The Sudanese Revolution: The Third and Last?

Bread, Peace, Justice. Three simple words that sum up the initial programme of the popular uprising in Sudan which began in December 2018 and is ongoing. However, the mass movement that brought President Omar al-Bechir down did not end when he was toppled by the military on April 11. People are still mobilized peacefully and orderly for they want to bring their democratic national revolution to completion, the third since the country gained independence in 1956.

The previous attempts took place in 1964 e 1985 and ended with military coup d’état that gave place to new dictatorships, more iron-fisted and liberticidal than the previous. The last, put in place in 1989 by coronel Omar el Bechir and his mentor, ideologist Hassan al Tourabi, both Muslim Brothers, lasted three decades.

However, the so-called “international community”, which dedicated to the events in Sudan not even one-tenth of the attention given to the Venezuelan or Algerian crises, was awakened by the rumble of the fall of the dictator of Khartoum. It was as if Western, Arab and African governments understood suddenly that a democratic revolution in Sudan may have devastating effects on the stability of neighbouring countries and on the regional balance of power, entailing feverish political and diplomatic agitation.

Very few specialists are interested in the particularities of Sudan, which many consider “too dark to be Arab and too Arab to be African”, following French journalist Christophe Ayad’s formula.

Sudanese demonstrators celebrate the arrest of long-time President Omar al-Bashir by the armed forces, outside the Defense Ministry. Ala Kheir/Picture Alliance via Getty ImagesSudanese demonstrators celebrate the arrest of long-time President Omar al-Bashir by the armed forces, outside the Defense Ministry. Ala Kheir/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

It is a “curse” that haunts the Sudanese ever since ancient times, because the long history of “bilād as-sūdān” (country of the black people, in Arab), used in the 11th century by Andalusian historian Al-Bakri, was always eclipsed by the grandeur of Pharaonic Egypt. This concept was eternalized by racist European colonizers of the 19th century, who thought that black people were too wild and backward to have history.

Granted that the field missions conducted by swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet put an end to sarcasm and violent controversy caused by the theses of Ki Zerbo and Cheik Anta Diop about the African origins of Pharaonic civilization, discovering in the north of Sudan in 2003 monumental statutes of black Pharaohs of the 25th dynasty which ruled over Upper and Lower Egypt for more than a century, modern historians continue to think that Arab cultural and military influences are important bases for Sudanese identity.

A veil of forgetfulness fell on the Sudanese kingdoms of Kerma, Kush and Meroë, once rich and powerful for facilitating the communication between the Mediterranean and Central Africa, so much so that the African Union accepted the secession of Southern Sudan in 2011 with the justification that it was impossible for the northern, Arab and Muslim half and the southern, Animist and Christian half to be one state.

A past always present

What is past is past, and has nothing to do with the present? Not so true, if we judge by the name “Kandake” adopted by Sudanese women, very active in protests in the last months, and the garment and gold moon-shaped earrings of student Alaa Salah, dubbed “revolution icon”. Effectively, “Kandake” was the title of the warring queens of Meroë (which Roman historians translated as “Candace”). The most famous among them was Amanishakheto, who stopped the legions of Augustus Caesar and reached the Samos Treaty with the Roman emperor in 24 BC, giving rise to the intense and advantageous commercial relations between the two empires.

These references to ancient history shows the Sudanese revolutionists of 2019 want to free themselves from the temporality of the Middle East, from the way analysts present and frame the fall of Omar al Bechir as a late sequel to the 2011 “Arab Spring”, similar to the Algeria’s “Hirak”.

Thirty years of Islamic military dictatorship of Omar el Bechir might have wiped out the major milestones of modern Sudanese history from commentators’ memories and from African public opinion, but most Sudanese have every reason not to forget, because they have family members who were victims of wars, military coups and repressions that deeply wounded their country since the late 19th century. From the Madhist War against Anglo-Egyptian domination (1881-1899) to the two Sudanese Civil Wars (1965-1972 and 1983-2003), to the multiple on-going conflicts in Darfur and Kordofan, not to mentioning the civil war which broke out in Southern Sudan two years after independence, we do not know for certain the number of Sudanese who lost their lives as a consequence of an almost permanent state of war. The United Nations put it at five to seven million of deaths since 1956, one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century, of which Omar el Bechir was undoubtedly one of the actors, but not the only one nor the biggest culprit.

The flipside of the Sudanese national tragedy is the indomitable resistance and political pioneering spirit of its people, little known and recognized by their Arab and African contemporaries.

After the independence granted hastily by the United Kingdom in 1956, Sudan staged the first Arab democratic revolution, in 1964. The first elected Arab female deputy (and among the first elected African female deputies) was Sudanese Fatima Ibrahim (deceased in 2017), feminist, Muslim and Communist, founder of the Union of Sudanese Women in 1952, recipient of the UN Human Rights Prize in 1993. The Sudanese Communist party (founded in 1946) was the most influential in the Arab world and a major player in Sudanese politics up to its rupture in 1971 with the military regime of Gafar al Numeri in 1971, having helped to take power in 1969 and remove the principle leaders, many of whom also led the powerful Sudanese trade union movement with three pillars: the railway workers of Atbara, docks of Port Sudan and the agricultural workers of Gezira, the biggest breadbasket of the Horn of Africa.

Back to revolution

The protestors who surrounded the Defense Ministry in Khartoum since the “million-person march” on April 6 know that their success so far is due to their large turnout and their unity despite ideological, religious, tribal and generational differences. They also attribute their success to the wise guidance of the “Sudanese Professionals Association”, a clandestine organization formed by activists coming from the liberal middle class (lawyers, doctors, teachers and student journalists) who led the uprising from the first protest, which took place in Atbara on December 19.

Omar al-Bechir completely dismissed their strife in February 2019, when in fact the SPA manged to win the confidence and mobilize a growing number of Sudanese, reaching a level of professionalism that challenges the alleged spontaneity of a uprising for bread and gasoline led by young people and women through social networks.


The slogans were carefully chosen, combining literary Arabic, local languages and popular patois, and were used in a series of diversified (night marches, strikes, civil disobedience) and decentralized actions throughout the country, including Darfur and Kordofan. What we get, however, is a concerted and carefully executed operation that unites all movements and incorporates all oppositions in the heart of the Alliance for Freedom and Change. The AFC is a heterogeneous front of dozens of civil associations and parties, including those defeated in previous revolutions, secular leftists led by Communist Siddiq Yousef, Islamic centrists of the National Umma Party, the historical leader of which, Imam Saadq al-Mahdi, led the government brought down in 1969 in a coup d’état by Omar el Bechir and his mentor Hassan Tourabi. The former made a triumphant comeback to Khartoum, welcomed by thousands of people, in 2017 after 28 years in exile. The various components of AFC keep their autonomy but allow the Alliance to be the spokesperson and military junta representative in the on-going negotiations to organize the transition and set up the institutions to govern Sudan up to general elections.

But the dialogue with the transitional military junta became challenging after the initial agreement was reached in late April to share power between the military and civilians, and foreign interference is evidently growing.

 An African Union Supporting Stabilization

On 16 April, the Peace and Security Council of the African Union demanded that power be returned to the civilians within 15 days; otherwise, Sudan would be excluded from the AU. However, on 23 Abril, the organization extended the time limit to three months after the emergency summits (about Susan and Libya) convened by Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the then rotating president, and attended by South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda, among others.

According to the Egyptian president, the top priority in relation to Sudan is to help the country overcome the dire financial crisis, restore political and social stability and avoid any uncontrollable slippage. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had already prepared and made available three billion dollars at the disposal of the Transition Council, an offer rejected immediately by the protestors. For the SPA, accepting it would be replacing dictatorship with dictatorship, like in Egypt, and forsaking liberty, democracy and any form of political, economic or social change.

The leaders of the popular movements suspected that the military – that has given in so far to the more consensual and symbolic demands, such as releasing detained politicians, imprisoning and punishing Omar el-Bechir and some other figures of his regime accused of corruption – wanted to preserve the power monopoly, using for this effect the repressive apparatus of the previous system. Military power remains intact, even after the removal of General Salah Gosh, who led the all-powerful National Intelligence and Security Service for 25 years. The Service administers the Rapid Support Forces, which is feared by all Sudanese. The military is still watching the protests, having refrained until now from interfering, but for how much longer?

Perhaps the military is waiting for more favourable conditions before they end the protests, when fatigue and the high temperatures will have reduced significantly the turnout and enthusiasm of the protesters? Or is it waiting for the Ramadan to divide the Muslims and create a cleavage between them and the leftist non-believers?

General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, current president of the transitional Military Council just became head of government, but protestors wished for civilian technocrats to be in his place. The spokesperson of the Military Junta accused the SPA of wanting to abolish the Sharia, or Islamic law, which was not mentioned in their Constitution project. If so, the Junta threatens to halt the negotiations and convene elections in six months, instead of the two years initially announced and of the four years the AFC thought necessary to prepare for a rigorous, free and democratic election.

The revolutionists fought back by appealing for general civil disobedience. Strong-arm tactics are reinstated as the power balance tilts towards the military and new violence may break out at any moment.


Originally published in Africa 21.

Translation:  Kaian Lam

by Nicole Guardiola
Jogos Sem Fronteiras | 15 July 2019 | Cartum, Sudan, The Sudanese Revolution