits were used to buy “peace” from them in the form of homes, political positions and governorships. The possible threat to all this posed by the Empowerment Removal Committee was therefore a central consideration for the coup.

This poses the central problems in Sudan. The revolution was seen by opportunistic elements within both the regime and the resistance as something that could be tamed, as an opportunity for a palace coup, for a realignment of politics to engage in competition over state capital. But at the same time we had the role of organisations like the resistance committees, the reinvigoration of the labour movement and also institutions like Empowerment Removal Committee. These threats, along with concerns that the opening up of the country to international capital would level the playing field of the Sudanese economy, produced the contradictions which culminated in the coup on 25 October.

Unless the urban-rural divide is bridged, unless all armed bodies including the military are subordinated to the will of the Sudanese people, and unless power is put in the hands of the resistance committees and trade unions, we will not have freedom, peace or social justice. That should be the rallying cry of the Sudanese workers.

• A shorter version of this interview was published in Solidarity 614 with the headline 'Sudan: resistance committees and unions against the coup'

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