North Africa, West Asia

No revolution this year: Sudan’s October Revolution and the Arab Spring

Sudan's 1964 revolution brought a military regime to an end. The reasons for the revolt were similar to those of the Arab Spring, and they persist—so why are there no protests?

Arwa Elsanosi
1 November 2015

Demotix/Rajput Yasir. All rights reserved.

On 21 October 1964, the people of Sudan took to the streets in mass demonstrations and strikes that brought the military regime led by General Ibrahim Abbud to an end; this year marks the fifity-first anniversary of the 'October Revolution'.

When the wave of revolutions flooded the Arab region in 2011, the Sudanese people rose up in protest against military rule once again. This time it was against the Revolutionary Command Council of National Salvation, led by Omar Al-Bashir, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1981.

This coup was later presented as the 'Salvation Revolution' (thawrat al-inqaz), a tactical move that aimed to evoke the legacy of the October Revolution and create a sense of popular support for leadership by the national hero, Al-Bashir. Using the rhetoric of the Salvation Revolution gave legitimacy and further power consolidation to Al-Bashir and his party, the National Congress Party.

During the Arab Spring others across the region, like the people of Sudan, were deeply dissatisfied by the impoverishment caused by high level of corruption, devastating unemployment rates and austerity measures imposed by the government. In Sudan's case, this was while the governing elite, and their close acquaintances, had—and continue to have—exclusive rights to wealth.

Even though Sudan has lost billions of dollars in oil receipts since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, these elites continue to pursue their lavish life styles, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Yet there has been a general lack of involvement by political opposition parties in the protests.

Opposition parties condemned the government's use of excessive force against the people and its decision to lift fuel subsidies in 2012. However, the leaders of these opposition parties were hesitant to express their stance in support of the protests, which weakened the political weight of the protests. For example, Sadiq al-Mahdi, a leader of the National Umma Party, made no statement supporting the protests, yet some news agencies reported that hundreds of his supporters joined the protests following a speech he delivered at a mosque in Omdurman near his residence. Later on, the Popular Congress Party and its leader Hassan al-Turabi called on their supporters to participate in Arab Spring protests.

In response, the government mobilised riot police at all protests, whether peaceful or violent, and the police did not hesitate to shoot live bullets at the protestors, and used tear gas even inside university campuses. They succeeded in dispursing protestors, and those who were caught were detained for indefinite periods, often without trials. Reports of torture and harassment by the government were made by many protestors. 

The government also cracked down on opposition parties by issuing a decree that bans political parties from meeting without permission. This decree was announced only a week after President Al-Bashir met with opposition party leaders promising a deal that would ensure their freedom to operate and compete in the national elections of 2015, which Omar Al-Bashir won with an unprecedented 94 percent. 

This state of general oppression has also reached cyber space, with the National Intelligence Secret Service's (NISS) creation of the so-called "Electronic Army", an internet-based body that looks for anti-government political activists and threatens them. Some have been prosecuted for their anti-government online activity.

So, how did Al-Bashir’s regime manage to consolidate power for 26 years?

Al-Inqaz regime is led by an elite that is distant from the population and that has complete and exclusive control of the military/security and party apparatus. The National Congress Party in Sudan almost fully controls the judiciary, executive and legislative branches of government, creating an almost complete monopoly over government bodies. The government is insulated by a relatively strong administration that depends principally on the military and the NISS.

Moreover, the regime succeeds in shifting the public's attention by constantly engaging in wars of distraction; the government was initially involved in a civil war with South Sudan for more than two decades, then another war in Darfur that brought about serious charges of crimes against humanity, triggering a vast reaction from the international community and specifically 'the west'—which the government is also at war against.

Another element of the military regime's consolidation of power is the use of Islam and the introduction of Shari’a law as a means of legitimacy. This was initiated by President Ja’afar Nemeiri in the early 1980s, but it was further implemented by the current government. For a society that has Islamic and Arabic traditions deeply integrated in its culture, and with the continuous marginalisation of African cultural elements, getting the average Sudanese man/woman to revolt against Al-Bashir’s 'Islamic' rule is quite difficult. 

October has come once again, but the Sudanese streets today are quiet, with little activity on social media demanding justice for students killed by riot police, or the immediate release of political activists from prisons. The country continues to have internet blackouts—although less frequently than during the Arab Spring—and austerity measures are no longer a hot topic for discussion and deep resentment.

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