Dying for a better Sudan: On the politics of privilege, religion and peaceful uprisings
In early January 2011, as Sudan was going through the process of splintering in two, I was filming Our Beloved Sudan, my documentary about the secession. I was interviewing singer and activist Mohammed Wardi, when he interrupted me to ask: “What about October? That should go in your film.”
Wardi was, of course, referring to the October 1964 popular uprising that overthrew the military regime of General Ibrahim Abboud. By January 2011, Arab Spring uprisings had spread from Tunis to Cairo, and hopes were high that the Middle East was transforming from dictatorship to liberal democracy by the hands, feet and voices of the people.
At the time, Sudan remained untouched by the so-called Arab Spring fever. I asked Wardi, can you really compare us to the generation that realised the October uprising? He said, why not: you are the grandchildren of the October revolution, and I have faith in the Sudanese people. “For as long as the artist is able to create, he does not age,” Wardi added.
Political and economic concerns
Had he not passed away, there is a big chance Wardi would have remade his famous anthem, Green October, in honour of the 1964 uprising, for this WhatsApp and hip-hop generation - or he may have produced an entirely new rousing anthem.
I imagine him marching up to the presidential palace, demanding an audience with Omar al-Bashir, in office since 1989, and telling him in no uncertain terms that his behaviour was despicably un-Sudanese.
The late singer had impetuous courage and would have stood in solidarity with the young men and women who have gone out into the streets to face live bullets, chanting: “Down with the merchants of religion,” and “Peaceful, peaceful!”
The latest uprising began in Atbara in December as a result of the removal of the subsidy on bread. It quickly spread to the capital Khartoum and other cities around Sudan. Loss of oil-revenue income after the secession of South Sudan, along with the mismanagement of public funds and the free-fall of the Sudanese pound following the lifting of sanctions, has derailed the Sudanese economy.
The state’s lifting of subsidies on bread and fuel was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but underlying the immediate economic causes for the protests were deeper political concerns. Bashir has been in power for three decades, and his regime is no longer able to deliver on the most basic needs.
Some commentators have called Sudan’s uprising a late Arab Spring. On the contrary, the Sudanese people are veterans of peaceful popular uprisings, as in 1964 and again in 1985, when Gaafar Nimeiry was toppled. Both times, peaceful popular uprisings resulted in military dictatorships being replaced by democratically elected governments, albeit short-lived.
The uprisings of 1964 and 1985
The October uprising of 1964 is how Sudanese of a certain generation like to see themselves. It is an image of a people who do not wait for history to happen to them, but who go out into the streets to make it. Green October celebrates the defiant will of the people: “Armed by October we will not retreat. We shall stamp upon stone until the stone yields green crops … in your name, October, the people are victorious and the prison gates crushed.”
The political landscape of 1964 and 1985, however, is not the landscape of 2019. The moral compasses of Abboud and Nimeiry could not permit the army to shoot unarmed, civilian demonstrators. These generals did have blood on their hands, but it was the blood of armed rebellions in Sudan’s peripheries in the south and the west of the country - although that is not to deny that civilians in these peripheries were sometimes in the crossfire.
Western politicians and mainstream media don’t seem to know what to do with the narrative of the 2019 uprising; it does not fit with the story we are often told about Sudan
“Tasqut bas” - “Just fall, that is all”, the refrain of this uprising, is a reproach to Bashir and his regime. Spilling the blood of unarmed, peaceful protesters in the capital is unprecedented and un-Sudanese. Some have recommended an amnesty for Bashir from the International Criminal Court - where he is wanted for alleged crimes against humanity - in return for his relinquishing power, to facilitate a peaceful transition and prevent more bloodshed.
Western politicians and mainstream media don’t seem to know what to do with the narrative of the 2019 uprising - it does not fit with the story we are often told about Sudan. There are no Arab/African or Muslim/Christian schisms to inspire the righteous anger of the Hollywood celebrity class that championed the plights of South Sudan and Darfur. This is simply the story of everyday Sudanese people from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds saying that it’s time for change, and for an end to corruption.
‘We are all brothers’
In 2011, as I was making Our Beloved Sudan, I tried to capture how the Sudanese people talked about themselves in the lead-up to the partitioning of their country. The popular slogan emanating from state radio was that “we are all brothers and all Sudan”. Rather than acknowledging and attempting to heal the resentments and contradictions propelling the country towards division, the official mouthpiece of the state was trying to smooth them over with sweet-sounding, but meaningless words.
It is heartbreaking to witness, from the distance and safety of the diaspora, the images of sun-scorched, determined youths being beaten by security personnel, shot at by snipers, and bleeding and dying in the arms of their comrades. WhatsApp posts from the ground are an interesting barometer of the direction being taken in the conversations on nationhood, and on what it means to be Sudanese.
This is a conversation kneaded in the blood, sweat and tears of the people. When some of us express shock at the brutal arm of the state, we are reminded that although this is new to Khartoum, it has long been commonplace in the peripheries, such as Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.
Khartoum’s middle classes have perhaps been stuck in the past, in what Wardi called al-zaman al-jameel (the beautiful times) - the times when a dictator such as Abboud flinched at the spilled blood of a handful of peaceful demonstrators. He had the integrity to relinquish power, to put the interests of his country before his own narrow political interests.
The final chapter of this uprising is still in the making, but whether or not Bashir is toppled, the Sudanese people have come together as one.
Any project for a further splintering of Sudan has hopefully suffered a setback. Through their suffering, mothers in Khartoum share the experiences and the pain of mothers in remote war zones. More than ever before, conditions are ripe for an honest and healing dialogue about what it means to be Sudanese.
Discrediting political Islam
Another notable achievement of the uprising has been the discrediting of the political Islam narrative. Former Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha recently came out of semi-retirement to proclaim on state television that the sons and daughters of the Sudanese Islamic revolution are ready to give their lives to safeguard it.
Moments later, an eloquent letter by a former party member refuting Taha’s proclamation was circulating on WhatsApp: “Do not speak for us,” it stated. “We are no longer your sleeping army. We will not be dying for your phony slogans in the name of God as we were fooled into doing in the civil war with the South. Let those who have profited from the Islamic revolution defend it.”
Many political Islamist supporters of the regime are reconsidering their position or distancing themselves from the ruling party. Yet, just as it is a mistake to categorise Sudan’s civil wars in terms of binaries, it would be wrong to think of the political divisions underpinning this uprising in terms of secularist/Islamist schisms.
On the whole, the Sudanese public is religious and spiritually focused. For those of us on the secular spectrum, the hope is that now that the moral bankruptcy of political Islam as implemented over the past 30 years in Sudan has been exposed, the people will be less susceptible to its influence.
Dying for a better Sudan
Reflecting on the lessons of October 1964 can prepare this generation for the opportunities that this uprising will present, if it succeeds in toppling the government.
In 1964, it was trade unions and professional associations who led the uprising and maintained its discipline, and ultimately its success, through civil disobedience.
This time around, the people are organising through social media, in particular WhatsApp, and overwhelmingly urging each other to keep the uprising peaceful. Keeping this peace in the face of violent provocation from the state will take resolve and discipline, but the alternative could mean the collapse of Sudan.
The tired old politics of privilege, religion and money would be a betrayal to those who have lost, and are losing, their lives for a better Sudan
Perhaps the most important lesson of 1964 is for the leaderships of the Sudanese political elites in waiting. Uprisings are as much about ideas as about political and economic discontent.
The youths putting their lives on the line every time they step out on the streets to protest deserve a seat at the table - they deserve to be active participants in forging a new political agenda. The tired old politics of privilege, religion and money would be a betrayal to those who have lost, and are losing, their lives for a better Sudan.
This is an edited version of the article that first appeared on the Africa is a Country blog.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.