By Shona McCallum
It has been just over 3 years since the incredible citizen movement in Sudan ousted the leader, Omar al-Bashir, from power and the world went ‘Blue for Sudan’ in support. Yet, the collapse of the transitional government which was formed in the aftermath of this success has placed recovery and progress in more doubt than ever. As protesters rally again, what does the future hold for Sudan?
The so-called ‘Sudanese Revolution’ in 2019 took place as similar uprisings spread across the surrounding regions – in Algeria as well as Iraq and, later, Lebanon – a moment of profound optimism in the Arab world, generating comparisons to the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. The movement in Sudan was central to this revival of pro-democracy, anti-regime protests.
Originating in the town of Atbara over increasing fuel prices, the protests quickly spread across the country and to the capital Khartoum, expressing discontent and disdain for the government. Led by Bashir for over 30 years, the regime was deeply oppressive, corrupt, and guilty of war-crimes and crimes against humanity in the now-separate Southern region of Darfur. It had also made Sudan a ‘pariah’, sanctioned by many Western states. Protestors, enraged by low standards of living, subjugation, and the inaction of authorities, used tactics such as civil disobedience and strikes, marches, and sit-ins, centring around the capital. The main call was for a peaceful transition into democratic governance, as an often-splintered political opposition worked together to organise the calls of the people. Protestors faced swift and violent suppression at the hands of security forces and military police, including by those previously involved in genocidal Janjaweed militias in Darfur. In early months of the uprising, many protestors were killed or raped, or arrested and subjected to torture and sexual violence in prisons – human rights abuse often not reported due to wide-spread internet shut-downs within the country.
However, the Sudanese diaspora and experienced organisers ensured the protests continued and were seen and supported out-with the country itself, gaining support from world institutions such as the African Union, UN, and World Bank. Much of this was led by inspiring Sudanese journalists such as St Andrews alumna, Yousra Elbagir; by influential Sudanese figures such as rapper Bas; by Sudanese people living internationally; and through social media campaigns which ensured the world was aware of and cared about events in Sudan. One of the most famous pictures of the year was of Alaa Salah, standing atop a car in a white thobe, leading a crowd of protestors in chants against religious-based laws enacted by the government: “Islam is innocent. Islam tells us to speak up and fight against tyrants … the bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of the people.” She was one of the many women who partook in and organised protests, pushing gender equality and safety for the multiplicity of Sudanese women the movement sought to represent.
Indeed, it is not surprising that the protests galvanised an international movement; Sudan has a long and rich history of activism. Since winning independence from British colonial rule and forming its first government in 1956, democracy has been a hard-fought battle by the Sudanese people, often characterised by war, and frequently resulting in exile for supporters. Following a coup, strikes and sit-ins occurred in many schools and universities from 1962-64, placing a new government the following year. Similarly, following another uprising a peaceful coup occurred in April 1985, although the assumption of power by authoritarian Bashir shortly afterwards meant this was quashed. To commemorate the initial success, on April 6th, 2019, a sit-in began at the military headquarters in Khartoum – aiming to finally remove Bashir from power. The military attempted to violently disperse protestors, but when certain soldiers began to protect them, optimism around the movement rose. Within days, on April 11th, Bashir was overthrown.
This was an immense moment of success for the movement, but protests continued to demand that the transitional government was made up of civilian opposition politicians, not military forces who would continue the suppression of freedom of the previous rulers. On June 3rd, the horrifying Khartoum Massacre occurred, in which more than 100 protestors were killed, and many more were injured and faced sexual violence. This was a huge set-back, and irretrievably tainted the joy of this time. It also saw the Blue for Sudan hashtag emerge on social media, an emotive moment where many people expressed solidarity and pain for those in Khartoum and the diaspora, but which has, in hindsight, lost the hope it once held.
By September, a transitional government was sworn-in under Abdallah Hamdok, promising elections within 3 years. It had equal civilian and military representatives and four women, but the enduring influence of Bashir-era General Abdel Fatah Adbelrahman Burhan and Darfur militia-leader Mohammed Dagalo, ‘Hemedti’, caused tensions and discontent both within, and about, the government. Although some progress was made, especially with diplomacy toward South Sudan, and the government appeared to be willing to extradite Bashir to the International Criminal Court, much of the time there was political deadlock. Military ties dating back to the Bashir regime, religious and racial division dating back to British colonial regime, economic stagnation, and corruption were amongst the issues which persisted. The result of months of hopeful protests seemed to flounder.
In March 2020, there was an assassination attempt upon Hamdok, who also faced several failed coups. Many have also pointed out the failure of the international community to take protests seriously in helping deliver a new, democratic Sudan. In October 2021, a military coup took place and General Burhan announced the dissolution of the government, but Hamdok was later re-established. Amongst this turmoil, protestors once again took to the streets to restate demands for democracy and were met with brutal crackdowns. On January 2nd 2022, Hamdok resigned, despondently stating that he had “tried [his] best to stop the country sliding toward disaster… to fulfil [his] promises to the people”, but that the fragmented cabinet and military influence had made it impossible.
Reports have suggested over half a million protestors have gathered in Khartoum – a similar number to the past. However, violence is now more pervasive while any media and global attention has been significantly reduced in comparison. Looking forward, protests are continuing against a background of increasing economic woes and a worsening political situation, especially given that the country is now entirely in the hands of the military. This makes the protestors’ demands of security, social equality, and democracy harder to imagine. While the movement may remain strong at the moment, the outlook once again seems blue for Sudan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.