Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Mass demonstrations in Khartoum at the end of March 1985 initiated a series of events which culminated in the overthrow of President Ja‘far Numairi’s regime in Sudan by the Sudanese military. What began as popular protest against increases in the price of basic commodities was transformed within a week into a broad movement of political opposition. The rise in food prices was only one manifestation of the deep economic problems facing Sudan. The outbreak of overt opposition to the regime was a clear indication of the political bankruptcy of Numairi’s economic and social policies. The question nevertheless remains as to whether the political changes that have taken place will significantly affect the underlying structural causes of Sudan’s continuing economic and political crisis.

Popular Protest

On Tuesday, March 26, 1985, the day before the departure of President Numairi to the US for a personal medical check-up and talks on aid for Sudan’s ailing economy, demonstrations broke out in the streets of Khartoum. These were directly related to increases in the prices of bread and sugar-based commodities over the previous few days, following a 75 percent rise in fuel prices a couple of weeks before. On Wednesday, students and predominantly young unemployed persons clashed with riot police, as mass demonstrations were met with heavy security forces. The disturbances began around nine in the morning, when students congregated near the university, shouting anti-government and anti-Numairi slogans.

The demonstration attracted increasing numbers as it moved towards the city center, and rapidly grew to well over 1,000. Demonstrators smashed shop windows and car windshields, overturned vehicles and set them on fire, and blocked the streets with chunks of concrete and other heavy objects. Three buildings suffered particularly heavy damage: a branch office of the official Sudanese Socialist Union (the only party permitted under Numairi), the Faisal Islamic Bank (preserve ,of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the luxury Meridian Hotel. Students chanted, “We will not be ruled by the World Bank, we will not be ruled by the IMF,” as the unemployed urban poor in the crowd protested at the increasing cost of living. Truckloads of riot police eventually arrived on the scene, firing tear gas and making sorties into the crowd. Sources in contact with hospitals reported that more than six and perhaps as many as 18 rioters were killed by police gunfire. Several hundred were arrested and the government set up special tribunals immediately to try rioters.

Over the next two days, violence continued in the streets as demonstrators confronted state security forces. Troops and police used batons, tear gas and gunfire. Shops and government offices were shut and part of the city center closed down. Major clashes took place near the university and around the railway station, while troops posted outside the United States Embassy fired tear gas and live rounds to disperse a crowd—variously reported as 100 and 2,000 strong—marching on the embassy building. At least five people were reported killed in Khartoum. There were also reports of rioting in the west of Sudan, in Nyala, al-Fasher and al-Geneina; Atbara in the north and Port Sudan in the east were the scene of demonstrations as well. On Thursday, March 28, the government for the first time officially admitted that widespread violence had taken place. Students referred to as “ideologists” (an official euphemism for the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood) were blamed for the riots, and the authorities issued a list of 17 Muslim Brothers wanted for questioning for inciting job-seekers from the provinces stricken by drought. The government also announced it would “start forthwith emptying the capital of all elements responsible for sabotage,” “tramps and vagrants” in particular. Between 1,500 and 2,000 were arrested between Tuesday and Thursday—mainly the homeless and unemployed, many of them refugees from the countryside. [1]

“The air is quivering”

After the third day of street violence had filled the Khartoum teaching hospital with the victims of army and police intervention, 600 hospital doctors met and voted for immediate strike action. The move was designed to press the national doctor’s union and other professional bodies to call for a general strike. The doctors were also protesting the extraordinary brutality shown by the security forces during Wednesday’s and Thursday’s demonstrations. More than 50 people had been shot, some of them at close range; eight were dead on arrival.

On Friday, March 29, Khartoum returned to relative quiet, with troops strategically positioned on full alert around the town. Reports were coming in of disturbances in the western provincial towns of el-Geneina and el-Obeid. Railway workers (organized by one of the country’s strongest trade unions) went on strike in Atbara, a key industrial center in the north.

Hospital doctors, now on strike, distributed leaflets on the streets of Khartoum describing the Numairi regime as “a regime of hunger,” accusing the president of “insulting the people of Sudan,” and referring to those who had died in the three days of rioting as “martyrs.” During the course of Friday, while troops maintained heavy security in the streets outside, a secret meeting took place of the heads of organizations representing doctors, lawyers, engineers, academics and students. This meeting decided to call on other professionals and workers’ bodies to join them in a general strike and campaign of civil disobedience, starting the following Monday. [2]

Over the weekend, government troops maintained a state of alert. Security police announced that all those on the streets of the capital should carry identity cards at all times, saying that there were as many as 60,000 “vagrants” in the city who would need to register for deportation to the provinces. The number arrested during the previous week was reported as 2,642; 851 had been sentenced and the remainder (the majority from the western Sudan provinces) detained prior to deportation back home.

Meanwhile, leaflets distributed secretly in Khartoum in the name of the outlawed police officers’ association indicated that some sections of the police force were prepared to join actively in the campaign to bring down the regime. The leaflets argued that “the police have been a tool in the hands of the dictator, Numairi” and stated that “from now onwards, the Association of Police Officers will do all it can to disobey any order to use force against the people of Sudan.” “We say ‘no’ to Numairi and ‘no’ to dictatorship.” They concluded, “the spirit of October is still alive,” referring to the popular uprising of October 1964 when a national strike led to the downfall of the military government of General Abboud. [3]

At the same time, the Free Army Officers’ Organization distributed a statement to foreign news agencies in Khartoum. This declared that “the Sudan Armed Forces side with the popular revolt against hunger, ignorance and misrule, and for social justice and equality.” It condemned the existence of “the rich, the war-profiteers and the opportunists inside the armed forces.” It called on the people to demonstrate but cautioned against damaging public property. It emphasized that the army also had suffered the effects of the rising cost of living and cancellation of subsidies on essential goods. [4]

In Omdurman town, a part of greater Khartoum, hundreds of women took to the streets in a large demonstration to protest against rising food prices; many were shouting “down, down with the IMF.” [5] Apart from this, there was little in the way of opposition “street presence” during the weekend. But leading members of the various professional associations met then to plan a mass rally early the following week. The president of the students’ union stated that “even the judges’ committee has declared its support. The air is quivering.” [6]

The Sudanese authorities were aware of the danger posed by these meetings. On Saturday, March 30, the secretary and acting president of the Union of Academic Staff at the University of Khartoum were arrested at the same time as four leading doctors—two of them members of the central committee of the Sudan Medical Association. These followed arrests earlier in the day of 13 students and four others attending a meeting of the Khartoum University Student Union. [7]

On Monday, April 1, police used tear gas against demonstrators in the popular market of Khartoum and the authorities announced that the students arrested over the weekend were members of the banned Communist Party. The secretary of the Sudan Socialist Union promised that Communists, Baathists and Muslim Brothers would all be hunted down; he also stated that the majority of demonstrators were not Sudanese. He accused Libya, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union of involvement in anti-goverment activities, and stressed that the doctors arrested on the weekend were graduates of universities in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

Meanwhile, Khartoum’s doctors—including those from private clinics—continued their strike, refusing even to deal with emergencies; they were joined by the Lawyers’ Association. Seven hundred doctors from Omdurman and Khartoum North joined the strike; the Medical Doctors’ Association called on the people of the Sudan and the political organizations representing them to institute a campaign of civil disobedience, and suggested a mass demonstration and march on the Presidential Palace to demand the resignation of Numairi. [8] From outside the capital there were reports of continuing disturbances in Atbara.

Civil Rebellion

On Tuesday, April 2, between 2,000 and 3,500 people attended a pro-government rally organized by the Sudan Socialist Union in Khartoum to demonstrate against communists, Baathists and Muslim Brothers—the alleged instigators of the opposition to the Numairi regime. In a message to the crowd, President Numairi (still in the US) condemned “traitors and agents” for the previous week’s riots and declared that “the enemies of the revolution will end up in disgrace and destruction.” A senior SSU official promised that “the police and the army are standing with the government.” But the numbers at the rally were small, considering that the government closed many offices to allow employees to attend the demonstration. Even so, many of those bussed or marched in to the rally drifted away soon after their arrival.

The regime arrested leaders of the doctors’ union, whose strike now effectively paralyzed hospitals in the capital. The total number of those detained by the security forces was reported to have reached over 5,000. Despite this harassment, several other professional associations agreed to support the doctors’ call for a general strike on Wednesday, and for mass demonstrations against the regime. Some sections of the police backed the proposed action.

In an attempt to forestall growing organized opposition, the minister of labor announced that wages would be increased between 20 and 40 percent. The largest increases went to the lower paid, in order to offset the effects of the recent devaluation of the Sudanese currency and the removal of subsidies on certain commodities. [9]

According to a report brought out by messenger, all telex and telephone links to the outside world were cut early on Wednesday morning April 3. Vast crowds took to the streets. “Thousands of middle class Sudanese protesters flooded the streets of Khartoum on Wednesday. Diplomats estimated about 20,000 in the center of the city. In contrast to the destruction during food riots last week by students and unemployed street dwellers, the demonstration was mainly people in their 30s and 40s and peaceful if vociferous, and extremely well planned.” [10]

The demonstration was led by the professional associations (doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants) and joined by bank workers, shop staffs, academics and students. The protest was directed predominantly against the Numairi regime, but there were also shouts of “down, down USA” and “we say no to World Bank policies.” Lines of riot police began firing tear gas into the crowd just after 9 am, but in general the police and the army acted with restraint. Some police appeared even to support the demonstrators, who lifted one or two policemen onto their shoulders, chanting “the police go with the people.” [11] Senior military officers apparently met First Vice President Omar al-Tayib before the demonstration to insist that troops should not be used to back up police unless the protest became violent. They also said that only NCOs should be deployed as they could not guarantee the loyalty of ordinary troops to the regime. [12]

At ll am, as the crowd of some 20,000 began to march on the presidential palace, the judiciary declared a civil rebellion. The demonstration remained well-organized and non-violent. Omar al-Tayib promised that “popular committees” would study the increases in food prices.

Meanwhile, large numbers of workers and salaried employees joined those members of the professional associations already on strike. Shops and offices closed and transport, telecommunications, electricity and water were all seriously affected.

On Thursday, April 4, Sudan remained cut off from the outside world. In addition to the shutdown of telegraph and telephone facilities, the airports were closed and radio stations stopped transmitting. In Omdurman, police used tear gas to disperse stone-throwing demonstrators. [13] The strike became, in effect, a general strike, paralyzing the economic and social life of the capital and affecting other cities also. President Numairi, still in the United States, announced at a press conference on April 4 that he had decided to return to Sudan on Saturday, April 6, to “struggle from there.” [14]

Throughout Friday, April 5, the scale and extent of demonstrations and civil disobedience increased. Police and troops maintained heavy guards on government buildings and other strategic installations in Khartoum, but riot police were reported unwilling to confront the large crowds of protesters. The strike extended to affect every sector of the economy, including power and water supplies. In a letter to President Numairi, the executive of the doctors’ association called on him to go: “it is our patriotic duty to ask you to step down from the leadership of the Sudanese people and leave the national and democratic popular movements to make their destiny.”

In a last desperate effort to stem the rising tide of widespread opposition to the regime, the government promised to reduce the price of basic commodities, including bread, sugar and petrol—in the case of bread, below the price prior to the increases. [15]

Leadership of the Opposition

Although workers participated widely in the demonstrations of March and April, their leadership was not obviously involved and did not participate in orchestrating the campaign of opposition. The Communist Party of Sudan (CPS) explains this as follows:

The regime’s opportunist stooges had completely dominated the leadership of the workers’ trade unions and the Federation of the Workers’ Trade Unions, a fact that necessitated a dual struggle in every trade union, to force the opportunist leadership to announce a strike and to mobilize the workers to overcome and replace the opportunist leadership. If the objective conditions giving rise to this situation included the concentrated repression of the independent leadership of the working class movement, the expulsion of communist and democratic workers and the heavy presence of security agents in every workers’ organization, the subjective [conditions] lie in the conventions of our party, the shrinking of its branches and its influence among the working class, especially in the area of the capital. [16]

The political parties were also absent, in organized form, from the popular revolt. All political parties, except the one created by the regime itself (the SSU) had been banned. Numairi had succeeded in dividing the opposition and even stimulating splits inside the individual parties. The CPS in 1977 had called for “a broad front for democracy and national salvation.” Although some steps towards this had been taken during the last 18 months, an agreement on the form of a charter of action between the political parties and the leadership of the Alliance of Trade Unions and Professional Associations was only signed in the early hours of Saturday, April 6. [17]

The professional associations, by contrast, enjoyed a relative freedom of movement in the last years of Numairi’s rule. Agents of the security service had not infiltrated the associations to any considerable degree. The authorities had concentrated their campaign of repression on the workers’ trade unions rather than the professional associations.

Thus the professional associations—doctors, academics, accountants, lawyers, judges and engineers—provided the leadership of the organized opposition. It was the successful strike of judges in 1983 and the threat of the strike of accountants and engineers that lay behind the introduction in September of 1983 of the shari‘a law, through which Numairi attempted to reduce the power of the secular judiciary and increase political repression.

Military Takeover

At 9:35 on Saturday morning, Minister of Defense and army Commander-in-Chief, General Siwar al-Dhahab spoke over Omdurman Radio:

The Sudan Armed Forces have been observing the deteriorating security situation all over the country, and the extremely complex political crisis that has affected the country over the past few days. In order to reduce bloodshed and to ensure the country’s independence and unity, the Armed Forces have decided unanimously to stand by the people and their choice and to respond to their demands by taking over power and transferring it to the people after a specified transitional period. [18]

In a second statement, al-Dhahab declared the removal from power of President Numairi, his deputies, assistants, consultants and ministers. The commander-in-chief suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency all over the country, closed the border, and halted air traffic into and out of the country.

Immediately after the announcement of the military takeover, tens of thousands of rejoicing people filled the capital’s main streets. A large crowd went to the notorious Kober Prison where hundreds of political prisoners were held and freed them all. The following day, the new rulers formally announced the release of all political prisoners throughout the country. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose military operations had shaken Numairi’s regime in the southern part of the country, declared a cease fire. [19]

The announcement of a return to civilian democracy after a transitional period appears to have been forced upon leadership of the army. The soldiers, non-commissioned officers and junior officers, although not part of the National Alliance (of trade unions and political parties), pressed the army leadership to withdraw troops posted in the street to guard strategic installations. They also prevented an earlier announcement of a state of emergency, which might have led to direct confrontation between the army and the people, and indicated their clear sympathy with the popular revolt. (It has since become clear that two attempts at military takeover of April 3 and 4 were discovered by the Military Security Agency. According to the Communist Party, the majority of officers did not support these two efforts, seeing them as efforts to renew military rule rather than to help restore civilian democracy. Apparently, even some high-ranking officers had been sympathetic to their position). Consequently, the army leadership had little choice: either they took the initiative and seized power, thus preserving their own position within the army, or they resisted these pressures and ran the risk of being replaced themselves by a new, more radical leadership. They decided to seize power. [20]

The Struggle to Restore Democracy

The strike and campaign of civil disobedience continued during Sunday, April 7. This was intended to pressure the new military government to dismantle the State National Security apparatus, the pillar of the former regime, and to arrest supporters of Numairi. Siwar al-Dhahab called for ending the strike, and declared that its continuation amounted to high treason. But thousands of demonstrators challenged the new leadership and marched on the army headquarters, demanding that the military hand over power to civilians immediately, and not after six months as had been promised by Siwar al-Dhahab. The demonstrators also protested the new leaders avowed intention to continue the shari‘a. [21]

After a meeting between representatives of the military leadership and the National Alliance, (professional associations, trade unions and political parties) on April 8, the general strike was called off. The State National Security was dismantled and many supporters and senior officials of the Numairi regime were arrested. [22]

On April 10, a military council of 15 members, headed by Siwar al-Dhahab, was announced. At his first press conference, al-Dhahab declared that the military council was consulting with the National Alliance about forming a new government. The SPLA, meanwhile, warned that it would hold the ceasefire for only seven days, after which it would continue its military operations if the government were not handed over to civilians. [23]

Representatives of the Alliance and the Military Council agreed that the formation of a civilian cabinet should be left to the Alliance, subject to the approval of the Military Council. After several days of negotiations and maneuver, some two weeks after the military takeover, a civilian cabinet was formed. The new army leadership agreed to restore democracy, freedom of association and speech, and to hold first sessions of the newly elected parliament by the end of April 1986.

The struggle between foes and supporters of the popular movement has only begun. The popular movement has been able to press the government to meet some of its demands: freedom to organize, dismantling the State Security Agency, arrest and trial of “clients of the ousted regime,” a commitment to an independent position towards neighboring countries, and so forth. Many other problems have yet to be faced. Power in the new regime continues to lie in the hands of the Transitional Military Council: the civilian cabinet has very little power. Also, the Alliance of Trade Unions and Political Parties, which brought down Numairi’s regime, has no legal existence, and its role at present is no more than that of a pressure group outside the formal power structure. The shari‘a law has not yet been formally cancelled. The SPLA has not joined the Alliance nor the government, and no negotiated agreement of the southern question has yet been reached. And the economic crisis continues to worsen. [24]

Endnotes

[1] All details from dispatches in British newspapers of March 29, 1985, including The GuardianThe TimesDaily Telegraph and Financial Times.
[2] The Times. March 30, 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 31, 1985; Al-Rai al-Aam, March 31, 1985.
[3] The Times, April 1. 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 31, 1985.
[4] Al-Watan, April 2, 1985.
[5] Al-Arab, April 2, 1985.
[6] The Times, April 1, 1985.
[7] The Guardian, April 2, 1985.
[8] The Guardian, April 2, 1985; Al-Watan, April 2, 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 2, 1985.
[9] The Guardian, April 3.1985; The Times, April 3, 1985; Daily Telegraph, April 3, 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 3, 1985.
[10] The Times, April 6, 1985; cf. also Al-Anbaa, April 4, 1985.
[11] The Guardian, April 6, 1985.
[12] Al-Watan, April 5, 1985; Al-Anbaa, April 5, 1985.
[13] The Guardian, April 4, 1985.
[14] Al-Anbaa, April 5. 1985; The Times, April 6, 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 6, 1985; The Times, April 6, 1985.
[15] The Times, April 6, 1985; Daily Telegraph, April 6, 1985.
[16] The Party’s Duties After the Revolt, The Communist Party of Sudan, document dated April 20, 1985.
[17] The Charter of the Allied National Forces for National Salvation, signed by the representatives of the professional associations and political parties (Umma Party, Democratic Unionist Party and Sudanese Communist Party).
[18] Al Ahram, April 7, 1985.
[19] Al- Watan, April 8, 1985.
[20] Communist Party of Sudan, document cited above.
[21] Al-Arab, April 9, 1985; Al-Qabus, April 1985.
[22] The Guardian, April 9, 1985.
[23] Al-Anbaa, April 11, 1985; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 11, 1985.
[24] For background see R. Brown, Sudan’s Balance of Payment Crisis and the Role of the IMF since 1978 (Institute for Social Studies, The Hague: Sudan Research Workshop, July 3, 1984).

How to cite this article:

Abbas Abdelkarim, Abdallah el-Hassan, David Seddon "The Generals Step In," Middle East Report 135 (September/ October 1985).
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