Sudan: the counter-revolution strikes

The Sudanese Revolution has been an inspiration to workers, women and youth around the world. The women in particular have revealed tremendous revolutionary potential. All that was progressive in Sudanese society emerged to show the world that society can be changed. But there was also a darker side and this has now reared its ugly head in the most brutal manner possible. Why is this happening?

Since Monday, social media has been flooded with videos and pictures of reactionary RSF militiamen ravaging Khartoum. Packed on the back of pickup trucks or on foot in groups, armed militiamen have been stopping people at random, tearing down barricades, looting shops and beating up or flogging protestors and raping countless women. At the same time, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), breaking off talks with the opposition, has announced a transitional government and elections within nine months.

Counter-revolution never wastes time. Since the beginning of their counter-offensive yesterday morning, groups of gunmen, spearheaded by Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militiamen, have been relentlessly targeting anyone resembling revolutionaries in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. At least 100 have reportedly been killed and hundreds more wounded so far, although the real figures are probably much higher. Many of the bodies have been thrown in the Nile, as part of a campaign to terrorise the masses.

There have also been several reports of women being raped by armed gangs openly on the streets. According to one report, militiamen raided a medical clinic, raping the practitioners and beating up everyone else. This is clearly intended as a message to all those Sudanese women who dared come out and challenge a system that has condemned them to the most abject oppression for generations. The more powerful and widespread a revolution is, the more bloody and brutal must the counter-revolution be to put an end to it.

Barbarism of the Junta

The leaders of the Junta know full well that the revolution had unleashed powerful forces from within the mass of the population, who have come to realise their own strength. They therefore need to strike as hard as possible before the revolution has a chance to reorganise. Their aim is to terrorise, disorientate and demoralise the movement, before it has a chance to find its feet again.

All of this was evidently carefully planned weeks ahead, as militiamen slowly increased their presence throughout the city. Channel 4 journalist Yousra Elbagir has a very interesting series of tweets where she quotes from conversations with a defected member of the intelligence agency:

“Finally got in touch my intelligence source (a defected NISS officer) he says:

"‘This is all a planned attack by the RSF, NISS, People's Police militia, People's Security Militia, Defence Miltia, Student Security Militia & AbdelHai Islamist Militia. They were a force of 10,000.’"

“He asked me what the published death toll is currently (he has no access to internet due to the blackout)

“When I said 40 people, he sighed and said:

"That's not even a quarter of the number of people killed."

“He says, ‘some people were beaten to death and thrown in the Nile, some shot multiple times and thrown in the Nile and others were hacked with machetes and thrown in the Nile. It was a massacre.’

“He says, when the forces entered the sit-in site, they entered the make-shift clinic and raped two female doctors.

“He says the forces then turned to the tea ladies and started beating them. They yelled ‘civilian or military?’ at them as they beat them.

“He says that the army was withdrawn from the site from 4pm on Sunday. The orders for them to withdraw came from the Transitional Military Council.

“The army vehicles guarding the entrances were replaced with Rapid Support Forces vehicles. (...)

“He has seen army soldiers in tears. Mid-ranking officers & below have told him that the Transitional Military Council does not represent them.

“There were higher orders to strip the army of their weapons four days ago. Some have broken into weapon warehouses & found them empty.”

At the same time as this dirty operation is being carried out, the TMC has announced that it is implementing a transitional government and organising elections within nine months. Clearly, this is aimed at undermining the political alternative proposed by the leadership of the movement, which had been insisting on a minimum three-year (!) transitional period under a “technocratic government”. The problem with this demand is that it did not satisfy the needs of the masses who desire democracy now, not in three or four years’ time.

The demand for a three-year period originally came when the regime was raising the idea of a four-year period. By offering swift elections, the TMC is now cleverly trying to paint itself as being even more democratic than the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), which has been the leading force behind the revolution so far.

They are also attempting to isolate the most radical and revolutionary layers of the movement. Tellingly, the Ummah party, a semi-legal bourgeois Islamist party which until now was a part of the SPA-led Forces for Freedom and Change (FFS), has shown signs of reconciliation with the regime and has come out in support of the coming elections. This merely goes to reveal their true face as a conservative, anti-revolutionary loyal opposition of the old regime.

With power in the hands of the TMC, however, there will never be fully open and democratic elections. If elections were to be organised this would come only after the ruling clique had carefully manoeuvred and manipulated them, in order to guarantee their total grip on power. It would be elections with a crushed opposition, with total control of the media and the legal and justice systems in the hands of the TMC designed to benefit Hemeti, Burhan and all the rest of the reactionary forces.

The core of the counter-revolution is made up of various reactionary militias, in particular the RSF, which reportedly has thousands of armed troops in Khartoum, recruited from criminal and backward tribal layers. These young men, often in their early teens, are recruited from the lowest, most downtrodden and illiterate layers of society and shaped into rabid reactionaries. It is revealing of the hypocrisy of the western powers such as the US and Britain, who are crying crocodile tears over these events, while the RSF is in fact the key mercenary force fighting in the US and British-backed and Saudi-led assault on Yemen. Apart from Yemen, many RSF soldiers have participated in the atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan. Today, these men are the shock troops of the counter-revolution, rabid dogs unleashed to “clear the decks” for the ruling class to re-establish its rule.

Furthermore, there are rural kingpins, tribal chiefs and other similar figures that Hemeti has been campaigning amongst, who provide him with foot soldiers. These privileged layers are terrified of the revolution because they see it as a direct challenge to their barbaric and primitive form of rule. Hemeti has been building up support amongst these conservative traditional layers, presenting himself as a defender of “order and tradition” against the “atheist” and reckless radicals involved in the revolution. Finally, the counter-revolution is backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose ruling classes are equally terrified by the power of the revolution, which was becoming an inspiration throughout the region.

Revolution stalls, reaction takes the initiative

The Sudanese Revolution has been one of the strongest and certainly the best-organised in the recent history of the region. The bravery of the Sudanese masses, with the heavily oppressed women at the forefront, has been an inspiration for the working masses everywhere. The SPA in particular has played a pivotal role, organising radical action and attempting to broaden the struggle. The heroism of the people heading the SPA cannot be underestimated

However, one thing has been lacking, and that was a real plan of how to move forward. While it is true that the revolution completely overwhelmed the ruling class, technically, the movement did not overthrow Omar al-Bashir. This was the key moment where the SPA could have organised a widespread general strike movement, appealed to the army ranks to come to its side on an organised basis, and taken power peacefully without any bloodshed!

Instead, the TMC, which stepped into the vacuum of power that was created, removed Bashir and snatched victory out of the hands of the masses. The main reason this was possible was that the SPA leaders did not have any concrete plan for taking power. Following the fall of Bashir, the SPA did not offer any alternative other than to negotiate with the TMC, which consisted of people from Bashir’s regime.

Why, we must ask, was it necessary to negotiate with the TMC? What role did it play in the revolution? The fact is that the only role the forces behind the TMC ever played was to play for time and attack the revolution. In spite of this, the SPA accepted many of the TMC’s demands, such as retaining their hold over the armed forces and the ministry of defence.

During the “negotiations”, it was abundantly clear that the TMC was not interested in reaching any sort of agreement. Instead, it was playing for time until it finally left the negotiation table on 15 May after the protests had been attacked by RSF forces and several people had been killed. And still, the SPA leaders did not point to any new way out than the negotiations.

Last week, as we have reported, the movement reached its highest point when the SPA organised a massive general strike. This was the first, properly organised political general strike for years and it clearly put the question of power on the agenda. Throughout the country, it was clear that a dual power situation had developed, with the state and the SPA competing for control. In fact, all the main ministries were following the SPA lead during the strike, as were other sectors such as the airline workers, port workers and so on. The working class and poor had risen up.

At that point, to issue a call for the army ranks to organise and join the movement, linking up soldiers’ and workers’ committees on a national level and taking over the key strategic infrastructure of the country, would have been a relatively easy operation and it could have led to a relatively peaceful transition. Reactionary militias such as the RSF could easily have been disarmed by the armed masses, backed by the rank-and-file soldiers.

Instead, what happened was the strike was brought to an end, with the SPA threatening to possibly follow it up with another general strike. For two months since the fall of Bashir, the masses have been kept mobilised on the streets with no clear plan of action. In their eyes, even finally organising a very powerful and successful political general strike, did not lead to any concrete gains. At such a juncture, demoralisation can begin to set in, in particular among the petit-bourgeois and more politically backward layers. Having reached such a point, you either go forward or you step back; you cannot stand still.

Revolution must defeat the counter-revolution!

As Leon Trotsky explained in his Military Writings:

“...if the premises for revolution are present, that is, if a revolutionary situation exists, if there is a class which is interested in revolution and which constitutes a decisive force, but there is not a party, an organisation that can lead it, or if this party is weak, if it lacks a clear plan, then the most favourable revolutionary situation can end in failure." (...)

“A revolution is a combination of gigantic events, a revolution cannot be appointed for a certain moment, one cannot allocate roles in it beforehand: but when a revolutionary situation has been created, the revolutionary class is then confronted with a practical task: ‘Take power!’ (...) If the moment is let slip, the situation may alter radically, and the disintegration may set in among the ranks of the revolutionary class, with loss of confidence in their own strength..." (The International Situation and the Red Army, IV. The Events in Germany in the Autumn of 1923)

This is what we risk seeing now in Sudan. The fact is that, while the counter-revolution prepared, the revolution did not. Hemeti has spent the past months building up a political base, consolidating it as an enemy of the revolution, preparing it for the taking of power. Meanwhile, the SPA refused to build a party and declared itself a non-political force! Hemeti kept his control of the arms, while the SPA refused to arm the protesters, even when they knew an assault was coming. The SPA was presented with several opportunities to take power, but failed to do so. Hemeti then stepped in decisively, wielding all of his forces to strike a decisive and powerful blow against the revolution as soon as he saw the moment was right.

Clearly, the aim of the men of the old regime is to put an end to the Sudanese Revolution, which in their view they have tolerated for long enough. They were terrorised by the power of the general strike, but they are also astute enough to see that the revolution had reached a point where it did not know where to go next. They saw their chance and moved quickly and decisively. The initiative moved from the revolution to the counter-revolution. We have seen this many times in history. The best of opportunities, as Trotsky explained, can be lost.

One of Franco’s senior generals in Spain after the defeat of the revolution in the 1930s declared, “It is necessary to spread terror. We have to create the impression of mastery, eliminating without scruples or hesitation all those who do not think as we do.” These words explain what is presently happening today in Sudan.

The power was there for the taking last week, but who was there to raise that slogan? The leadership issued appeals to keep everything "peaceful", thereby disarming the movement and handing it over to the butchers of the old regime who are very happy to have such "peace"!

We are not yet, however, at the end of the Sudanese Revolution. The present repression could prove to be the whip of the counter-revolution that spurs on the revolution. What happens in the coming days will show which way it is going to go. It is also difficult to judge the real mood on the ground. The internet has been blocked by the regime, a measure clearly aimed at stopping the movement from organising, but also at stopping news spreading. There are some reports of sporadic protests in the neighbourhoods of the capital and in other cities, but there are also reports of the brutal repression spreading to other parts of the country.

The heroic and courageous masses of Sudan have shown the world once again – as their brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia did in 2011 – that the most despotic of regimes can be brought down once the working people rise up. They have answered the cynics and sceptics who are always ready to point the finger at the “low consciousness of the masses”. It is “low” until – dialectically – it becomes high. The pent-up anger of the masses sooner or later bubbles to the surface and when it does it seems to take everyone by surprise. For the Marxists, however, there is no surprise, for we look deep below the surface at the molecular processes going on among the downtrodden masses.

The point, however, is that it is not enough for the anger to come to the surface. Once the masses set out on the road to revolution, they require a leadership that is up to the tasks posed by the situation. This is lacking in Sudan. And now the masses are paying a heavy price. The counter-revolution has struck.

We are not ready to hold the requiem of the revolution yet. The masses have shown enormous resilience, and they could yet rise up and strike back. What must be done is to put aside all illusions that the revolution can negotiate with its hangmen. It is either the victory of the revolution or defeat at the hands of the counter-revolution. There is no middle road.