Sudan: Revolution and counter-revolution back on the streets, as generals usurp power

By Serge Jordan, International Socialist Alternative

On Monday morning, the conflict that has been brewing for months between the military and the civilian factions of the Sudanese power-sharing body, the ‘Sovereign Council’, came to a head. The top brass of the army orchestrated a coup, declaring a state of emergency, dissolving the Council and arresting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his cabinet along with several pro-government party leaders. Khartoum International Airport and the state broadcaster’s TV and radio headquarters were cordoned off by military forces, while the Internet and mobile phone services were shut down.

Behind the civilian/military fault lines lies a deeper conflict between the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Sudanese people and the counter-revolution, most acutely encapsulated by the generals. The deep crisis affecting the Sudanese economy and the widespread polarisation resulting from the lack of change following the 2018–2019 revolution had brought the precarious coexistence between the civilian leaders and the generals under mounting pressure. A series of popular mobilisations in recent months transformed that line of division into an open fracture. The civilian bloc (known as the ‘Forces for Freedom and Change’, or FFC) was also torn apart, with a group of parties and armed movements who had previously fought against ex-dictator Omar al Bashir’s regime in Darfur veering towards the military.

In addition, this coming November was originally meant to see a handover of the leadership of the country’s Sovereign Council from a military to a civilian appointee. Coup leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his military cronies perceived such a move as a potential threat to their power and prestige, that could have awakened the appetite of the masses to drive the military out and to demand justice, notably for the massacre of 3 June, 2019, when the then Military Council butchered hundreds of revolutionary protesters in the heart of the capital Khartoum. In short, it is the dread of a new social explosion and the staunch refusal to renege on its prerogatives that is guiding the army’s manoeuvre to take back full control.

In an earlier article published in June, ISA commented that “Millions of suffering workers, young people, women and oppressed are aspiring to a Sudan free of violence and poverty, while the generals and warlords who rule and loot the country are only waiting for their moment to strike back more forcefully to defend their power and profits.” This moment has come and has been long in the making.

The masses resist

At the break of dawn, as soon as the news of the coup came out, resistance poured on the streets. Often spearheaded by local ‘Resistance Committees’, anti-coup protests broke out in the capital Khartoum, in Omdurman, and many other cities. Young people started building roadblocks and barricades and burning tyres in their neighbourhoods. The main slogan chanted on the streets is “Going back is not possible!”, described Satti, an ISA supporter participating in the demonstrations in Khartoum.

Increasingly over the last months, the Sudanese people had been taking to the streets to defend their revolution against the perceptible threat of a coup. In the preceding weeks, Al-Burhan — once a loyal and bloody henchman of al Bashir — had made open calls to dismantle the civilian cabinet. The menace was made more concrete after a first, aborted putsch on 21 September carried out by a group, nostalgic for the old regime, in reaction to which demonstrations had already erupted in several parts of the country including El Gezira, North Kordofan, Red Sea state, and El Gedaref. Since mid-October, a pro-military sit-in was also staged in front of the presidential palace in Khartoum, urging the army to take control.

Then on 21 October, the revolutionary energy of the masses, inflamed by a series of provocations, burst into the open, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting across the country to call for civilian rule, in one of the largest shows of defiance to the military since the fall of al-Bashir. That day also marked the anniversary of the revolutionary uprising and general strike which, in 1964, defeated the military rule of General Ibrahim Abboud, who came to power by force shortly after Sudan’s independence in 1956.

Since independence, Sudan has experienced three sustained periods of military dictatorships, each of which abruptly interrupted a precarious and short-lived period of so-called ‘democratic transition’. These democratic parentheses between regimes of outright tyranny have themselves been plagued by repressive flare-ups from state forces and severe curtailment of democratic rights.

This new coup comes as a new and cruel reminder of what the country’s history has repeatedly demonstrated before: that there cannot be a question of building ‘democracy’ without a root-and-branch overthrow of an economic order based on the super-exploitation and impoverishment of millions. Capitalism — which in Sudan is deeply enmeshed with the control of vast sectors of the economy by the military and by the notorious militia ‘Rapid Support Forces’ (RFS) — simply cannot provide a framework for securing democratic rights, let alone a dignified existence for all.

As the Covid-19 pandemic brought global capitalism into a new phase of crisis, the system’s democratic veneer is cracking from every part. This is most noticeably expressed by the resurgence of military takeovers and authoritarian power-grabs on the African continent over the last year, including two in Mali, one in Chad, one in Tunisia and a failed coup in Niger last March.

Opposition

On Monday, leaders from various political parties called on the Sudanese people to go on the streets to resist the military coup. That is all good and well, and many protesters did not wait for these leaders’ words to do so. A healthy dose of mistrust exists towards leaders who had sold the blood of the martyrs by subverting the revolutionary struggle down the blind alley of a partnership with the murderous military junta in the first instance. Prime Minister Hamdok, now under house arrest, called out last month the “remnants of the former regime attempting to abort the civil democratic transition”. Yet for almost two years, he himself presided over a government that desperately tried to compromise with these “remnants”.

The mass movement that has developed against the coup should certainly demand the immediate release of all the civilian leaders and ministers — and of the hundreds of protesters that have already been arrested since Monday morning. But the damages inherited from the short-sighted strategy of these politicians, who refused to put their faith in the revolutionary struggle and looked instead for political arrangements with the old ruling class, need to be recognised for what they are.

The accommodationists of the FFC saw the power-sharing agreement with the army tops as a way to end the antagonism between revolutionary protesters and the state machine. After having for too long tried to pacify the mass movement, their sense of political self-preservation now calls it back to the rescue.

Objectively, their economic policies have also done the bidding for the capitalist ruling elites and for the imperialist institutions. These have included the support for harsh austerity measures, such as the lifting of subsidies and the further hollowing out of state provisions, which have tightened the noose around the neck of the poor and hungry. The economic situation facing the majority of the population has only gotten direr since, marked by soaring prices and widespread shortages of basic necessities like medicine, wheat and fuel. About one-third of the population is expected to need humanitarian support by the end of this year.

The civilian leaders and deposed ministers’ share of responsibility in the ongoing economic disaster facing millions of Sudanese is being cynically weaponised by the generals to justify their own coup. The head of the RSF, general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (‘Hemedti’), stated that the former had “neglected the average citizen”. Of course, the military chiefs and warlords like Hemedti have no solution to offer but to continue pillaging the country and oppressing the majority for their own self-enrichment.

Nevertheless, the civilian bloc and FFS leaders have no serious alternative to counterpose. That is why articulating a program that goes beyond the demand for “civilian rule” -which some might understand as a simple return of these unelected bourgeois politicians back to power — is vital to broaden the base and appeal of the revolutionary movement. At the end of the day, the main dividing line is not just between civilians and generals, but between those who are crushed by capitalist exploitation and those who benefit from it — whether they wear military fatigues or not.

Alternative

The whole Western imperialism-sponsored political architecture built after the fall of al Bashir, based on putting a civilian plaster above the rotten foundations of the old oppressive machinery and economic plundering of his dictatorship, lies now in shambles. So does the strategy pursued by the civilian leaders, who are experiencing at their own costs their two years-long attempts at conciliating revolution with counter-revolution.

Immediately after the conclusion of the power-sharing deal in the summer of 2019, ISA highlighted that unless the Sudanese working class and popular masses were to take power into their own hands and expropriate the old ruling class, the latter would eventually resolve the crisis in its own way, cutting through the prolonged period of instability by “resorting to a coup, or ‘new 3 Junes’, possibly on a wider scale”. This danger has become all the more real today. At this point, the mass outpouring of resistance in the streets of Sudan acts is a relative check to the repressive ambitions of the generals. But already a number of protesters have been shot dead, as the coup plotters are testing the temperature for a wider crackdown. Besides, in some areas like in Darfur, violence has never really stopped; hundreds of people have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in a raging conflict fueled in large part by those in power in Khartoum.

The language of naked military force can only be responded to by the language of mass revolutionary action and collective self-defence. No time should be wasted in organising popular self-defence committees across the lengths of the country to resist the military onslaught. The Resistance Committees, the beating heart of the movement, should coordinate a plan to that aim. Appeals also need to be made to the lower ranks of the army — who are called upon to play the dirty role for their superiors for wages that cannot sustain their families — for them to break ranks with the counter-revolutionary generals, and to help disarm all the criminals, torturers, rapists and murderers within the state and paramilitary forces.

A sweeping response from the workers’ movement is essential, as it holds the key to the profits and operational capacity of the military junta. Reports from strikes developing among the doctors, miners and the employees of the Central Bank of Sudan are all important steps in this direction. The calls for a general strike made by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association and the Sudanese Communist Party should thus be wholeheartedly supported.

But the way to build the most powerful fightback against the coup lies in championing, within the movement, a program that can really speak to the heart of working people, poor peasants, women, unemployed youth, and oppressed communities. Demands such as the restoration of all democratic rights, the immediate release of all protesters and political prisoners, the end of the state of emergency and the arrest of the coup leaders should be incorporated into a radical program for social revolution — one that can end the life of misery, unemployment and insecure existence imposed on so many Sudanese.

The country’s resources, monopolised by a clique of corrupt and violent cronies, should be publicly owned, controlled and planned in the interests of the majority of the population. To that effect, the movement could agitate for the nationalisation and democratic workers’ control of the investment companies, gold mines and other assets belonging to the military and the RSF; for an outright opposition to the IMF-inspired austerity plans and for a full repudiation of the debt; for the expropriation of large land estates and a thoroughgoing land reform to the benefit of poor farmers; for measures of price control and distribution of food and other vital supplies by grassroots popular committees ; for scrapping the gargantuan military and security budgets and for mass public reinvestment in infrastructure-building, health, and education; for equal rights for all peoples, including the right of self-determination for all oppressed and marginalised communities in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Nuba mountain.

Since the official civilian leaders have shown their ineptitude and unwillingness in breaking from the capitalist “modus operandi”, the workers, the poor masses and the revolutionary youth need to organise their own, independent political organization for such a program to be carried through. They will also need the full support and solidarity from the international workers’ and trade union movement, who has an important role to play in raising the banner of the Sudanese people’s heroic resistance to the unfolding military coup.

Down with the coup regime! There is no way back — onwards toward a free, socialist and democratic Sudan!