… revolutions are kept alive by stories.
The military coup d’état of October–November 2021 in sudan seems to have brought an end to the country’s revolution, begun in the protests of December 2019. But external observations and evaluations of revolts are never certain or final, because such “events are marked by an implosive logic, in which people are thrown back upon their imagination. Something has been let loose, something has been left floating, the words are running, the signs are sinister; we never see a revolt, but its effect is felt in the dislocation it installs in us.” (Rodrigo Karmy Bolton, The Anarchy of Beginnings) And the stories of the revolt continue to be told …
In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, an anonymous protester dressed as Spider-Man joins the hundreds of thousands of protesters desperate to protect their fragile civilian government after the military coup in October 2021. ‘Spidey’ has become well known on social media for leaping from billboards and scaling the tops of buildings while dodging teargas. However, it’s his work with some of the poorest children in Khartoum that has shown him to be a positive focus for the resistance, helping a new generation to know their worth and take pride in their country’s rich heritage.
For further reading on how this marked activist became a symbol of resistance, read an associated article by Global development here
- A film by: Phil Cox and Rafa Renas
- Directed and filmed by: Phil Cox
- Producer: Giovanna Stopponi
- Editor: Esteban Uyarra
- Sound design and original music: James Preston
- Executive Producers: Jess Gormley and Lindsay Poulton
- Supported by the Pulitzer Centre and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
- A Guardian Documentary
- Length: 20mins
- Source: The Guardian
For the role of art in the revolution, see: Protest art in Sudan’s uprising, by Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann (Africa is a country) and Art for the Revolution: How Artists Have Changed the Protests in Sudan, by Av Issra Elkogali Häggström (kultwatch).
We also share below, with differences aside, two discussions organised under the auspices of Haymarket Books on the sudanese revolution, the first from November 2021 and the second from February 2022.
And we close with a very important anonymous piece published with Ill Will in April of 2021 entitled, Theses on the sudan commune.
In 2019, Sudan’s mass democratic uprising toppled the country’s despised dictator, Omar al-Bashir, and secured a power sharing agreement between civilian leaders and the military with the promise of elections for a new government. In October 2021 the military reneged on that pledge and carried out a coup, arresting activists across the country. The people have now returned to the streets in mass numbers to defend their revolution.
Raga Makawi is a Sudanese democracy activist living in London. She is principal editor on the Debating Ideas platform at African Arguments, as well as leading publications and website administrator at the Rift Valley Institute (RVI). She is co-author of Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy: The Promise and Betrayal of a People’s Revolution (forthcoming in March from Hurst Publishers) and Honorary Research Associate at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA). Previously, she was a commissioning editor with Zed Books.
Muzan Alneel is an activist and writer in Sudan. She is co-founder and Managing Director of the Innovation, Science and Technology Think Tank for People-Centered Development (ISTiNAD) in Khartoum and is a non-resident Fellow of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), focusing on a people-centric approach to economy, industry and the environment in Sudan. She also consults on industrial policy at the Industrial Research and Consultancy Center (IRCC) in Sudan.
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is a researcher working on the Horn of Africa. The former Sudan researcher at Amnesty International, he has written on the role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Sudan’s counter-revolution and the political economy of the Sudanese transition. His writing has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, the London Review of Books, Democracy & Security, and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He holds a PhD in sociology from Yale.
Nisrin Elamin is currently an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Bryn Mawr College. Her research explores the relationship between land, belonging, migration and geopolitics in Sudan and the greater Sahel region. She is a member of the Association of Sudanese Professors in America and is affiliated with the youth resistance movement Girfina in Sudan.
This event is co-sponsored by Internationalism from Below, the Tempest Collective, Africa is a Country, DSA AfroSocialists & Socialists of Color Caucus, Dissenters, New Politics, Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), Spring Magazine, and Haymarket Books.
The 2019 revolution in Sudan, which overthrew longtime President Omar al-Bashir, was the earliest of a second-wave of uprisings that has swept from Algeria to Iraq, reigniting the hope of the 2011 revolutions in the region.
The uprising, known in Sudan as the December Revolution, culminated in August 2019 in a civilian-military partnership, for what was to be a “transition” to full civilian rule. But in October 2021, a military coup drove out the civilian coalition partners. The resistance that the coup has sparked since has breathed new life into the revolutionary movement in the country, and accelerated the evolution of organizing in a way that bears lessons for movements for social justice everywhere.
In response to the coup, widespread mobilizations, led by Sudan’s neighborhood-level resistance committees, have produced ongoing strikes, civil disobedience and protests demanding an end to the military coup and the formation of a fully civilian, revolutionary government to decide the country’s leadership and its future, and to reclaim control of its looted resources for the benefit of communities.
Revolutionary bodies, in particular the network of neighborhood resistance committees which now spread across the country, have pushed the struggle forward beyond previous compromises. They have also offered an alternative model of resistance and governance that presents a clear break from the elite politics of the past. Though the revolution in Sudan has so far been formidable in the face of repression, it faces immense challenges, given the ways in which regional and international counter-revolutionary forces have coalesced to back the military. This leaves us with a crucial question: how can this struggle, whose outcome will have consequences beyond Sudan’s borders, go on to achieve its slogan, “freedom, peace and justice”?
To explore that question, the panel will highlight voices and analysis of Sudanese activists who are deeply involved in the revolution, and who will provide their take on the stakes involved and the aims, strategies and tactics of the movement. The event also intends to create space for conversation to explore solidarity actions beyond Sudan, in particular, how to deepen ties with activists in the Movement For Black Lives and anti-racist struggles in the U.S. Join us for this important discussion.
The conversation will be held in Arabic and English, with simultaneous interpretation to English.
Muzan Alneel is a cofounder of the Innovation, Science and Technology Think Tank for People-Centered Development (ITSinaD) — Sudan and a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), focusing on a people-centric approach to economy, industry, and environment in Sudan. Recent writings include The People of Sudan Don’t Want to Share Power With Their Military Oppressors (Jacobin) and Why the Burhan-Hamdok deal will not stabilise Sudan (Al Jazeera).
Monifa Bandele (moderator) sits on the policy table leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), as well as the steering committee for the New York-based Communities United for Police Reform, representing the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in both coalitions. Just in the past decade, she led the launch of two historic and successful legal cases against police misconduct (Daniels v NYC and Floyd v NYC); worked to pass landmark police reform legislation in New York City (Community Safety Act 2013) and New York State (Repeal CRL 50-a bill, Special Prosecutor, and NY STAT Act); and was a contributing writer to M4BL’s Vision for Black Lives and the BREATHE Act.
Abdulsalam Mindas is an Agronomist with a Bachelor in Agricultural Studies from Sudan University of Science and Technology. He is the official spokesperson for the coordination of Ombada Resistance committees and one of the two official spokespersons for the resistance committees of greater Omdurman.
Mohamed Salah Abdel-Rahman is a researcher and activist from Sudan, who is affiliated to the Gathering of Demand-based organizations. He is a graduate of Chemistry from University of Khartoum and has published the book The Price of Gold, which sheds light on the human and environmental cost of mining in communities affected by gold-mining in Sudan.
This event is sponsored by Africa Is A Country, Haymarket Books, Internationalism From Below, Jadaliyya, Review of African Political Economy, Spring magazine, Sudan Uprising, DSA Afrosocialists & Socialists of Color Caucus, the DSA International Committee and the following departments at Bryn Mawr College: Africana Studies, Latin American, Iberian and Latina/o Studies (LAILS), Middle Eastern Studies, Political Science.
Theses on the Sudan Commune
Proletarian revolutions…pitilessly scoff at the hesitations, weaknesses and inadequacies of their first efforts, seem to throw down their adversary only to see him draw new strength from the earth and rise again formidably before them, recoil again and again before the immensity of their tasks, until a situation is finally created that makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: “hic Rhodus, hic salta!“
In late 2018, Sudan was in the midst of an economic crisis. The government began to implement austerity measures. This included cutting subsidies to fuel and wheat. In response, riots broke out in Atbar, a city in the north. Protests quickly spread to a half dozen cities, and then nearly everywhere. Soon protesters were demanding not just an end to austerity but the fall of the regime.
Protests ebbed and flowed for months until early April, when a mass encampment began outside of the military headquarters in Khartoum. The occupation quickly became the site of clashes with the police, and then between different factions of the armed forces. Soldiers began to defect. Within a week it was announced that President al-Bashir had been arrested, and that a Transitional Military Council (TMC) would take power to oversee the transition to democracy.
The revolution in Egypt, which began in 2011, had been brought to an abrupt end when the military took power in a coup. Determined not to follow the same course, the movement in Sudan aimed to bring down this new military regime as well. “Victory or Egypt” became the new watchword of the revolution. Months of strikes, demonstrations, and blockades followed. The encampment in Khartoum expanded until it was nearly a mile in length, with upwards of one hundred thousand people there in the evenings. It culminated in a general strike at the end of May.
On June 3, the military regime massacred occupying protesters and burned the Khartoum encampment to the ground. The movement responded with another wave of strikes and coordinated mass protests. But soon afterwards, afraid that pushing things further meant risking civil war, representatives of the movement entered negotiations with the regime. This resulted in a power-sharing agreement in which a provisional government composed of military and civilian representatives would manage the transition.
What follows are some reflections on the uprising in Sudan and its global significance.
I. The revolution in Sudan gives us the clearest glimpse of the shape of the social revolution to come. It also poses in highest contrast the limits and potentials of contemporary struggle.
II. The Arab Spring raised the question of revolution for the first time in a generation, and opened a new global sequence of struggles. But nearly everywhere these revolutions ended in a military coup or civil war. If the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt inspired a sense that anything was possible, the long counterrevolution that followed indicated that any attempt at changing the order of things would lead to catastrophe. This defeat cast a long shadow over the globe.
III. The revolutions in Sudan and Algeria were the first conscious efforts to go beyond the impasses reached by Egypt. They were unable to leap over these limits. But in their attempts to do so, they showed nonetheless that revolutionary attempts need not inevitably plunge the region into chaos. Historians looking back will likely conclude that this was necessary in order for a new wave of struggles to open up in the way it did in 2019.
IV. The most intense struggles of our time find themselves reaching a precipice, and then turning back. To go further would mean leaping into the unknown. No one wants to be the first to jump and see whether they discover new land, or simply freefall. We do not yet know how a situation will finally be created that makes all turning back impossible, and in which the conditions themselves cry out: “hic Rhodus, hic salta!”
V. Anti-austerity struggles tend to understand themselves as a critique of state corruption. But within the long crisis, the state actually has little room to maneuver. There may be little it can do other than implement austerity, whether or not it is free from the bonds of corruption. Politicians who ride these waves of unrest into office often find themselves implementing remarkably similar policies as the governments they’ve displaced.
VI. Revolutions of our century immediately find themselves tangled in a web of geopolitics. Syria became the site of a proxy conflict between global powers. The course of Sudan’s revolution was overdetermined by more regional ones.From this we can draw two conclusions. First, revolution will have to spread quickly and find its proper scale. There is no social revolution in one country. Second, a revolutionary wave will likely have to spread and resonate across the capitalist metropoles. Struggles there are, for now, less overdetermined by geopolitical maneuvers, and may have the ability to destroy the geopolitical architecture entirely.
VII. A revolutionary situation opens the moment the armed forces refuse to fire on the crowd. The social revolutions of the 19th and 20th century were made possible by the armed forces actually collapsing, often as the result of losing an inter-imperialist war. In the ensuing chaos, it appeared possible not simply to replace the government, but to destroy the state.
By contrast,the revolutions of our century have taken place in countries where the military functions as a dual state. In Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan, this has led to an essential continuity between the fallen regime and the one that replaces it. Elsewhere, such as in Syria, the military has split over the course of the revolution, beginning a period of civil war.
VIII. A key limit of contemporary struggles has been their inability to overcome the reigning separations in the societies from which they emerge. Sudan, a predominantly Arab Muslim country with large ethnically African and religious minorities, is build upon a foundation of racial separations. It has been further torn up by decades of civil wars and ethnic cleansing. The atrocities in Darfur are only the most infamous example.
Protesters prided themselves on having overcome these divisions in the course of the uprising. The African origins of ancient Sudan were a major theme of teach-ins and discussion at the Khartoum encampment. When, early on, the regime attempted to blame the unrest in Khartoum on students from Darfur, the movement responded with the watchword: we are all Darfuri. It is not yet clear to what extent these divisions will reemerge now that the revolutionary wave is receding.
IX. Other divisions, such as those of class and generation, did reemerge within the movement. The Transitional Military Council was able to exploit these tensions in order to drive wedges between the revolution and its popular support, between the encampment and the surrounding slums, and between the movement in the streets and the organizations that had come to represent it. These separations and disavowals set the stage for the Khartoum massacre.
X. Revolts often pass through a sequence of “rhythmic markers” that serve as pivots or turning points catalyzing new energies. The Sudan uprising passed through at least four: rioting, mass non-violence, occupation of public space, and a general strike. The ignition point for the uprising was a wave of spontaneous riots. But in order for it to generalize, it had to take on the character of coordinated mass non-violence. The occupation, the barricades, and their defense provided a context to fraternize with soldiers, for them to defect, and for splits to open within the military. The general strike was able to clarify the extent to which the movement could mobilize popular support, but was not itself enough to bring the government or economy to a halt.
XI. Militant formations forged in previous waves of struggle can act as vectors of intensification. Anti-austerity riots have come and gone in the past. A key difference in 2018 was the presence of organizations which had formed following the repression of an anti-austerity movement in 2013. This includes the neighborhood-based resistance committees and the Sudan Professional Association (SPA). By being able to provide some infrastructure, coordination, and determination, these groups were able contribute to the leap from riot to insurrection.
XII. However, these formations may also become a barrier that will need to be overcome. The organizations which had come to represent the revolution were much more eager to enter negotiations with the government than many of those in the streets. The SPA, for instance, had formed to lobby for an increase in the minimum wage, not to lead a revolution, which they felt dragged into by the youth. They were anxious for a return to normal.
XIII. The prominence of the SPA makes clear the leading role of the professional middle classes within the revolution. Sudanese of nearly every class and social group participated in the revolution. But at its forefront were students and professionals. These groups were motivated both by their concern for the appalling conditions of the poor and by their own frustrated expectations. With the particular repressive conditions, the professional middle classes were best able to organize themselves, provide some coordination for a national movement, and articulate what appeared to be a general interest. Paul Mason remarks somewhere that the 1789 French Revolution “was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers.” Revolution, then, might have less to do with increasing immiseration and more to do with increasing expectations that cannot be met by the present situation.
XIV. Nonetheless, the course of the uprising points towards the possibility of an autonomous proletarian politics emerging. The riots that launched the revolution began over the price of bread. The encampments were largely inhabited by the urban poor. Many of them attempted to push beyond the movement’s representatives who entered negotiations. In each step of the revolution, proletarians played a key practical role. But they were unable to find a basis to coordinate and articulate their own activity distinctly. It is possible, although not certain, that a distinctly proletarian pole will emerge in future uprisings that is confident in its own initiative.
XV. It should be remembered that it took an entire cycle of riots, insurrections, and revolutions — from 1830 to 1848 — before the proletariat of Paris began to fly the red flag over their barricades. It was not until 1871 that the choice was clearly posed between a bourgeois republic and a proletarian commune. The events of our young century may be accelerated, but these things take time.
XVI. In the encampments throughout the country, but particularly in Khartoum, we catch a glimpse of the emerging contours of the commune. As one observer put it, these encampments “inadvertently… constitute a fundamental political and social challenge to the state.” He elaborates further:
“The organization and activities of the sit-in provided an egalitarian and democratic model on which a radically different model of governance and society could have been constructed. It thus constituted the foundation of the social revolution, but few participants understood it as such, and the SPA and FFC leadership considered the sit-ins as merely instrumental.”
XVII.This commune appears to have nothing of the democratic formalism that gave the communes and councils of the worker’s movement the quality of workers’ parliaments-in-waiting. This perhaps allows us to distinguish the coming destituent commune from the constituent communes of the past.
XVIII. Observers often remarked that the Khartoum encampment had more of the feeling of festival than a political demonstration. Stages for music, theatre, and poetry performances and tents for art were scattered throughout the encampment. It was a place to experiment with how to live. This takes on a particularly urgent and subversive character in a country dominated by an Islamist regime. The Situationist International’s remark on the Paris Commune could just as easily have applied to Khartoum:“The Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.”
XIX. No one had the courage or foresight to acknowledge this development for what it was. To CLR James, the role of pro-revolutionaries was to record and reflect the spontaneous innovations that emerge in the course of struggle. This, to him, was the genius of Lenin’s April Theses, which acknowledged a leap forward that the class did not yet see in its own actions, and drew the necessary conclusions: all power the soviets.
XX. The military regime clearly perceived the threat posed by the encampment, which explains the intensity with which it was suppressed. The emerging commune is the principal enemy of the state. Wherever the commune gathers, there will be a Tiananmen and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.
XXI. As the commune emerges, its immediate tasks are clear: expansion of the area of autonomy, blockade of the economy, and defense against its enemies. With each new attack by the police, the movement responded by expanding the encampment and barricading off new roads and bridges. This strategy becomes almost intuitive once an encampment like this exists.
XXII. The emergence of the commune immediately raises the specter of insurrection, and thus of civil war. The basic dynamic is as follows: the appearance of encampments like this points towards the possibility of social revolution. This is recognized clearly by the state, which tries to repress it. In response, the encampments intuitively try to expand. This raises the question of insurrection. The commune must suppress the state in order to avoid being suppressed by it. But insurrection always entails the risk of civil war.
XXIII. One, two, many Sudans. The social war of which the Sudan Revolution was one episode is still being fought today. We will likely see new attempts to leap over the limits of contemporary struggle. With each new experiment, we may see emerge more clearly the contours of the commune and proletarian autonomy. Somewhere there may be a breakthrough, where political revolution gives way to social revolution. Then, as that breakthrough resonates outwards, we might see the spread of a revolutionary wave.
All power to the communes.