It’s Not Enough to Topple a Dictator

It’s Not Enough to Topple a Dictator

It’s Not Enough to Topple a Dictator

Protesters in Sudan overthrew Omar al-Bashir, but their work isn’t done yet.


Khartoum, SudanSamahir Mubarak walked through the empty streets of Khartoum on April 11. She was crestfallen. She thought she’d be marching against the regime of dictator Omar al-Bashir with her countrymen. Instead, she wandered alone. The resistance, she thought, had been broken.

Mubarak watched a boy kick up dirt as he walked to the middle of the road. The boy inhaled sharply, and yelled, “Freedom, peace, justice!” Mubarak looked around, hoping it was a signal. The boy shouted again; still, nothing happened. She thought it would be years—maybe decades—before another movement could stand up to the government. Then the boy shouted a third time: “Freedom, peace, justice.”

Protesters immediately piled out of their homes and flooded the streets. “Civilian!” the protesters chanted, the rallying cry of democracy. Mubarak let the current of people take her, and she ended up outside military headquarters, where hundreds of thousands were demanding the overthrow of the government. A few days later, the military removed Bashir in a coup. Andrew Gilmour, a top UN official, said in a speech, “What we have seen in the past months, and continue to see in Sudan, will go down in history as one of the greatest nonviolent movements of our generation.”

Mubarak was ecstatic. After 30 years in power, Bashir was gone. But she would soon learn that a successful democratic revolution needs to do more than topple a leader.

When I first met Mubarak, in a smoke-filled coffee shop a few days after Bashir’s ouster, she plopped down in an overstuffed chair, ordered a coffee, and began to tell me how she experienced Sudan’s uprising. Mubarak is a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a group that organized many of the rallies against Bashir. She is also a member of her neighborhood resistance committee and the pharmacists’ union. Before hundreds of thousands of people marched in a riot of democracy, Mubarak was part of the small group of people protesting underground. In the beginning, it was lonely work.

As a girl, Mubarak shuffled between Sudan and Saudi Arabia, where her grandfather lived in political exile. Bashir became president in 1989, and during Mubarak’s childhood, he turned Sudan into an international pariah. In 1993, the United States accused Bashir’s government of supporting terrorism. From 1991 to 1996, Osama bin Laden took refuge in Sudan. With the support of the government, bin Laden invested heavily in the country, and started several businesses that were probably fronts for Al Qaeda. Later, in the mid-2000s, Bashir waged a genocide against Darfuris in western Sudan, where a government-supported militia slaughtered an estimated 300,000 people.

By the time Mubarak became a pharmacist in 2013, the medical industry—like most other sectors of the economy—was deteriorating. By labeling the country a state sponsor of terrorism, the United States had largely cut Sudan off from the Western economy, and Mubarak often had no drugs to give to people. There were chronic shortages of Noradrenaline, which raises blood pressure during transfusions; tetanus shots; and even saline solution. Inflation rose to nearly 40 percent, which meant Mubarak’s wages never kept up with costs. “Once you look at the conditions of the hospitals, you realize the root cause of the problem is corruption, the system, and the economy,” she told me. “That is all due to the politics. And you come to a realization that if you don’t fix the politics, you can’t fix anything else.”

Mubarak joined an underground pharmacists’ union in 2013. Unions fueled Sudan’s revolutions in 1964 and 1985, but by the time she became a pharmacist, they had been crushed—at least officially. Bashir had installed his own men to run the unions, and worker-led organizations could only operate in secret.

Around the time Mubarak joined the underground pharmacists’ union, Ahmed Rabie, a teacher who would become one of the revolution’s leaders, was part of a small protest outside a government ministry. Around six people showed up. Someone snapped a blurry photo—the only proof that the rally happened at all. A lot of the early protests were like that: small and nearly forgotten. But Ahmed said that tiny march was the beginning of the SPA. The idea behind the SPA was to unite the country’s clandestine unions. They failed for years. Mubarak didn’t even know about the group at the time. “We had a lot of difficulties getting organized,” said Muhammad Yousif, a professor and a leader in the group. “People would disappear.”

Arrests were widespread, and coordination among unions was dangerous. Still, the pharmacists’ union gave Mubarak a purpose. The members were dreamers in their 20s and 30s who would sit on plastic chairs late into the night discussing the scourge of corruption and the possibilities of freedom.

In 2016, after the government raised import prices and devalued the currency, the price of medication tripled. “It was a trigger for a mass civil disobedience,” Mubarak said. The pharmacists held a one-day strike and shuttered their shops. The police arrested some participants, but the knock never came for Mubarak.

It was a blow to their union, but quietly, Mubarak and others rebuilt the organization—this time, a little stronger and wiser. “We had to try and fail and try again,” Mubarak said.

Sudan’s economy continued to crumble. Inflation reached 70 percent in 2018—a year when the military budget was three times more than the combined education and health budgets. By the summer of 2018, six unions united to form the SPA. Yousif said at first low pay and corruption attracted support. “Always focus on the specific and immediate concerns of issues,” he told me.

The SPA prepared a campaign to protest the minimum wage in 2018. It contacted labor organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, for advice and wrote up its demands, but before it could deliver its list, protests against Bashir spontaneously began in December 2018.

Mubarak watched videos of the first protests on social media, where young men yelled out their frustrations about corruption, unemployment, and the price of bread. She didn’t think the protests would last; they were passionate but rudderless. So the SPA decided to chuck out its demands and take it upon itself to organize the rallies.

Sudan’s opposition movement was divided into regiments, units, and squads, but there was no single leader. The SPA managed the protests, but it was only one part of the opposition. The revolutionary alliance was called the Forces of Freedom and Change, and consisted of opposition political parties, nascent civil society groups, and the SPA.

On January 17, Mubarak’s job was to coordinate the protests near the Khartoum Teaching Hospital. Thousands showed up. It was over 100 degrees, and sweat dripped off the protesters’ faces. The chants of “Down! Down! Enough!” rang out. Women made up some 60 percent of protesters, according to estimates. And, for the first time, demonstrators were not afraid of telling journalists their real names. The plunging economy and a unified SPA created the conditions for mass, organized resistance.

Shortly after the rally began, police sprang out of their vehicles brandishing green PVC pipes. Mubarak realized that Bashir was trying to end the rebellion through brutality. This was an early test for the revolution—could it survive?

As burning tires billowed black smoke, skinny young men taunted the police. While most could avoid the lumbering officers, Mubarak watched the police bash protesters on the head with their pipes. “The beatings that I saw that day was something that I will never forget,” Mubarak recalled. “They did not differentiate between boys and girls, old and young.”

To escape the melee, Mubarak jumped into her car with her sister and drove to a market near downtown. From her car, Mubarak watched more than a dozen officers surround a young man. Again and again, they beat the young man’s limp body with batons. “You don’t understand why they are trying to punish him or scare him, you cannot put it into a logical setting,” she said.

At least one man, Moawia Othman, was shot dead. The next day around 5,000 people attended his funeral and threw rocks at the police, who responded by spraying live ammunition into the crowd, a witness told Reuters.

After the crackdown, the revolution started to founder. The SPA’s ranks were thinned by arrests. Hundreds—if not thousands—of protesters were sitting in jail. By the end of March, around 60 people had been killed. Members of the SPA and other opposition groups said American diplomats lectured and laughed at them for protesting Bashir.

Yet the remaining free members of the SPA kept the movement going, and scheduled a massive protest for April 6. The goal was to ask the military to desert Bashir. “The street work was done, and work within the communities was done,” Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the SPA, told me. “The only thing that was standing in front of us was that Omar al Bashir and his regime were being protected by the national intelligence forces, by the militias and the army.”

After Mubarak watched the young boy shout “Freedom, peace, justice!” three times, signaling the start of the march, perhaps a million people rushed into the streets toward the army headquarters. The leadership of the SPA was so decentralized that even Mubarak did not know the cues for the marches to start in all the neighborhoods. Security forces shot at them; some were killed. But there were too many of them to ignore. The military had to turn on Bashir or risk desertion among its ranks.

A few days later, on April 11, the military removed Bashir in a coup. But the SPA’s goal was not just to oust Bashir—it was to get rid of his whole regime, and the army was a central part of that kleptocratic system.

Although Mubarak did not know it, Sudan’s protest movement was following a well-founded formula to topple a dictator. In 1973, the scholar Gene Sharp wrote a trilogy of books, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which theorized a way to overthrow an autocrat through nonviolent protests. Peaceful movements, he argued, were more effective than violent ones: “Power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can control and even destroy the power of their opponent.”

But peaceful doesn’t mean passive. Sharp advocated for aggressive use of strikes, protests, and other methods of noncooperation to weaken a dictator.

Sharp’s theory influenced revolutions from Myanmar to the Arab Spring. In his memoir about covering the Egyptian revolution, New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick recalled asking an activist in Tahrir Square how he overcame the police. “Gene Sharp,” the activist responded.

But Sharp was skeptical about compromising with authoritarian regimes. “Negotiations when basic issues of political liberties are involved may be an effort by the dictators to induce the democrats to surrender peacefully while the violence of the dictatorship continues,” Sharp wrote in his most popular book, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

The only time to bargain with autocrats, Sharp wrote, is when “the power of the dictators has been effectively destroyed and they seek personal safe passage to an international airport.”

Sharp’s theory was tested in Sudan. After the April 11 coup, the military refused to hand over power. Mubarak and protesters didn’t want a military dictatorship like in Egypt; they wanted democracy. Should they fight back? Negotiate? Or stick to Sharp’s advice and keep peacefully resisting?

At first, protesters went with the third option. They created a space called the “sit-in” to show their democratic commitment. Imagine a giant festival in the middle of a city with streets cordoned off, glowing lights, and hollering at all hours. It was a carnival of democracy.

At most entrances were yellow signs apologizing for the extra traffic caused by the sit-in. “Sorry for the delay. Uprooting a regime,” it read. Mubarak spent many days and nights there. Naturally, the military hated it.

Sudan’s junta had profited handsomely in Bashir’s time. Mohamad Dalgo Hamdan, whom everyone called Hemeti, was the head of a paramilitary unit called the Rapid Support Forces. Hemeti and his men carried out rape, murder, and other horrors in Darfur on behalf of Bashir. “Hemeti is the main legacy of Bashir’s 30-year rule,” wrote Jérôme Tubiana in Foreign Policy.

Hemeti’s soldiers lined Khartoum’s street corners in forest-green pickup trucks, toting machine guns. Hemeti called the protesters unelected, marijuana-smoking communists who wanted to plunge the country into anarchy. Sudan, Hemeti argued, needed stability. Hemeti and the army did everything they could to shut down the sit-in. They turned off the electricity and attacked the teenagers who guarded the entrances. The military said it wanted to negotiate with the civilians to determine Sudan’s political future, though Mubarak thought what Hemeti and the junta really wanted was to control the government and get amnesty for their crimes.

Discussing terms with Hemeti was a new game—one that favored the military because of its negotiating experience and rigid chain of command. The democracy movement, on the other hand, was racked by clashing egos and indecision, especially after the SPA stepped back and let the opposition parties lead the talks. “We are not a governmental entity,” explained Amjad Farid, an SPA spokesperson. Mubarak eyed the opposition political parties with suspicion. Almost all were men, and they had done no real organizing.

Mubarak believed the opposition parties were allowed to exist during Bashir’s time precisely because they were weak: “We don’t really have a real opposition political scene.”

On May 19, the junta and the democratic opposition met at the military headquarters to hash out an agreement. The sit-in happened to hug the negotiation site. Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the surrounding area waiting for the talks to end. The demonstrators wanted democracy; the military wanted control. It was past midnight, and the protesters took out their smartphones with their flashlights aglow. But inside the military headquarters, the civilian negotiators were fumbling.

Omar el-Digeir sat across the table from the military negotiators. Omar was the most prominent opposition politician and had a secret plan to compromise. He wanted the military and civilians to share power through a council of leaders that consisted of an even number of people from each side. Suddenly, a tenet of the revolution—overthrowing the regime—was being traded away. It just so happened that Omar was campaigning to head that new government. Omar did not tell others in the civilian coalition about his scheme, according to three top officials. Still, the military rejected even Omar’s proposal to share power. (One member of Omar’s party says the other civilian leaders approved his offer.)

Alex De Waal, an expert on Sudan and a professor at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, summed it up well: The leadership of the democratic movement “not only failed to seize the revolutionary moment on April 11 but also failed to capitalize on its victories to build a broader coalition.” De Waal blamed the organization’s “lack of preparedness for power and its slow and consultative decision-making process.”

After the breakdown, the SPA called for a nationwide strike to pressure the junta to step down. Sudan’s pro-democracy movement once overthrew a regime—maybe it could do so again.

A tea lady walked up to Mubarak at 3 am on June 3 and gave her a warning: “You should leave.” Mubarak sat on a plastic chair drinking lumpy coffee and looked at her phone. It had an hour of battery life left. For weeks, there had been rumors that the army was going to attack the sit-in. Photos on Twitter showed that the military was readying whips and loading guns just outside the site. If only the sun would rise, she thought, the revolution would survive another few hours. Nobody would dare attack the sit-in during the day. It was too hot for that kind of violence. As the sun rose, men crouched in prayer facing Mecca. She shared warm bread and cold water with her comrades. The call to prayer filled the sky, and as the sun rose, the fasting period began.

Mubarak began her journey home. The sit-in smelled of shit and urine—the site prioritized revolution over sanitation—but as she left she was happy; she thought the democracy activists were safe. And then Mubarak saw them: hundreds of people running from the sit-in. Gunfire cracked in the background. Hemeti’s men and the army were massacring everyone inside the sit-in. Mubarak slipped into a small medical clinic the size of a schoolroom.

Soon bodies were jumbled everywhere. Mubarak could not tell who was alive and who was dead. Two corpses had bullet wounds in the head. Three were shot in the chest. A young boy, perhaps 14 years old, hid behind a cabinet. “What are they going to do?” he asked.

Outside temperatures reached 105 degrees, and three soldiers came to the door in their green camouflage uniforms. The soldiers demanded that everyone who was not a medical professional leave. Mubarak looked at the shivering boy. “It’s just not fair,” she thought.

The soldiers lined up everyone who was not a doctor and took their phones and money. Then the soldiers led them outside—perhaps to their death (Mubarak still doesn’t know). “I felt privileged, unjustly privileged,” she said.

More soldiers came to the clinic and ordered everyone to carry the wounded to a nearby hospital. Each person was assigned to a stretcher with a body. As they exited the clinic gates, Mubarak looked up and saw soldiers and tents aflame as far as she could see. She said it looked like the end of a World War II movie: “It’s not something you expect to see in real life.”

Even as she attended to the injured man in the stretcher, a soldier thrashed her back with a stick. “Instead of calling out ‘civilian!’ You should call out ‘military!’” the soldier yelled.

At the hospital, Mubarak put the stretcher down only to see dozens of people. Bodies with bullet holes and bandages littered the hospital reception. Some were covered in Sudanese flags. She said, “It was impossible to say who was a priority because everyone was a priority.”

Her phone was dead. She had not slept for an entire day. She found a charger for her phone and turned it on. Missed calls and messages streamed in. Mubarak heard gunshots approaching. She texted a friend, “If you don’t hear back from me something went wrong.”

In other parts of Khartoum, Hemeti’s men were throwing bodies into the Nile River. They tied rocks onto the feet so the corpses would sink. Hemeti’s men raped civilian women. A senior UN official estimated that nearly a thousand women experienced sexual violence in the aftermath of the government’s attack on the sit-in. Soldiers paraded women’s panties around Khartoum like trophies. Around 118 people died, according to doctors’ groups.

After the June 3 attack, Khartoum was a city under siege. Hemeti’s militia arrested SPA members and shut down the Internet for more than a month. They cleaned up the sit-in site and painted over the graffiti—as if the dream of democracy had never existed. Each street in Khartoum became its own fiefdom, as residents piled up broken bricks and built towering barriers to stop Hemeti’s men from entering.

The SPA called a general strike, essentially shutting down the country. Sudan briefly became a cause célèbre. Even Rihanna tweeted about it:“They’re shooting people’s houses, raping women, burning bodies, throwing them in the Nile like vermin, tormenting people, urinating on them, making them drink sewage water, terrorizing the streets, and stopping Muslims from going to eid prayer. There is an Internet blackout! Please share. Raise awareness.”

Still, despite the massacres, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries pushed for a compromise. “You can’t wish away the military,” tweeted Irfan Siddiq, the British ambassador to Sudan.

Four days later, Mubarak had not heard from many of her revolutionary colleagues. When I drove to her house, it normally took 10 minutes, but that day it took over an hour as I tried to avoid Hemeti’s roadblocks. We read articles together about a mediation effort to get an agreement between the civilians and military. “There is nothing to negotiate over,” Mubarak told me.

The question of whether to compromise divided the democracy movement. A senior member of the SPA accused the organization’s leadership of cutting a deal with spies. One opposition party leader accused another of leaking their negotiating tactics to the military.

“We have no choice,” one negotiator told me about working with the military. He said his wife berated him for talking with the junta, but he reasoned it was best for Sudan.

As the military and the civilian negotiators hammered away at a deal in late July, Mubarak, her sister, and I drove to a community gathering in Omdurman, a city across the Nile from Khartoum. Mubarak was one of three scheduled speakers, and the event was one of the first public demonstrations since the massacre.

A few days earlier Mubarak had a breakdown. The utopia of the sit-in—the food, the friends, the freedom—was replaced with rage toward Hemeti. Yet as we drove Mubarak was upbeat. “Seven months ago who knew that I’d be right here,” she said. Back then, the pharmacists’ union could not find a safe place to meet, but “today I’m coming for a public speech in a neighborhood. And that is like two worlds apart.”

Mubarak’s sister wanted videos of the June 3 killings on her phone. The Internet was switched back on a few days earlier, and clips of the bloodshed were being sent from cellphone to cellphone. The SPA was still split; the leaders were in favor of a deal, while the rank and file were against it. The organization was collapsing, but Mubarak remained optimistic: “When you want things to go perfect, you see all the flaws, but you should never forget the successes that the SPA is making.”

As we drove, Mubarak received a call. The military and the civilians had reached a handshake agreement. Hemeti would run a sovereign council for 21 months, followed by civilians’ running the country for 18 months, followed by a democratic election. An investigation into the June 3 would exclude independent researchers, meaning there was little hope the military would face justice. To make sure the election really happened, it would mean more than three years of organizing. “The revolutionary concept is so romantic, and everyone wants be part of the fray, especially when there is no cost involved,” she said. “But being part of this movement comes with a price.”

Mubarak pulled up her maroon headscarf and wandered into the public square for her speech. Women in a rainbow collection of headscarves sat on the left and men in white galabeya were on her right. The speeches started with a few hundred people watching. The first two speakers had the energy of a sleepy Saturday afternoon lecture. Their voices were monotones, and people had begun to talk among themselves.

Then it was Mubarak’s turn. She grabbed the microphone, rose from her seat, and shouted: “Civilian!” Perhaps a handful of people joined in a murmuring response. She yelled again: “Civilian!” The crowd’s whispers became a roar: “Civilian!”

It can be hard to tell if a movement is succeeding. You might be struggling to find a meeting place one night, and a few months later you’ve overthrown a dictator. Being a revolutionary is laying kindle and sparking a lighter again and again, hoping that your movement catches fire.

Sudan’s activists and organizers signed on to an agreement for a democratic vote in three years, but it’s not certain that will happen. The military engineered a massacre and was still embraced by the international community: Why would it willingly give up power? As she drove home after her speech, Mubarak explained that even with the power-sharing deal, she would keep organizing. After all, she said, “The revolution continues.”

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