Labor unions, social movements and youths: A perfect storm that ousted Omar al-Bashir

Myr work on this subject was submitted for publication before the collective action that brought down Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship was able to bring forth and consolidate a functioning transitional government. And I thought it would be remiss of me if I did not say a word or two about the significance of political shifts and power in the emergent, reconfigured Sudanese state. I agree with political observers that the 2019 protest movement was the most sustained and dramatic in the country’s modern history, when compared to the ones that toppled Ibrahim Abound (1964) and Ga’far al-Nimeiri (1985). All three episodes however were triggered by a chain of common forces: After years of devastating and unmitigated economic hardship plus political repression had eviscerated public confidence in government, civil campaigns eventually were set off by skyrocketing costs of food and basic goods.

The ebb and flow of emotion and passion among individuals and within groups, as well as the political contortions that characterised human relations at that moment, are worthy' of note and can be summarised like this: (I) The Sudanese Professional Association (SPA)1® was a composition of erudite labor and trade organisations that functioned effectively as the brainstorm and the arrowhead of the social movement for change. The organisation was able to efficaciously' command the respect of those diverse professionals who were constantly brought into the streets. Stories and interpretations abound about the fact that the sons and daughters of the most privileged Sudanese elite families were sufficiently' sensitised by the human suffering caused by the Bashir regime, for which reason they joined the throngs in the streets to demonstrate against injustice. Collectively, the dissenters evoked memories of history' in their chant concerning the impactful uprisings of 1964 and 1985. Bashir was chorused to please self-destruct, “Just Fall.” Other marchers reassured one another by chanting: “It fell once, it fell twice, and it willfall a third time.” They hoped that the autocratic regime in Khartoum would be sorely haunted by their incantation of popular uprisings toppling the country’s dictators of times gone by. And then, of course, the open participation of Darfuri students in the marches imparted some profound sense of national unity to the cause.

Along this line, (II) the protest acquired critical mass when the SPA successfully engineered the January 21 Alliance, which added the membership of 21 more organisations from across the country. And it marked the birth of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC); and the opposition alliance proceeded to issue a terse declaration reiterating that the people of Sudan stood firmly united in their unadulterated demand for a national transition government. The aim was

Religiotis components 53 to remove Bashir from office and usher peace to a new democratic Sudan. The FFC today is the symbol and voice of the protest movement for change, and for justifiable defiance.

(Ill) The premier reaction from the barracks was dramatic, and it seemed to confirm the erosion of order and coherence among the military top brass: Salah Gosh, chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services had met with reporters (February' 22) to divulge that Bashir had agreed to step away from the leadership of the NCP, dissolve the cabinet, compose a new government and invite citizens’ participation in a national dialogue on the challenges of stability and general wellbeing. But later the same day, President Bashir went on the radio to declare a state of national emergency; he also announced the formation of a new security committee and a cabinet reshuffle. From those contradictor}' and competing announcements, it seemed clear that the coup against Bashir, which had long been cooking, was now imminent: And it came as no huge surprise when Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Ouf, the first national vice president, announced the arrest and detention of Bashir on national television (April 11). The public was joyful about the state of affairs, and most people had also assumed that Ouf was then firmly established and in control of the levers of power. But the following day witnessed the departure of General Ouf from leadership; his replacement was the lesser known but active field combatant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Clearly, the newly formed Transitional Army Council had decided against Ouf, in part because he had been too close to the deposed Bashir, and the military needed an unsullied, fresh face at the helm of national affairs. And it was this junta that proceeded quickly to initiate negotiations with representatives of the opposition alliance. But negotiations reportedly were marred by simmering tensions caused by mutual distrust among the principals. Bad news about the lack of progress due to the military’s unwillingness to set a concrete schedule to cede power filtered into the public psyche, exacerbating anxieties about the future of democratic change.47

Meanwhile, (IV’) a strand of the national paramilitary forces18 had decided it was time to disperse the thousands of protesters who had pitched their tents outside the immediate premises of the army headquarters, where they remained for a prolonged period of time. Their presence in that particular location was a huge strategic ploy to identify the army as the enemy, and optically the sit-in constituted outstanding and effective anti-establishment publicity tactfully orchestrated for the consumption of the international media. The forces were angered. They hated the campaigners’ masterful manipulation of optics. Attempts to disperse the dissenters resulted in drawn-out, low-key standoffs leading gradually to escalated confrontations and then descending into a gory butchery (June 3) that claimed roughly 120 lives.

  • (V) The episodes of bloodletting, the arrest of hundreds of protesters, the total shutdown of access to the Internet, and the ban on public events—these officially mandated moves were bound to infuriate an already enraged opposition. The slogan now was turned more squarely against the Transitional Military Council, whose members were loudly accused of trying to betray the public trust by refusing to cede power to democratically elected Sudanese. The generals were bereted; placards screamed that the army suffered moral blindness. Remarkably focused, the opposition launched the “million man march” that summoned tens of thousandsof Sudanese citizens across the country to rally on June 30. (VI) The slaughter, coupled with the national paralysis, including a deepening of crisis—these were the critical upshots that provoked the ire and indignation of the international community, as was to be expected of course. On their terms, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union (AU) each issued an urgent denunciation of the crackdown, and the military was warned to resist the temptation of hanging onto power by deliberately impeding the planned and highly anticipated democratic transition. And the diplomatic hammer was brought to bear heavily on the matter: Sudan’s membership in the AU was suspended on June 6; and a brusquely worded communiqué from the regional organisation went on dutifully to underline Africa’s disgust and nausea over the massacre. The AU action was received with a thunderous ovation in Sudan and among the international community in part because Egypt had been strenuously lobbying the AU, on behalf of the junta, not to sanction Khartoum. The generals were afraid and deeply concerned that such a diplomatic sanction would aggravate their isolation in the international arena. Their concern was well founded, because a joint US-Saudi Memoir had been speedily circulating at the time among high-powered diplomatic circles, in which the gruesome June 3 incident was depicted as unconscionable: a “brutal crackdown on peace by army generals in Sudan.” The Sudanese junta was further advised curtly by Washington to stay the course on the transition, because democratic change was in accord “with the will of the Sudanese people.” And the AU’s Peace and Security Council was encouraged to sustain “its suspension of Sudan’s membership.”49
  • (VII) The combination of diplomatic pressures, direct and unambiguous condemnation of the massacre and the June 30 nationwide march had the constructive effect of pulling the military back to the negotiation table. The talks that resumed under the dual auspices of the AU and the Government of Ethiopia had a happy ending. On July 17, the military and leaders of the opposition finally endorsed a “political accord” that supported a power-sharing arrangement including also the blueprint for a 39-month transition leading ultimately' to democratic elections in 2022. An 11-person Sovereign Council50 is mandated to oversee the transition and to propose a new constitution for Sudan. The Transitional Government that took office in September 8 currently runs the day-to-day business of the nation, and it is led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock, a former UN economist and an internationally well-respected and beloved Sudanese citizen.51 In the new power matrix, Asma Mohamed Abdallah not only controls the Foreign Ministry, but notably she is the first Sudanese women ever appointed by' the government of Sudan to serve as a cabinet minister.12
 
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