the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
May 30, 2022
The following article is translated from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), issue #225, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist workers organization active in France.
This article derives from a presentation given at the Lutte Ouvrière Fête in Presles, France on Sunday, May 30, 2022.
In Sudan, a series of events have followed the 2019 revolt and the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir. We can only have a limited understanding of the situation in that country, but there are many reasons for us to pay attention to what is happening there.
What we have witnessed since 2019 is a population fighting against a military dictatorship, which, even while carrying out brutal repression, has not been able to force it to yield completely. This is an example of the power and tenacity of the exploited when they decide to take action against their oppressors. This series of events also raises political problems which countless revolutionaries have confronted in the past. It also echoes the path of the revolts we have seen in recent years in other countries of the region, such as Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. Finally, Sudan is among those countries whose fate has long been determined by the maneuvers of the imperialist powers.
The map of Sudan, with its borders drawn by ruler with no regard for its populations or geography, reveals this country’s role in the rivalries between colonial powers. It was created entirely to serve as a buffer state between French and British spheres of influence, desired not for its resources but for the strategic position it constituted. The imperialist powers coveted Sudan far more because it provided access to the Nile and the Red Sea, than for the few resources of this poor country, whose population was mostly rural and nomadic.
Since its creation, Sudan has consisted of a mosaic of ethnic groups with different cultures, languages, and religions. British imperialism, which dominated the country from 1898 to 1956, learned early how to play on these divisions to impose its rule, not hesitating to pit ethnic groups against one another. It relied mainly on the Arab and Muslim populations of the north to oppress the rest of the population, particularly the Black and non-Muslim populations of the south. The result of this policy was the isolation of the country’s south.
When Sudan became independent in 1956, imperialism left it with the poisoned gift of division. As early as 1955, one year before the achievement of independence, this took the form of a civil war between the country’s north and south. Since then, this civil war has never ended, with the exception of an 11-year period from 1972 to 1983. In 2011, the independence of South Sudan was accompanied by a new civil war between the new country’s elites.
War has ravaged the western region of Darfur since 1987, and in 1996 it intensified in Sudan’s south. It has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and condemned millions of people to exile, transforming entire regions into human deserts. The imperialist powers have played their part in this war between the central government in Khartoum and various rebel militias, not hesitating to add fuel to the fire. Their role in this conflict intensified after the discovery of major oil deposits in the country’s south in the 1970s. These oil reserves have become major stakes for both the Khartoum government and the rebels, as well as for the imperialist powers, which have defended their interests by backing one side against the other at different points.
Since its independence, Sudan has practically only known military dictatorships. These dictatorships have succeeded one another, overthrown by revolts that have swept the country, especially in 1964 and 1985. Civilian governments have only been in place for brief periods. In 1989, the general Omar al-Bashir took power, following after 3 years of civilian rule. The revolt of 2019 put an end to his 30 years of dictatorship.
Al-Bashir’s regime was a ferocious dictatorship that relied on the Islamization of the country from the beginning. When he took power in 1989, al-Bashir had the support of the National Islamic Front, an organization that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood. During his first years in power, he issued Public Order Laws that forced women to wear the veil and banned them from wearing pants or dancing. Women could be whipped in public. The bail money that came from the regular arrests of women whom the police accused of not respecting Islamic law (about 50,000 per year in the regime’s last years) provided a financial windfall for the government.
Al-Bashir was merciless in the war against the rebels in Darfur and in the country’s south. One of the armed wings of this policy was the Janjaweed militias, their name deriving from a term for “horde” in regional Arabic. The regime in Khartoum armed these militias, whose members were recruited from among the Arab and Arabized tribes of Chad and Darfur, then used them as its main repressive force when the conflict intensified in 2003. Encouraged to attack and reconquer rebel-held areas in Darfur, the Janjaweed used scorched-earth tactics and carried out widespread atrocities against civilians, including massacre, rape, and forced expulsion. These militias’ experience in Darfur made them into a force of repression to which the regime turned as soon as it sensed a threat. Another paramilitary force emerged from the Janjaweed militias, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Hemetti, which played a role in attacking the movement of 2019. Al-Bashir’s regime waged political repression across the country using his secret police force, the NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service).
Under al-Bashir, Sudan remained one of the world’s poorest countries. At the end of the 1990s, news stories focused on the famine that ravaged the south. TV channels regularly showed wrenching images of children dying of hunger, of adults wasted away to skin and bones, and of crowds throwing themselves on airlifted rations. Oil revenues benefitted only foreign corporations and the ruling circles. Industry remained barely developed, with most of the population tied to agriculture and herding. In the cities, people lived on odd jobs and whatever they could do to survive.
The country’s poverty increased dramatically due to the big powers’ international sanctions against al-Bashir’s regime, which was placed on the blacklist of countries supporting Islamist terrorism. In 1997, U.S. president Bill Clinton decreed sanctions that lasted until 2017.
When South Sudan proclaimed its independence in 2011, this cut off Sudan from three-fourths of its oil reserves, since most of the country’s deposits were in the south. This aggravated Sudan’s economic crisis. In 2019, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimated that 20 million people lived below the poverty line in Sudan, or about one half of the population.
In 2013, this situation of extreme poverty sparked a movement of revolt that prefigured the movement of 2019. Hunger riots broke out in Khartoum and other cities throughout the country, linked in particular with the brutal rise in gas prices. Al-Bashir and his army violently repressed demonstrations. About 200 protestors were killed, 1,000 wounded, and 3,000 arrested. The 2013 revolt inspired criticism from within the regime, with several of its figures calling for reforms. A democratic opposition movement formed in the cities, especially among the educated petty bourgeoisie: doctors, lawyers, university and high school students. Some of these would go into exile in the years that followed, all while continuing to lead the opposition from abroad. During the 5 years that preceded the movement of 2019, 5 different revolt movements broke out in Sudan, each time in reaction to price increases and each time systematically repressed.
We can therefore see that the revolt that swept the country in 2019 had its roots in a dramatic situation that began much earlier. The powder keg only needed a new spark to explode.
The spark was lit when the government in Khartoum announced on the morning of December 1, 2018 that the price of bread would triple. This measure was part of a larger IMF-backed austerity plan that pushed to end subsidies for staple products. These subsidies were still keeping a part of the population from starving. Tripling the price of bread was last straw after a long list of outrages. These price increases caused the population, already deprived of its means of existence, to feel itself completely strangled. Service stations no longer had gas, banks no longer had money, and bread itself became scarce at the bakeries. Drug prices had risen by 50% in the past few months, and inflation had officially reached an annual rate of 70% but was in reality much higher.
Demonstrations erupted spontaneously across the country on December 19. In the city of Omdurman, just across the Nile from Khartoum, the population’s anger broke loose after the end of a soccer match, spilling over into a demonstration. As opposed to the earlier movements, the revolt did not first take shape in the capital but formed in cities of the far north before spreading like a shockwave to the whole of the country. This took the government by surprise, since it was accustomed to concentrating its repressive forces in Khartoum. This time, it was forced to crack down on multiple fronts throughout the country.
Chants against the cost of living quickly gave way to political slogans. The most widespread were “Freedom, peace, justice” and “The revolution is the choice of the people.” Soon, the call that came forth in every demonstration was for the departure of the dictator Omar al-Bashir, summed up in the slogan: “Just fall—that’s all!” On December 25, the capital Khartoum saw its largest demonstration since 1989. Several offices of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party were set on fire.
The demonstrations reached both large and small towns. Their processions were made up of a very diverse cross-section of the population, but two of their characteristics testify to the depth of the movement: the significant numbers of women, often forming a majority, and of young people.
It quickly became clear that the protests had overwhelmed the government. The head of Sudanese intelligence described the demonstrations as a foreign conspiracy and denounced the actions of individuals supposedly linked to Israel. A state of emergency was declared and the army deployed. Internet access was also cut in several places. Repression immediately came down on the demonstrators, killing dozens in the first days of the movement. However, this did not discourage the population, which joined the processions in ever greater numbers.
Young people showed their courage in their clashes with the forces of repression. In a documentary that premiered on August 1, 2019, journalists interviewed a young woman who became famous after a video spread on social media showing her, the only woman in the middle of a group of men, throwing tear gas grenades at the police. She explained that she was arrested 6 times, one of which she escaped by jumping from the security forces’ Jeep. She also recounted one moment when she was in a group of demonstrators who grabbed and beat up a policeman who was trying to disperse them, since the other policemen had been pushed back by stone-throwing protestors.
Although the December revolt was mostly spontaneous, an organization called the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) quickly rose to its political leadership. This organization did not emerge from among the protestors themselves but was formed by the representatives of 8 trade unions of the petty bourgeoisie who had joined together after the 2013 riots, including engineers, lawyers, doctors, and university lecturers. They had managed to organize and survive underground and abroad. It was the SPA that quickly put out calls to continue the movement, receiving the support of the population.
The SPA appeared as a token of the unity of the movement, and this was strengthened on January 1, 2019, when it joined with the country’s main political parties to form the Alliance for Freedom and Change (AFC). The founding declaration of this alliance called for Omar al-Bashir to resign and for a transitional government to rule for a 4-year period, followed by new elections. This program called for progressive measures, notably to fight discrimination and persecution against women. As for economic demands, the declaration only called on the transitional government to “apply the brakes on the current state of economic freefall and work to improve the livelihood of all Sudanese citizens,” without naming any concrete measures.
Besides the SPA, the main signatories of the AFC’s declaration were: the National Umma Party, an Islamic party whose leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi, had ruled the weak 1986 civilian government which al-Bashir had overthrown: a coalition of armed groups hostile to the regime, and the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP). Militants of the SCP were released from prison and used their organizing abilities to benefit the movement locally. But by signing this text, the SCP confirmed that it renounced any independent policy for the working class, refusing even to put forward the basic demands about the cost of living that had set off the revolt. This was unfortunately nothing new for this party, which has taken part in many such united fronts throughout its history.
Demonstrations continued throughout the country despite the state of emergency and the repression, reaching a climax on April 6, the date when the AFC called on people to converge on and permanently occupy the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum. Images of this immense sit-in recalled those of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt that had led to the fall of the dictator Mubarak. Day and night, demonstrators chanted and discussed, thinking about how to radically change society. Women called for a greater role in public life, access to education for girls, and an end to discrimination. Some marked their desire not to wear the veil and opposed men who lectured them on morality. Students walked out of their universities to debate and challenge what they had always been taught: religious precepts and the separation of ethnic groups. A sign of the rejection of the deepest barriers in society was the arrival of carloads of demonstrators from Darfur welcomed with the slogan: “Darfur, forgive us for all the blood shed.”
Five days later, unable to calm the pressure from the street, the military officers around Omar al-Bashir forced him to resign and took his place, forming a Transitional Military Council.
Once Omar al-Bashir was deposed, the policy of the AFC and the SPA remained limited to putting pressure on the Transitional Military Council. While still calling on demonstrators to continue their sit-in at the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, they upheld the illusion that they could convince the Transitional Military Council to agree to an arrangement. Never did the SPA, which had become the movement’s leadership, consider preparing the population for the inevitable clash with the army.
At first, military elites tried to buy time by seeming to make concessions. And so, under the pressure of demonstrations, they dismissed Omar al-Bashir’s vice president, General Awad Ibn Awf. His nomination to the head of the Transitional Military Council had been a slap in the face that provoked the crowd’s fury. After this, the following assessment could be heard in the demonstrations: “In two days, we have managed to overthrow two presidents.”
Ibn Awf was replaced by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who was less well-known but who had taken part in the massacres in Darfur and the country’s south like all of the Sudanese higher officers. General Hemetti, infamous for heading the Janjaweed militias and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), remained the military junta’s second-ranking man.
The Transitional Military Council engaged in never-ending negotiations with the AFC, agreeing on paper to the creation of joint military-civilian bodies to govern the country. However, it quickly became clear that military officers would hold the reins of power, retaining a majority in these bodies and occupying key posts.
The AFC called for a mass demonstration in Khartoum on Thursday, May 3, to put pressure on the military, then followed with new appeals to protest on May 28 and 29. But by this time, the army’s general staff had already decided that it had to put an end to the movement.
On Friday, May 31, it was the military hierarchy who organized a counter-demonstration, transporting thousands of rural residents to Khartoum in order to chant slogans like, “Power to the army,” and “Power to Islam.” The forces of repression rallied around the military elite. On June 3, Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces, members of the security services, and thugs from the fundamentalist parties descended on the opposition camp, breaking up their sit-in and committing numerous atrocities. They burned tents, beat protestors with batons, and fired on the crowd. Dozens of deaths were reported.
This bid for control by the military government inspired a faint reaction from the SPA, which called on the population to engage in civil disobedience but continued to take part in the farcical talks with the army to establish shared power. On August 21, 2019, these talks resulted in the creation of a Sovereignty Council with 11 members—5 civilians, 5 military representatives, and a civilian agreed upon by both sides—headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a European-trained economist favored by the IMF. The hated Hemetti, head of the Rapid Support Forces, remained among the Council’s military representatives.
This new government improved nothing for the population. The dizzying rise in prices continued, while the price of bread skyrocketed. Poor families ate lentils instead and stopped buying milk and sugar, whose prices had doubled. These price increases were fueled by the policies of the military leaders, who caused inflation by constantly printing money. The situation was so degraded that some workers had to wait months before receiving their pay. The prime minister Hamdok took it upon himself to complain to the IMF, which demanded that he continue the austerity plan, privatize public enterprises, and eliminate subsidies for essential food products. These policies made him increasingly unpopular.
On October 25, 2021, the military elite decided to put an end to this fiction of a civilian government by carrying out a coup and arresting civil society leaders. They detained Prime Minister Hamdok and tried to get him to sign a declaration of support for the coup. When he refused, they kidnapped him and took him to an undisclosed location. Under the pressure of demonstrations and condemnations from part of the international community, the military regime agreed to reinstate Hamdok as prime minister on November 21, after one month of house arrest. However, he officially resigned from his position on January 2, 2022.
The military junta’s goal from that point on was clear: to reestablish the dictatorship overthrown in April 2019. To accomplish this, it was counting on the support of Islamist forces and of former supporters of al-Bashir’s regime, many of whom it released from prison. The leaders of the Islamist movement are now trying to unite their forces by structuring the different Islamist groups in order to win the elections which the military promises will take place in 2024. The junta is hoping for this outcome, since it will allow them to establish the appearance of a civilian government that will be favorable to them. Their deal with the Islamists is clear: we will give you back your money and free you from prison in exchange for your support. This also has the advantage of responding to the demands of the financial authorities like the World Bank and the IMF, which froze aid to the country after the coup.
The big powers’ denunciations of military repression is of course only a show, and a very hypocritical one at that. In many respects, the imperialist powers have every reason to hope for the containment of a popular revolt that could spread to the rest of the region, as happened during the Arab Spring. Even though the big powers seem to favor the establishment of a civilian government in Sudan, they did oversee the return to military dictatorship in Egypt. The Sudanese military government’s rule has also been possible thanks to the active support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both allies of the Western powers.
The military has not yet won the match, however. Despite the repression, the Sudanese population has not given up, and the demonstrations started up with greater intensity the day after the army officers took back power. After 3 years of struggle, the movement of 2019 continues. As far as one can tell from the events in Sudan, it is certain that the population has emerged from these 3 years with an important political experience. The movement of 2019 showed that a dictatorship able to rule with an iron grip for 30 years can be overthrown with a sweep of the hand when the masses mobilize. From December 2018 up until today, the Sudanese protestors have shown a wealth of bravery and determination. They have also learned how to organize. If the demonstrations can continue, it is because the population has learned to pass on calls to action even when the Internet is shut down, and to regroup and build barricades to confront the police.
To support the movement, neighborhood committees were apparently formed in different parts of the country, and these were renamed resistance committees when the military took power. It is hard to tell what these resistance committees truly are, since the situation is clearly very different from one place to the next. Among the examples of actions carried out by these committees are providing essential food to the population. Others include delivering birth, death, and work certificates to make up for the administration’s failures. It seems that these committees also organized during the COVID pandemic to disinfect houses and encourage neighbors to avoid gathering.
And so, these committees perform the acts which the state is incapable of carrying out. They reveal the beginning of a material organization of the population itself to respond to its needs, as well as its will to organize itself politically. At the political level, they push for the end of military power, the establishment of a civilian government, and the arrest and trial of those who carried out the coup. For the moment, the committees’ activity seems to be in accord with and alongside the political forces of the AFC. Several of the committees are even led by militants of the parties that make up the AFC. Will Sudanese workers find the path to organize politically in an independent manner? The question is open. In any case, the alternative in Sudan is clear: either the victory of the reaction through the complete reestablishment of military dictatorship, or a workers’ revolution, organized to defend their own interests and those of the poor population.
The revolt in Sudan is a new demonstration of the power of the exploited when they set themselves in motion. However, it also shows what happens in a revolution when the proletariat does not defend its own policy and places itself under the leadership of other social classes. In the absence of a revolutionary communist party, it was the SPA, a petty-bourgeois leadership, that took charge, with its policy that disarmed the masses against the military. And yet, the military elite grabbed hold of the means to reassert control and showed that it was prepared to use whatever it took to keep power. Once again, this reveals that all the proletariat in revolt can expect from the state and the ruling class is a merciless fight ending only with the victory of one side or the other. It is a new illustration of the lesson which the revolutionary Auguste Blanqui drew after the crushing of the revolution of 1848:
“Arms and organization are the decisive ingredients of progress, and the only serious means of putting an end to misery! He who has arms has bread. One falls on one’s knees before bayonets; unarmed crowds are swept away like chaff. In the face of armed proletarians, all obstacles, all resistance, all impossibilities will disappear. But proletarians who let themselves be amused by ridiculous promenades on the streets, by the planting of liberty trees, by the ringing phrases of lawyers, must expect holy water to begin with, injuries to follow, eventually bullets, and always misery.”
More than 170 years and thousands of miles away, these words resonate perfectly with the yet-unachieved revolt of the Sudanese working class.