On April 6, the Sudanese Professionals Association asked people to march in protest to the army headquarters in Khartoum—the most dangerous place in Sudan’s capital. I was skeptical, but nonetheless I joined the march, knowing the risks but also knowing it was the only way this revolution could succeed.
I went in a group for solidarity and protection. Out of the three meeting points, we chose the European Union headquarters. My dad’s friend has an office on the same street, and I had worked close by at the University of Khartoum. My old office space could be a refuge if we needed to escape arrest or, possibly, live ammunition.
Armed with a ziplock bag containing a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar as a defense against tear gas—hidden in our bras in case we were stopped and searched—we reached the meeting point half an hour before the march was supposed to start. It was already chaotic. Security forces were roaming the area in their signature Toyota pickup trucks, firing tear gas indiscriminately and arresting people at random. We rushed to an acquaintance’s office to avoid arrest and found ourselves trapped there with other young women.
One of the young women was barefoot. She said the security officers had tried to arrest her; she escaped, but they stole her shoes. She pleaded with us to give her a pair, since she didn’t want to miss the march. Her eyes were red; her face inflamed. She was trying to recover from exposure to tear gas, which from my experience takes up to an hour. I grew agitated: I had once been stuck with two dozen people in a small storage room after having been tear-gassed. It was a near-death experience I had no intention of repeating.
We decided to leave the office, but soon found ourselves trapped in a radio station; plainclothes security officers were all over the street, arresting people. From the window, we could see young men jumping from wall to wall to avoid arrest, and people were seeking refuge in the radio station.
Figuring it was more dignified to get arrested in a protest and not in hiding, we brainstormed a plan: Sprint to the car and drive away before we are stopped and searched (we had left our phones at home, bringing only old ones for emergencies). Hoping for the best, we drove toward the army headquarters. The air ahead of us was thick with tear gas.
My friends saw them first.
It was a few thousand people, protesting at the main entrance of the army HQ. We were astonished because we hadn’t known they would be there. We later found out that this group had reached the army HQ by crossing the headquarters of the feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). In doing so, they had paved the way for the rest of us.
It was impossible to join them, so we decided to park. We found another large group, about 2,000 people, protesting at the other gate of the HQ, which is right behind Khartoum’s international airport. I was hoping passengers on board the planes preparing for takeoff would take pictures of us to show the world that this was the beginning of the end to Sudan’s 14-week uprising.
The first 30 minutes were terrifying. All the forces of oppression that could be utilized against us as unarmed protesters were there, including the riot police and the national-security forces. The army was blocking the entrances and stopping people from entering the building, while trucks from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a ruthless militia that has wreaked havoc on the people of Darfur, were parked to our south.
Within 30 minutes, everything changed. Waves of people began arriving, with people in the first row of each wave carrying a big banner with the name of their neighborhood or the name of the trade union they belonged to. An hour later, you could no longer see where the protest began and where it ended, as thousands merged in front of the HQ.
An old colleague I hadn’t seen in years saw me and said, “I was waiting to see someone I know because I want to cry.” We held each other and cried. Everyone around us was crying and chanting.
Origins of a Revolution
On December 19, protests broke out in Atbara, a city in River Nile state, over 400 kilometers north of Khartoum. Bread had become scarce, and food prices were rising at an alarming rate. Sudan’s economy had been in free-fall since South Sudan became independent in 2011, but by the end of 2017, conditions had become particularly rough. The value of the Sudanese pound (SDG) continued to deteriorate. In October 2017, $1 was equivalent to £20. A year later, the pound had hit 60 and continued to decline in value by the day. We spent the first six months of 2018 parked at gas stations due to the gas shortage. Cash also became scarce, as the government was trying to hold on to money to buy dollars or other currencies. To acquire cash, you had to buy it by check—and lose 20 percent of the amount in a fee charged by the cash dealer.
A week before the Atbara protests, students with similar demands protested in Ad-Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state, but the protests in Atbara inspired other cities in River Nile state to protest. By Christmas, the uprising had spread to Al Qadarif state in the east, and a massive march rocked downtown Khartoum.
The protests had been organic and spontaneous in the periphery, but the one in Khartoum was called by the Sudanese Professionals Association, a coalition of trade unions that was established in 2014 and includes university professors, doctors, teachers, and other civil-society groups.
The SPA had held a number of seminars between 2014 and 2017 as it built constituencies. In the beginning of 2018, the association conducted an ambitious research project, in which it established the minimum wage needed for a family of five. The SPA concluded that this should be 8,664 SDG ($182), more than 20 times the current minimum wage of 423 SDG ($9). It then organized meetings with the Parliament and began lobbying for a living wage.
This past January, I sat down with Dr. Mohamed Yousif, the SPA’s spokesperson; this was a few days before he was re-arrested. He told me that they were certain the government would not increase the minimum wage. He said that “when the protests broke out, the SPA changed its invitation, as we were certain that without political change, there would be no change to our livelihoods.”
They SPA called for a march to the presidential palace on Christmas Day to submit a memorandum calling for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had ruled since he seized power in a coup in 1989, to step down. There was some confusion, as the association was unknown to most people. But there was already growing dissent, fueled by political deadlock, violent crackdowns, and the deteriorating economy, which had forced nearly everyone to queue for bread, petroleum, and cash for most of 2018. These conditions convinced thousands to respond to the SPA’s call. The protests didn’t stop, and the SPA continued mobilizing people for nationwide marches, while neighborhood-based resistance groups in turn organized local demonstrations.
A few weeks into the protests, the opposition parties and civil groups, including women’s and youth-led groups, began coordinating, and the Freedom and Change coalition was born. This coalition, which comprises over 40 entities, including the SPA, issued a document called the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which calls for a transitional civilian government and outlines nine key goals for such a government. It became an important binding document that for once united different forces working for political change. The SPA used its active social-media presence to distribute the coalition’s press statements.
By January, protests became part of one’s daily life. One friend commented that she does not schedule work meetings on Sundays or Thursdays starting at noon, as this is when the SPA-organized marches begin. You could drive around Khartoum and see different protests on the same day. Streets would be blocked with flaming car tires, and vinegar and yeast became a staple in your bag to ward off tear gas. You had to regularly delete photos and videos of protests from your phone, as you would frequently get stopped and thoroughly searched. What came to be known as “the protest phone” became a necessity.
By April 6, when the SPA called for the march to army HQ in Khartoum and the army buildings in other cities, at least 15 out of Sudan’s 18 states had witnessed demonstrations. The protests were a tremendous geography exercise for all of us, as we would discover a new village or town we’d never heard of after seeing news of protests erupting there or watching a live-video feed.
“Stay the course…until the tyranny is dismantled.”
As news and live videos of the massive protest at army HQ were spreading, the SPA released a statement saying, “At this historic moment, we urge you to stay the course along the streets surrounding the Headquarters of the Armed Forces, and in every site across the country, until the tyranny is dismantled once and for all.”
People listened, and they stayed. By the evening, they were bringing mattresses, with thousands staying all night, sleeping on the tarmac in front of the HQ.
In the next few days, the sit-in turned into a republic of its own. Demonstrators set up a tent dispensing food and drinks, as well as other tents to shelter people from the scorching sun during the day and act as makeshift rooms at night. Families would arrive with food, and so would trucks loaded with goods. The sit-in turned into a revolutionary carnival as people chanted, sang revolutionary songs, and held discussions. They divided themselves into two shifts. The morning shift would come with tea and cookies for the night-shifters. The night shift was for the brave as almost every night there were clashes, and several protesters and even army soldiers died. But the night-shifters were not easily intimidated. They kept chanting, “We are the night revolutionaries, we see the unthinkable.”
By the third day of the sit-in, it was evident that a significant number of junior army officers were siding with the people. They not only protected them at night from armed assailants, whom people believe were recruited by the NISS, but sent the protesters messages saying they supported them and that they should keep the sit-in going. Meanwhile, the government-controlled media chose to broadcast old images of empty streets where the sit-in was taking place, and the government continued to make provocative statements opposing the demonstrations.
By Monday, April 8, a coup d’état was highly anticipated, and we kept hoping for the best. Ever since the sit-in began, as a morning-shifter, I would wake up terrified during the night and reach out for my phone to check on how people were doing. Thursday, April 11, was different. I had barely slept when my phone started ringing at 6:30 am. My mother was on the line, and she told me that there was a coup and that Bashir was now history. I got dressed in a rush, prepared a bag for my infant, dressed her, and called some people for a ride. It seemed like the whole country was arriving in Khartoum—people were pouring in by car and on foot. They were waving the victory sign and telling my daughter that she would live in a democracy.
The speech announcing the coup from Ibn Ouf, who represented the transitional military council, came almost 12 hours after they took over the radio and television stations, one of the initial steps taken in all coups in Sudan. But Ibn Ouf is unpopular within the army as well as among the general public. He was so unpopular that, as he was delivering his impassioned speech—which did not acknowledge the passion of the people who had been protesting for four months—those at the sit-in began chanting, “It fell once, it will fall again.”
And it did. Ibn Ouf’s rule lasted one day.
On Friday evening, April 12, he announced on television that he would leave the position of head of the transitional military council and so would his deputy, and that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan would replace him.
At that point, those at the sit-in briefly celebrated. After 30 years of being told that the Ingaz (that’s what Bashir’s government had called itself) was everlasting, and that even God couldn’t change it, people regained their confidence. They had toppled two rulers within two days.
So there was a new chant: “It fell twice, it will fall again.”
General Burhan is not a popular man either, even though—or perhaps because—he has a long record of overseeing large-scale military operations. For one, he was involved in quelling the Darfur insurgency. Speaking on the short-wave station Radio Dabanga, Sheikh Matar Younis, an activist and religious leader, said that Burhan is “a bloody murderer of the people of Sudan in Darfur since before 2014.”
More recently, Burhan led the deployment of Sudanese troops to Yemen to fight alongside the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. An estimated 14,000 Sudanese soldiers have been on the front lines of Yemen for the past four years, and some 20–40 percent of them are children. Burhan worked on the Yemen portfolio with the notorious Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is popularly known as Hemeti.
Hemeti is the de facto leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia formed by former president Bashir and used instead of the army to aggressively fight the rebellion in Darfur as well as the insurgencies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Human Rights Watch called the RSF “men with no mercy,” based on a HRW investigation of their campaign in Darfur. After years of uncertain status, the RSF was rebranded and put under the command of the army, but the Sudanese security agency handled its administrative issues.
Even though his forces were brutal during the demonstrations, Hemeti managed to damage-control his public image during the sit-in by stating that he would not take part in dismantling the protest. When the masses rejected Ibn Ouf, Hemeti issued a statement in solidarity and said that he would not accept his tenure. When Burhan came into the picture, he brought in Hemeti as his deputy—to the horror of survivors of the ongoing Darfur tragedy.
On the streets, people were cautious about Burhan and his council, but he tried to mellow dissent by removing the curfew imposed by his predecessor, asking the opposition for a meeting, and allegedly arresting the former president and his cronies. Burhan’s spokesperson said their pictures in prison would be released to the public, but we have yet to receive them.
Confronting the Deep State
Now, two weeks later, people remain skeptical and the sit-in continues, as there are genuine fears that the hard-fought revolution will be hijacked by the transitional council and that the protesters’ first and foremost demand—that the council hand power over to a civilian-led regime—will be aborted.
Sudan’s military is not simply an armed force to be reckoned with; it is an establishment institution that has deep roots in the Sudanese state, having ruled the country for more than 50 years with only brief democratic interruptions. The military is the core of Sudan’s deep state, controlling a vast infrastructure and much land, and along with the security forces appropriates over 70 percent of the country’s annual budget. Handing over power to a civilian regime will shake the core of this establishment and could limit its role and resources. A sustained peace process would be a civilian government’s priority, whereas the Sudanese army has survived and thrived by fighting internal conflicts.
On the other hand, Sudan’s opposition forces, currently represented by the Freedom and Change coalition, are weak. The SPA has so far mobilized and led the protests smoothly because people identified with trade unions and because political parties had been unable to mobilize in the streets for a long time. But the mandate of the SPA will now limit how it engages in the political process. It continues to rally its constituencies and work with professional unions to reclaim union prerogatives previously controlled by the ruling party. But the political parties in the coalition are now leading the process and the negotiations with the military council, in consultation with other civil entities in the alliance.
Much of the opposition’s weakness is a result of decades of continuous military rule. The country has never had enough time to build institutions that can preserve and facilitate democracy, and parties have essentially been sidelined for 30 years. Their activities have mostly been limited to flash events, talks that often lead to deadlock, and attempts to recover from detention at the hands of the security services. The parties have not done “politics” in quite some time. Even so, the thousands of protesters who remain at the sit-in, dehydrated and exhausted but defiant, are giving them the benefit of the doubt and offering unwavering support because there is an understanding that change is a process that needs time and commitment.
The Freedom and Change coalition continues to flex its strength before the military council, successfully calling for a million-man and -woman march two weeks in a row. In fact, buses and trains full of revolutionaries have arrived from out of state to support the sit-in and take part in the marches. The military council, which first attempted to intimidate the protesters by saying that it would dismantle the sit-in, was compelled to respond to the coalition’s demand for negotiation, noting that three unpopular and rejected members of its political committee had resigned.
Sudan, meanwhile, remains at a standstill. Most people do not go to work, businesses have limited office hours to support the protests, and government institutions are in limbo. People are not upset; in fact, they think it is better for the country to be at a standstill because it was going backward before the uprising.