Sudan uprising Sudan protests, November 2019. Photo: Abbasher / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

John Clarke looks at the renewed wave of mass mobilisation in Sudan in the face of brutal repression from the military dictatorship and the lessons to be drawn for struggles globally

The military leaders who hold power in Sudan have responded to a new wave of protests with the brutal repression that is their stock in trade. On 30 June, six people were shot down and killed by troops in Omdurman while, across the Nile river in Khartoum, ‘another person died from a gunshot wound in the head and a child died after being shot in the chest.’ Tens of thousands had taken to the streets to demand an end to the military rule, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, that was imposed last October.

One media report tells us that ‘Security forces fired tear gas and water cannon to block the protesters from marching towards the presidential palace in central Khartoum. The protesters barricaded some of the capital’s main thoroughfares with stones and burning tyres.’ The same source describes ‘thousands of people waving Sudanese flags and running under clouds of tear gas.’

Defiant crowds were back on the streets the next day in very large numbers and tear gas was again unleashed in an effort to contain their struggle. Protest leaders insisted that they will ‘organize an open-ended campaign of sit-ins and other peaceful actions in response to the deaths.’ It is also reported that ‘Protesters hope a united front from the civilian opposition will signal to dissidents in the military and potentially inspire mutinies.’

In addition to the brutal tactics they have unleashed against protesters, the authorities have responded to this latest upsurge in popular resistance by cutting off ‘internet and communications services to prevent activists from organising.’ That such measures are failing to stifle the movement or intimidate those participating in it is abundantly clear. ‘Videos show a jubilant crowd in Khartoum pulling down a large shipping container and dancing on top of it’ and those taking to the streets have been chanting “Even if we die, the military will not rule us.”

Unbreakable resistance

Though it has had its peaks and troughs, resistance to military rule has been ongoing since it was established, by way of a coup, last October and the present upsurge of struggle represents only the latest wave of popular resistance. Over recent months, street protests have been augmented by defiant strike actions and the military rulers have been forced to combine harsh repressive tactics with conciliatory gestures, in an effort to subdue the relentless challenge to their power.

As I explained in a previous article for Counterfire, ‘Since Sudan became independent in 1956, the military has never been far from the centre of political power, either ruling directly, or hovering menacingly over periods of civilian government.’ Over the decades, then, all struggles for economic, social and political rights have been taken up in the face of the military’s considerable repressive power. Under these harsh conditions, popular movements have developed a determined resilience that goes a long way towards explaining the unbreakable resistance that has emerged in the face of the present period of direct military terror.

There is, of course, much to the situation that is unfolding in Sudan that is particular to that country. However, it is also important to consider that this protracted and vital struggle is unfolding at a time of great volatility on a global scale. As resistance takes to the streets in Sudan, working class movements and popular struggles are breaking out in other parts of the world.

In May, huge protests in Peru over rising fuel and fertiliser prices forced the government to implement curfew measures. The following month, a similar upsurge of protests in Sri Lanka compelled the prime minister of the country to resign from office. At the end of June, the government of Ecuador had to reduce fuel prices in the face of the great threat posed by Indigenous-led strikes and protests. Driven by sustained and rising inflation that has generated an international cost of living crisis, the prospects for very much greater and even more widespread social struggles are considerable. In this situation, the movement in Sudan offers some valuable lessons that are worth paying great attention to.

The courage and determination that has been shown by the masses of people who have taken to the streets of Khartoum and other Sudanese cities can only be a great inspiration to us all. However, these vital qualities are linked to serious organisational efforts to shape and sustain the struggle. In this regard, the ongoing and developing role of the bodies known as ‘resistance committees,’ has been of particular importance.

From a roundtable discussion of the work of these committees, we learn that ‘What is most instructive for social movements worldwide are the various structures for resistance that exist in Sudan today, particularly those of the resistance committees.’  These dynamic bodies ‘have moved in the past two years of ‘transition’ to a central leadership role that embraces a more radical politics and refusal of the status quo promoted by elite political actors in Sudan.’

We are also told that several resistance committees, based on ‘widespread consultation of their neighborhoods, regions, and with other revolutionary bodies in their areas,’ have drawn up political charters that ‘not only link the question of social and economic inequity, war and political repression, and the extractive colonial state and its post-colonial iterations, but… also chart out a bottom-up process of participatory democracy.’ 

This all speaks to a vital question that must be addressed if the global struggles that are emerging in the present conditions of crisis are to have the political perspectives, clear strategies and capacities for sustained movement building that will be utterly essential. Mass action that empties the workplaces and fills the streets unleashes a great social force but it inevitably comes up against a political structure that will make sure to develop well considered plans to contain and defeat it, generally through a combination of repression and tactical concessions. In such a situation, it is essential that the movement of resistance develop its own organisational forms through which political goals and strategic decisions can be debated and decided. In Sudan, an important contribution to this indispensable element is being developed in the course of an unfolding social struggle.

The latest surge of resistance in Sudan has the generals scrambling desperately to retain their iron grip. They combine murderous repression with nervous assurances that they earnestly wish to clear the way for a return to civilian rule. For all the state power they can wield so ruthlessly, the determined and sustainable social mobilisation they are facing has them deeply worried. That such a movement is unfolding at a time like this is incredibly precious. We should respect it deeply and do all we can to show our support and solidarity. At the same time, however, we also have a great deal to learn from the Sudanese movement that we will be able to apply to our own intensifying struggles in the days ahead.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.