After almost three decades in power, Omar al-Bashir has been ousted as president of Sudan by popular protests. The masses have come onto the streets in what can only be described as a revolutionary movement, although one without clear leadership or demands. Bashir himself has been arrested and is being “kept in a safe place” by the military.
This morning the news of Bashir’s removal sparked an eruption of joy in the dusty streets of the capital. Some people chanted: "It has fallen, we won." Asked by a reporter of the news agency Al Jazeera what this meant for her, a protester responded: "It means everything." Another demonstrator said: "It's not just Bashir stepping down. It's also about the whole regime going down and everything that came with it and 30 years of oppression. So what we want is a transition to a democracy. We want a civilian government and hand over of the authority and power to the people."
From euphoria to renewed anger
Later on in the day it became clear that the military have been trying to take control. The Minister of Defence, Awad Ibn Ouf said the army had decided to oversee a two-year transition period to be followed by elections. Meanwhile the constitution has been suspended, a state of emergency has been imposed for the next three months and a curfew starts at 10pm. The government has been dissolved, as have the parliament and the state governments.
This is unacceptable for the main opposition groups, like the Sudanese Professionals Association and the Girifna youth movement. They are demanding a truly civilian government and have called the protests to continue in front of the military headquarters. People are now chanting slogans against the military government, against the state of emergency and against the curfew. You can hear people singing “We don’t accept”. Illusions which existed in the Army, and which were fostered by the SPA and other opposition forces, are evaporating rapidly.
Why has the Army intervened to oust Omar al-Bashir? In the past few days divisions started to appear among the soldiers, with junior officers on one side and the security forces (National Intelligence and Security Services - NISS, Islamist militias) on the other. The NISS have killed five soldiers who were trying to protect the people against repression. During two incidents, soldiers fired back against these state thugs. But also within the Army itself a rift appeared between the soldiers and their junior officers and the top brass of the army.
The high ranking officers clearly feared a rebellion of the lower ranking officers “on the ground” who are closer to the people. Anxious not to lose control over their apparatus, fearing the break-up of the chain of command, the army tops needed to act and act quickly. This explains why the army generals, the traditional pillars of the regime of Omar al-Bashir, have taken the initiative to push him out of power, arrest the main government officials and their family members and announce the formation of a ‘transitional government’. By doing so they hope to keep intact the cohesion of the state apparatus (guaranteeing their privileges, perks and business interests), to protect the essence of the regime and to defuse the mass movement.
By reforming from the top they hope to prevent a revolution from below. But some lessons from the Arab spring have not gone unnoticed by the masses in Sudan. Many say that they do not want the military to come to power and steal their revolution like in Egypt. The masses in Sudan, just like in Algeria, want the whole regime to be dismantled. Thus, we can say that a new phase of the Sudanese revolution has been entered today. After so many sacrifices the masses will not so easily abandon the streets for such a result.
The Bashir regime
The Bashir regime has a history of brutality. In 2018, 5.5 million Sudanese people suffered food insecurity. Meanwhile, it was revealed by Wikileaks in 2010 that Bashir had siphoned off $9bn of the country’s oil money for himself and stashed it in UK banks.
Bashir is also the only sitting head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. All these crimes pertain to his campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur from 2003, and which was subsequently expanded into the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. Meanwhile, the Sudanese Civil War, which raged until 2005, led to the death of around two million people. Poverty and war are therefore Bashir’s legacy. He will not be missed.
The protests which have finally led to his downfall began in mid-December 2018. The government had announced an end to subsidies on basic goods. This was an attempt to tackle spiralling inflation which was at 122% - the second highest in the world.
This policy was carried out on the instructions of the IMF in 2017, shortly after the Obama administration had lifted economic sanctions on Sudan. This was an attempt by US imperialism to bring the Sudanese economy into its sphere of influence. However, instead of achieving a cosy relationship with this war criminal, US imperialism inadvertently sparked the movement that has led to Bashir’s downfall.
On 19 December 2018, the north eastern town of Atbara erupted in protest. The demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of the ruling National Congress Party. Military police responded with tear gas and live ammunition. The protests began here and only gradually spread to the capital because of the intense security lockdown.
Ever since then, demonstrators have been systematically taking to the streets across the whole country to protest price increases, cuts in subsidies on basic commodities, and fuel shortages. As the protests spread to the capital, Khartoum, the demands escalated to a complete dismantling of the Bashir regime.
Repression did not quell the protests
The government’s response was pitiless. It deployed the police and paramilitary forces against the protestors who were beaten and shot at with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. Around 100 people at least are thought to have been killed, with many more injured. Since last Saturday, 22 people have been killed, in a last desperate attempt by Bashir to intensify the deadly repression of the protests. Thousands of people have also been arrested by the security services, including academics from Khartoum university, opposition leaders and journalists, all without being allowed visits from family, lawyers or doctors.
On 22 February 2019, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews in some places. Schools and universities have been closed. National newspapers have been censored or shut down. The internet has been disrupted, and several phone companies have restricted access to WhatsApp and other social media sites.
However, this did not stop the protests, which have continued unabated. Most recently, thousands of people set up camp outside the army headquarters in the centre of Khartoum - with only makeshift water distribution and medical facilities and under sporadic heavy gunfire from the security services - demanding that Bashir be removed as president. This has proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
From the beginning, the protests have been orchestrated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). This is an illegal umbrella group of unions representing mainly middle-class professions such as doctors, engineers, university professors, teachers, journalists, etc. The membership of the SPA, although secret, has been subjected to vicious repression by Bashir as a result.
This leadership has proven resolute in the face of repression, but vague in its demands. The slogans of the protests have demanded the fall of Bashir, and for “freedom, peace, and justice”. But the need for a government that will put the working class first, as the only way to solve the problems that sparked this movement in the first place, has been absent from the demands.
However, this is not for lack of working-class involvement in this revolutionary movement. It is no coincidence that the protests began in Atbara, which is the national base for the railway workers’ union – the largest union in Sudan.
On 10 March 2019, the Alliance for the Restoration of Sudanese Workers’ Trade Unions announced that it was joining the protests to topple Bashir. It called on all the unions that had been disbanded by the regime to remobilise their ranks and join the protests. And in its statement this organisation pointed out the huge attacks on workers under the Bashir regime, including privatisations, price increases, cuts to sick leave, maternity leave, and so on.
A Declaration of Freedom and Change calling for Bashir to be toppled was signed, not just by the SPA, but also by a group called the National Consensus Forces, which includes the Sudanese Communist Party. Banners and placards from the Sudanese Jobless Association have been seen on demonstrations.
Revolutionary women at the forefront
Significantly, it has been reported that up to 70% of the protestors are women. This is not an accident. Sudan’s previous revolutions were started by women and they have always played a decisive role. As the journalist Zeinab Mohammed Salih reminds us, “Protesting women are not a new phenomenon in Sudan. In 1946, 10 years before independence, the country's first female doctor, Khalida Zahir, took to the streets against British rule and was arrested and flogged.” They also have the most to win from an end to the dictatorship and it obscurantist laws. Every year between 40,000 and 50,000 women are arrested and flogged for wearing “obscene clothes” (trousers), while 90% of Sudanese women are genitally mutilated. A movement that mobilises the most downtrodden and marginalised layers of society, as women in Sudan are, is a genuinely revolutionary one.
Under any repressive regime, the initial revolutionary movement tends towards unity across class lines. From the most oppressed layers, to the organisations of the working class, to middle-class liberals, everyone can get behind the demand to end a dictatorship.
However, what is important now is for the organisations of the working class not to get caught up in the euphoria that comes with the toppling of a tyrant. We must remember that what caused these protests were the terrible living conditions which are a direct consequence of the workings of the capitalist economy, and the spark that lit the fuse was the list of draconian measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
If the root problems of Sudanese society are to be tackled, what is required is a workers’ government, based on workers’ democracy in the towns and workplaces, allied with the rural poor. Such a government would reject the demands of imperialism, whether the US, China, Saudi Arabia, or any other power. Such a government would run the economy on the basis of need instead of profit. This is the only way to secure peace and bread for ordinary Sudanese people.
No solution under capitalism
We must warn the people of Sudan that now that Bashir has gone, there are powerful forces trying to pull Sudan in a different direction, one which will spell more misery for ordinary people.
Since January, former allies of Bashir have been scrambling for cover in the face of this movement. On 1 January 2019 some of the smaller groups and parties allied to the regime called for a transitional government to take control until the next elections in 2020 when Bashir was to stand down.
Meanwhile, the imperialist powers are watching Sudan like hawks. China has long had a significant economic interest in Sudan, which was one of the first African countries it invested in heavily. As mentioned above, the US has recently attempted to prise Sudan away from China and pull it back into its own sphere of influence. Meanwhile it was Russia and Saudi Arabia that Bashir turned to for support in the face of these protests earlier in the year. Every one of these vultures will be sticking their claws into this chaotic situation, trying to work for the most favourable outcome for their own imperialist interests.
All the talk is currently of a transitional council, representing “all elements of Sudanese society” to manage affairs for a few years until a general election can be called. This would simply be an attempt to buy time for the gangsters to make alliances, distance themselves from the crimes of the past, and then continue running the country in the interests of big business and themselves. It would solve nothing for the majority of the people.
Now is the moment for the working class organisations in Sudan to strike out independently. We can have no confidence in such a transitional council. Power is in the streets in Sudan. It is the mass mobilisations that have forced Bashir from power and split the army. Power must be transferred to the working class, in alliance with the rural population, through local councils and organisations.
We must learn the lessons of the history of the Sudanese Communist Party. In 1964, and again in 1969, this party supported movements and coups that set up governments which spoke in the name of “all elements of Sudanese society”, but which later outlawed and brutally attacked communists and working class activists. The lesson is that the workers and rural poor must stand on their own feet, with an independent programme demanding all power to the workers. This is the only way forward now.