Sudan crisis: New sense of hope for young revolutionaries

Written by on July 3, 2019

Mass protests for civilian rule have resumed in Sudan less than a month after a brutal military crackdown which saw more than 100 people killed and many more wounded, according to protesters.

In cities across the country tens of thousands took to the streets demanding the end of military government. BBC Africa Editor Fergal Keane analyses the importance of the renewed protests.

Short presentational grey line

They never really went away.

In the days after the brutal crackdown of 3 June when the sit-in was dispersed, the survivors retreated into their homes and safe houses. But somehow they kept up contact with each other and the world beyond Sudan.

Certainly there was fear and shock. The killing of more than 100 people, along with credible accounts of rape, had a deeply traumatising effect.

But as a foreign journalist in Khartoum I was aware of a wide network of resisters who were determined to keep the revolution alive. Even so I was surprised when, a couple of weeks after the killings, small demonstrations began in the suburbs of cities and towns.

A couple of hundred people here, 20 to 30 there, they held up placards and listened to speakers urging non-violent resistance. This was the public face of a movement that was energetically regrouping. Not only had the state failed to destroy the leadership but those who had been arrested were being replaced.

Media captionMeet Sudan’s young protesters prepared to die to keep the country’s revolution alive.

The success of the Forces of Freedom and Change has been its adaptability and its neighbourhood organisation. This did not begin in recent weeks.

In fact since the protests erupted late last year, the state intelligence networks struggled to penetrate the close-knit communities of activists. No matter how many arrests took place there always seemed to be somebody waiting to take up the work.

But it is also worth examining the tactics of the regime. After the demonstrations that led to the fall of Omar al-Bashir in early April, the military recovered its confidence. Negotiations were deliberately stalled to prevent a transition to civilian rule.

Divisions in the military

The warlord Lt-Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, emerged as the pivotal figure using his Rapid Support Forces militia to intimidate and then massacre protesters.

With financial and political support from the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the ruling military council held fast, asserting that it was ready for talks while doing all it could to marginalise the opposition.

For the military, the entire process has been about giving the appearance of movement while ensuring that the generals retain control. There are undoubtedly divisions among the senior ranks and there is resentment of Hemeti’s power. But more junior officers who might pose a threat have been purged.

There is a relentless state of vigilance against an internal military coup similar to that which toppled Mr Bashir.

Lt General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo
Image captionLt-Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has used his Rapid Support Forces militia to intimidate protesters

Still there are signs of uncertainty. Witness the regime’s tactics at the weekend. Bullets, teargas and beatings were used against peaceful protesters. There were deaths and numerous injuries.

But the scale of violence could have been much greater. Was this deliberate restraint due to international pressure, not least from the United States with its strong influence on the Saudis? Was Hemeti surprised by the scale of the demonstrations?

The revolution is not dead

Suddenly Hemeti does not seem the all-powerful figure he was in the days after 3 June. At an international level the opposition has managed to galvanise opinion on social media despite an internet blackout. Popular musicians like Rihanna and Wyclef Jean have adopted the cause of liberty in Sudan.

The African Union has suspended Sudan. American and African mediators have visited Khartoum in recent weeks. As yet mediation has failed to bring tangible change. The military is unwilling to concede civilian majorities in key decision-making bodies.

But what has altered in the last few days is the sense of momentum. The protesters have been emboldened by the size of the crowds. The military will be fearful.

Protesters in Khartoum
Image captionProtesters took to the streets of Khartoum over the weekend to call for an end to military rule

The optimistic scenario is that the generals will start to negotiate in earnest and yield to demands for a civilian-led transition. But it is equally possible that Hemeti and other hardliners will push for an escalating security response.

In other words: more and worse bloodshed. The third possibility is that moderate elements in the military align themselves openly with the protest movement. This brings a real risk of armed conflict in Sudan’s cities.

The role of the Americans, Saudis and African Union will be key here. For the Saudis in particular, the realisation is surely dawning that the military cannot govern either by consent or coercion.

What we have learned from the weekend is that the revolution is not dead.

What we do not know is whether it is close to bringing about a democratic Sudan.


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