A growing anti-government movement consisting of nonviolent demonstrations as well as scattered rioting is beginning to threaten the Sudanese dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, who has ruled this large North African nation for twenty-three years. Beginning as protests against strict austerity measures imposed three weeks ago, the chants of the protesters have escalated to "the people want to overthrow the regime," the line heard in recent uprisings in other Arab countries, including Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.
Could Sudan be the next Arab country in which an autocratic government is brought down in a largely nonviolent civil insurrection?
Some analysts have dismissed the prospects of a successful uprising by noting the sheer brutality of the Sudanese regime, responsible for a genocidal counter-insurgency war in its western province of Darfur and decades of bloody repression in the southern part of the country, now the newly-independent republic of South Sudan.
However, it is not the brutality of the regime that determines whether or not it can be toppled by a largely nonviolent civil insurrection. The 900 people killed during the 18-day Egyptian uprising was a higher total than any 18-day period of the Syrian uprising during its earlier nonviolent phase, but the Egyptian revolutionaries persisted and won. Similarly, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali ordered his forces to open fire on the hundred s of thousands of nonviolent protesters on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, but the soldiers refused, forcing him to flee.
What determines the fate of autocrats being challenged by civil insurrections is not the threat of repression per se as it is the ability of the pro-democratic opposition to undermine the pillars of support for the regime – such as security forces, economic elites, foreign backers, and others – through massive non-cooperation.
Many in the West are unaware that Sudan – despite its horrific history of authoritarianism and violence in recent decades – also has a history of largely nonviolent pro-democracy civil insurrections which pre-date not just the recent revolts of the “Arab Spring,” but the pro-democracy uprisings in Africa during the early 1990s that brought down dictatorships in Mali, Benin, Madagascar and elsewhere in the continent.
The first major Sudanese pro-democracy insurrection took place against the regime of Field Marshal Ibrahim Abboud in October 1964. When authorities tried to ban increasing public debate regarding the legitimacy of the military government, which had ruled the country since 1958, large protests by a coalition of students, professionals, workers, leftists, nationalists and Islamists broke out. Within a week, a general strike had shut down the country. On October 28, scores of nonviolent protesters in Khartoum were gunned down by government forces. Politicians and activists, through family and other personal ties, took advantage of a deepening split within the military to convince them to depose Abboud and return the country to civilian governance on October 30. A series of unstable civilian coalition governed the country until a military coup in 1969, led by Jafaar Nimeiry.
Over the next sixteen years, Nimeiry shifted his ideology from left-wing nationalist, to pro-Western anti-communist, to Islamist, but not his autocratic style of leadership. Early in the spring of 1985, however, there were a series of massive and largely nonviolent demonstrations in the capital of Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman. A general strike called by trade unions and professional organizations paralyzed the country as the pro-democracy movement gained increasing support from a growing cross-section of the population, including the business community. Despite thousands of arrests and scores of shootings, the largely-peaceful protests continued, with even the country’s judiciary joining in the civil rebellion. Protesters shut down pro-government radio stations and occupied airport runways to prevent Nimeiry, who was on a state visit to Washington, from returning home. On April 6, the military seized power, formally overthrowing the dictator. Pro-democracy activists continued their protests, however, forcing the new junta to allow for an interim civilian-led government followed by democratic elections which gave the Sudanese one of the most open democratic political systems in the Arab world.
As with the earlier experiment in democracy, however, the shaky civilian governments which followed were unable to unify the country and a coalition of military officers and hardline Islamists seized power in 1989 and have ruled ever since.
This inevitably raises the question of whether such an uprising can succeed again.
There are some major differences between Sudan today and Sudan during these previous uprisings, not the least of which has been the systematic destruction under al-Bashir’s rule of key civil society institutions, particularly the trade unions, which played a major role in the 1964 and 1985 uprisings. Still, pro-democracy groups like Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) have continued to organize.
In addition to armed regional rebellions in the west, south and northeast in recent decades, there have also been periodic nonviolent struggles for greater democracy and accountability. In the 1990s, anti-regime protests were gaining traction until the 1998 U.S. bombing of the country’s largest pharmaceutical plant (apparently based on erroneous intelligence that it was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Al-Qaeda) enabled the regime to steer popular resentment towards the United States. Another uprising in 2005, centered in the poorer shantytowns of the capital, was violently suppressed.
The current uprising, however, is the most serious to challenge the regime so far. Despite being met by severe repression, there have been some impressive innovations by the pro-democracy forces. Recognizing the vulnerability of large concentrations of protesters to the armed forces of repressive regimes, the protests have organized as a series of simultaneous small demonstrations in many part of the country and various neighborhoods of the capital. Though students, as in the previous uprisings, are disproportionately represented among the protesters, there is also a strong component of poor and working class Sudanese, as well as older people. The grievances are not ethnic or even ideological as much as they are a simple demand for accountable government. Women have been playing an important role as well, with the first protest of the current uprising being organized by female students at the University of Khartoum on June 15.
Just as the movement has been consciously decentralized in terms of protests, it has been consciously decentralized in terms of organization. One pro-democracy activist noted how the secret police arrest Girifina members daily as if they are looking to jail the leadership, but “they just can't get it that Girifna is a leaderless movement and no matter how much you arrest of us we simply will not stop.”
Though the movement faces enormous challenges and victory is by no means certain, the current protests in Sudan illustrate that even the most brutal regime is ultimately vulnerable if it loses legitimacy in the eyes of its people.