In October, 1964, Abdullahi Ibrahim, a member of the University of Khartoum’s student union, was taking notes for a symposium held in protest of the military dictatorship when he became an inadvertent chronicler of a defining moment in Sudan’s post-independence history. Police, sent in to break up the symposium, shot Ahmad al-Qurashi, another student activist, in the head. The next day, tens of thousands of people turned out for Qurashi’s funeral procession, fuelling an uprising that coalesced around students and the professional unions. A general strike paralyzed the country a few days later. In what is popularly known as Sudan’s October Revolution, the government was toppled within a month.
Two months ago, the Sudanese parliament supported a constitutional amendment that would extend the term limits of the current President, Omar al-Bashir, who had been required under the law to step down next year. Two weeks later, student protests erupted in Atbara, Ibrahim’s home town, after bread prices tripled overnight. They have since spread to the capital, where thousands of protesters have faced police violence, tear gas, and mass arrests. Ibrahim, an emeritus professor at the University of Missouri, has cheered the demonstrations from afar. “These guys have been in government for thirty years and never faced a threat like this,” he told me. “Not even from the rebels in the mountains of Darfur.”
The protests have been downplayed in the media as a “bread riot” or an aftershock of the Arab Spring. But both descriptions misread the situation in Khartoum. Sudan has a long history of peaceful civil disobedience, which successfully brought down military regimes in October, 1964, and April, 1985. For many in Sudan, the current government, which came to power in a coup that negated the gains of the 1985 civil protests, has always been seen as an error to be corrected. In the past, the governments fell in less than two weeks. But, with the current protests now in their eighth week, the regime appears prepared to ride out the people’s revolutionary urge. It has taken measures to “coup-proof” itself by, among other things, keeping common soldiers—who might sympathize with the people—spread out in the rural areas, and reserving mostly special security forces to suppress political opposition in the capital.
Officially, a thousand people have been detained in connection with the protests, though the actual number is likely much larger. Muzan Al Neel, an engineer based in Khartoum who has participated in the protests, was recently released from six days in detention, where she suffered beatings at the hands of plainclothes National Intelligence and Security Service personnel. “What you think you will do in such a situation is totally different from the way your brain works once you are in that situation,” Al Neel said, of her time under arrest. “It is not a choice to give them control or not. They already have it.” She now stays up late every Thursday, waiting for the announcement of the next week’s scheduled protests.
After Sudan declared independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule, in 1956, the British policy of indirect control through a select group of religious and tribal leaders left much of the land and wealth in the hands of a few families. The main political parties were built around these families, but the inability to settle on a single candidate among them led to the formation of a five-member Sovereignty Council. This council was overthrown after two years in power by the military government, which, in turn, was deposed by the general uprising in 1964. The transitional government, free of the old political élite and populated with enterprising professionals, marked an opportunity for the young nation to create a representational system of government. “This is the first and last government in Sudan in which engineers, doctors, veterinarians were represented,” Ibrahim says. “A regular farmer could be the minister of health.” But the new civilian government, troubled by economic unrest, infighting, and the military, eventually fell in the coup of 1969. In 1985, a popular uprising backed by the military would once again raise the glimmer of democracy, only to be usurped by the coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power.
Bashir’s government replaced members of the professional class and civil society with party loyalists, and his security forces began torturing activists in secret locations known as ghost houses. It also created a new federalist system, embedding supporters in the local levels of government throughout the country. Unions, professional associations, and political parties were banned, which led to an era of growing inequality. “Big parties lost power slowly, and a political vacuum emerged,” Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, told me. “Corruption”—funded by oil wealth—“wasn’t just intrinsic. It was a way of doing this kind of politics.”
It has also been a government of war, one that fixated on the long conflict with rebels in the south and in Darfur, along with the general instability in the region, to justify its leadership. “The government has essentially been saying to its constituency, ‘There are a lot of dangerous people out there and I am your only protector,’ ” el-Gizouli said. Even with stability largely established in the west, and integration of refugees from war-torn regions throughout the country, the regime continues to exploit old tensions. Al Neel told me that the government’s current argument is, “ ‘Yes, this might be a bad regime, but if it goes, the Darfuris are going to come and kill you.’ ”
In the years of the oil boom, between the late nineties and the two-thousands, el-Gizouli says, there was an unspoken contract between the government and the upper classes: the government would be left alone in exchange for maintaining high subsidies for oil and bread and protection from violence. A faltering economy has meant that more and more Sudanese, not just the lower classes, have become victims of the military state’s economics. Almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the most recent estimates, and inflation is up thirty per cent from last year. In the heavy-handed response to protesters, more people have fallen victim to its capacity for violence. “This is not a livable situation anymore,” Al Need said. ”We are more scared of law-enforcement bodies than criminals.”
The rejection of the government has been a long time coming. Today, with the departure of South Sudan, the site of much of the region’s oil wealth, the military regime finds itself lacking both a plausible enemy and a source of funding. The large military apparatus, whose justification was the suppression of domestic insurgencies, is a significant drain on the economy; one Sudanese economist told the outlet Radio Dabanga that Sudan’s proposed 2018 budget devoted fourteen per cent of the federal budget to security services, compared to three per cent for education. Zachariah Mampilly, a co-author of “Africa Uprising,” a book on popular protest in Africa, told me, “When there is no more enemy or fighting, there isn’t a way to justify why you should be there.”