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Reflection on the Sudanese revolutionary Dynamics

Middle East & North Africa

Since December 2018, Sudan has experienced demonstrations calling for the fall of Omar al-Bashir, who has led the country since 1989, as well as the whole regime. In this special issue, dedicated to the Sudanese uprising, Noria offers an analysis of the socio-historical dynamics which underlie the unprecedented mobilizations of the past four months. This issue offers a unique collection of field-based analyzes on the Sudanese upraising.

Clément Deshayes, Margaux Etienne, Khadidja Medani, three Noria researchers working on Sudan, conducted a series of interviews with other specialists of Sudan, whose works are based on first-hand data from fieldwork Each interview clarifies and deepens a specific dimension of the political situation. The issue as a whole allows us to outline the main dynamics of the  upraising, while underlining the scope of its social, economic and political processes.

Chronicle of an uprising

It was after the demonstrations of the 13th and 19th of December, in the cities of Damazine and Atbara respectively, that the Sudanese people’s movement gained momentum. The images of the insurgency in Atbara, where protesters set fire to a ruling party building, the National Congress Party, traveled around the country and caused a chain reaction.

The following day, demonstrations broke out in Port Sudan, in Gedaref, in Dongola and Berber. Some rural areas of the North and Gezira also participated largely in a movement of revolt, which appeared to be multifaceted and profound. At the beginning of the movement, the slogans went beyond socio-economic demands and directly questioned the political order; this was embodied in the famous slogans “Tasqut bes” (Your fall, that’s all!) and “Ash -shaab yurid isqat an-nizam” (The people want the regime to fall).

In the big cities, the protesters forcefully defied the order imposed by an ironclad ruling Islamist party, and sometimes paid a heavy price in human lives1 especially during the first days when the repression was brutal: the armed forces of the regime shot at the crowd with real ammunition. Over the weeks, the repression was less deadly, but there were massive arrests of demonstrators.

On April 6th, 2019, on the anniversary date of the 1985 popular uprising and the fall of Nimeiri’s military regime2, militant groups which had been active since December were preparing a day of action. After weeks of preparation, they called on all Sudanese people, inside and outside the country, to join the protest movement by participating in demonstrations, sit-ins and planned actions that day.

“Sit-ins continued and protesters said they wanted to remain mobilized as long as a civilian transitional government was established.”

In Khartoum, in particular, it was in front of the armed forces’ headquarters that a giant sit-in, gathering more and more people every day, was organized.Despite repressive actions and the security forces’ attempts to contain the movement, the protesters have stayed in place since that date. Many other sit-ins also took place in various cities in the country which had been mobilizing and demonstrating for several months.

On April 11th, the fall of Omar al-Bashir and his arrest, by the army, was announced, as well as that of the senior regime officials. A two-year Military Transition Council (CMT) was proclaimed, directed by General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf3, vice-president of the fallen government and former defense minister. The state of emergency, declared by al-Bashir on February 22nd, was maintained by the new government, and a curfew was imposed.

À Khartoum sur la place du sit-in, un manifestant agite le drapeau national au dessus d’une pancarte indiquant : « Que le gouvernement tombe ou non, nous continuons la grève ». © Elsadig Mohamed.

The Sudanese rejected these measures and demanded the removal of Ibn Auf (“Tasqut tani”, Your fall, a second time). Twenty-four hours later, he resigned and was replaced by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, senior army officer, assisted by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (nicknamed Hemeti), leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)4. Negotiations were difficult between representatives of the civil protest and the CMT, which seemingly aspired to preserve part of the military regime at the head of Sudan since 1989.

However, sit-ins continued and protesters said they wanted to remain mobilized as long as the “third fall” (Tasqut 3) didn’t occur, and a civilian transitional government was established.

Political context of Sudan from 1989 to 2019

Unprecedented in the Sunni Muslim world, Sudan experienced and maintained an Islamist Republic in power for 30 years. In 1989, in the midst of an economic crisis, Omar al-Bashir rose to power and established a military junta centered on the Revolutionary Command for National Salvation Council (RCC-NS) in cooperation with the Islamic National Front (NIF), an Islamist party stemming from the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood, led by Hassan El Turabi. In 1996, Omar al-Bashir and members of the former NIF, (it was then dissolved), founded the National Congress Party (NCP), the party that would remain in power until the fall of its leader, on April 11, 2019.

As soon as they seized power, the military and militants of the Islamist movement established a radical and revolutionary policy of political rupture and re-foundation of society. Political parties, trade unions, and professional associations were banned and their activists violently repressed. The state was purged of all elements which could potentially be hostile to the new political orientation of the regime and the administrative apparatus was greatly reorganized. The new authorities in power mobilized the population around the issue of the Islamization of society, mainly through the establishment of popular militias, the Popular Defense Forces (FDP), which were intended to lead the Jihad against the rebellion in the South. The Islamization of laws and society, which began in 1983 under Jafaar Nimeiri, was accentuated by educational reforms as well as by the Ministry of Social Planning, and by the application of public order laws, which allowed control of public areas by means of religious norms.

“The years 2010 and 2011 finally embodied a rupture in the political history of the country. “

These social processes went along with a policy of austerity and privatization of public enterprises, conducted since the early 1990s. One of the objectives of the new regime was to marginalize the old elites and to forge a new educated middle class that would adhere to the project of reshaping society, and on which it could rely.

In the late 1990s and after a long standoff, the Islamists split. Hassan Al Turabi, then president of the National Assembly, was removed from office before being arrested.5 This division was the first in a long series of conflicts within the regime and the Islamists.

The 2000s were marked by important economic and political changes. The oil income allowed the regime to fund big development programs.6 At the same time, the rebellion in southern Sudan, led by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) ceased, and a peace agreement was concluded in 2005. If a certain lull was established in the South, other conflicts persisted, especially in the west of the country. Since 2003, a war of great violence has taken place in Darfur. It has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced millions of others.

Lors du rassemblement en face du QG des forces armées à Khartoum, un manifestant arbore le premier drapeau du Soudan indépendant. © Elsadig Mohamed.

Furthermore, after the massacres perpetrated during this conflict, the International Criminal Court launched prosecutions against Omar al-Bashir and many officials of the regime. The years 2010 and 2011 finally embodied a rupture in the political history of the country. In 2010, Omar al-Bashir was re-elected President of the Republic of Sudan.

In 2011, following a referendum of self-determination, South Sudan became an independent state. These events left the military-Islamist coalition in power, without any armed and powerful opponents. However, these same events drove Sudan into an economic and financial crisis. The extractive industries economic model was bankrupt by the loss of oil resources because most of them were located in the southern part of the country. This crisis continues today and is now a factor in the current revolutionary movement.

Converging perspectives on the uprising in Sudan (December 2018 – April 2019)

In a context of deep economic crisis, and following the announcement of new austerity policies, the Sudanese protest movement took root in many sectors of the population, and mobilized them during demonstrations that have lasted now for more than four months. The demonstrators’ resilience, coupled with the locations where these demonstrations took place raises questions about two aspects of the revolt: on one hand, the social mapping of these demonstrations in terms of generations, classes, gender, and different affiliations, and, on the other hand, the mechanisms of long-term mobilization in an authoritarian context.

Therefore, we conducted interviews with several researchers, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists, asking them about the current revolt from their respective perspectives and subjects studied in their fieldwork.

The mobilization which started first of all in the provincial cities, quickly reached the capital, where the middle class demonstrated in the streets, answering the call of the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA). In the interview, Magdi El Gizouli, associate researcher at the Rift Valley Institute, highlights the social dynamics of the Sudanese revolutionary movement as a whole. Effectively, the geographical spread of the protest was coupled with the social diversification of the demonstrators whose political references, modes of action and interactions with the government and the armed forces, were different.

In Khartoum different neighbourhoods have participated in the demonstrations and in the call for revolution in varying degrees.  As Mohamed A. G. Bakhit, the head of the department of sociology and social anthropology at the University of Khartoum, Sherein Ibrahim, lecturer of history at the University of Bahri, and Rania Madani, lecturer of anthropology at the University of Bahri,  explains the populations inhabiting the peripheral zones of Khartoum have largely kept away from the demonstrations. They underscores the multiple constellations of political mobilization throughout the capital city. For example the demonstrations organized by the SPA have been accompanied by several other forms of demonstration organized within diverse neighbourhoods.

In urban areas, women have emerged at the forefront of the demonstrations and have participated widely in various forms of protest since December, to the extent that their participation has become an emblem of the current protest movement. Although this participation appears as unexpected for many observers, especially in this country where women’s access to the public areas is governed by restrictive laws, this reality is however part of a historical dynamic of women’s movements (feminists, communists, islamists), and can also be explained by the overrepresentation of women in institutions of higher education. This emblem of a massive participation of Sudanese women, which is analyzed for us by Azza Ahmed A. Aziz, an anthropologist associated with SOAS and Cedej Khartoum, should not, however, let us forget the kinds of domination of gender and class which are still at work in Sudanese society.

The protest movement against the Islamist regime of al-Bashir produced significant echoes beyond the national borders. In many places, the Sudanese diaspora mobilized to show support for local activists. Alice Franck, geographer at Paris 1 University, and former coordinator of the CEDEJ-Khartoum, highlights the involvement of all generations in exile against the regime, the diversity of modes of action, and the way in which the participation of the Sudanese residing abroad is a resource for the activists in Sudan.

The current protest is rooted in a long decade of distrust and expression of strong dissatisfaction with the regime. This wide protest movement stands out for its creativity as well as its ability to reclaim practices of struggle and resistance developed for years by many actors. Clément Deshayes, PhD student in anthropology at Paris 8 University, underlines the massive protest movements in Sudan over the past decade, including the June-July 2012 protests, the ones of September 2013 and the 2016 general strike. Thus, he records this movement in a history of conflict, learning processes and the spread of popular resistance practices.

Along with Elena Vezzadini, historian at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), we address the question of the central role played by leftist forces, mostly Marxist and socialist, within the protest movements in Sudan since the 1960s. She explains that although their structures were forcibly weakened by the 30-year dictatorship, and that they are today almost non-existent, the practices inherited from these mobilizations persist. Progressive forces rooted in popular culture have survived the formal party and nourish the revolt even today.

Tracing the history of the various economic policy models established by Omar al-Bashir’s regime, Raphaëlle Chevrillon-Guibert, a political scientist at the IRD, underlines the asymmetry of the development between regions and its consequences on the mobilization cycles during the last decade. She stresses the economic crisis which has been continuing for many years, and shows that the most recent symptoms of this crisis (inflation in prices of commodities, shortages) are partly a reason for the outbreak of the protests. Indeed, factors such as the disappearance of the oil income, which stemmed from the exploitation of the wells in the South, and which were lost after the independence of South Sudan in 2011, along with the drying up of patronage networks and their tightening around smaller groups, have consequences on the lives of the entire Sudanese population. Raphaëlle Chevrillon-Guibert invites us to look at future developments by questioning the place of members of the security apparatus (and supporters of the old regime) within patronage networks and in the national economic structure.


  1. For example, according to the NGO Independent Movement also called “almustagleen”, on December20, 2018, there were 23 in Gedaref, 3 in Karima and 3 Atbara. ↩︎
  2. In 1969, Jaafar al-Nimeyri, a member of the military and a politician, overthrew the civilian government of al-Azhari and remained at the head of Sudan for more than 15 years. He was himself overthrown by a coup on April 6, 1985 following a large-scale popular movement that led to the transition to civilian rule. ↩︎
  3. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf was the director of the military intelligence and chief of staff until 2010. He is on the list of individuals sanctioned by the US State Department since 2007 for his role in war crimes, especially in Darfur, and more remarkably for his role as intermediary between the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia. In 2015, he was appointed Minister of Defense, and on February 22, 2019, Vice-President. ↩︎
  4. The RSF is a paramilitary force created in 2013 and first placed under the control of the security services and then the army. This force gathers and reorganizes the former Janjaweed militia men from Darfur, who were heavily involved in the war crimes in Darfur. The RSF has been Omar al-Bashir’s favorite unit for the past decade and has been deployed on all fronts of the civil wars in Khartoum, but also in Yemen. ↩︎
  5. The majority of the leaders of the former NIF make an alliance with Omar al-Bashir in order to isolate Hassan el Turabi. This is notably the case for Ali Osman Taha, Nafi Ali Nafi, Awad el Jaz, etc. ↩︎
  6. The majority of the opposition’s political parties gradually come out of hiding and resume their activities in the country. This short and very relative political liberalization will not last long. ↩︎