Inspired by uprisings in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world, such as Tunisia and Egypt, activists announced and promoted the planned demonstration using social media platforms. The protesters demanded significant change: They called for the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir, an end to corruption and high prices for basic goods and they chanted against “the government of hunger.” Their grievances resembled those that ignited the large-scale uprisings of the Arab Spring, but the number of protesters did not exceed 500, not in this protest nor in the few that followed until the end of March. No one factor—the nature of the active political base, the level of oppression or economic realities—can on its own explain why the protest wave that spring did not gain momentum in Sudan.
That rather small protest of 2011 stands in stark contrast to the repeated marches of millions of Sudanese again demanding the removal of Bashir from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, including the country-wide political strike of May 2019 and the barricades set up by protesters that often took over the city despite military violence. Clearly, a lot changed in the eight years between the two waves of resistance. A significant cause of these changes is the evolution of political organizing methods among activists over the course of multiple rounds of protest that occurred after 2011. Protesters increasingly used social media to organize actions—a tactic learned from the experiences of the Arab uprisings—and in 2013 they established decentralized resistance committees that mobilized concerned citizens at the neighborhood level, which government forces could not confront simultaneously. The formation in 2016 of various white collar professional unions (by doctors, journalists and lawyers, and later joined by teachers and engineers’ networks) outside official government structures—and their eventual coalition into the Sudanese Professionals Association—also proved instrumental in organizing millions of people across class divides who applied pressure to the Bashir government.
The revolutionary wave of 2019 was successful in provoking the ouster of Bashir on April 11, 2019, by the Sudanese military. But the interests of regional and international powers and the effects of political and economic forces in Sudan that had steered people’s desire for radical change into reform-minded non-governmental organizations, plus the diminished role of official organized labor, all set the stage for a compromise over who would govern the country next. The resulting post-revolution power-sharing agreement between the military and the traditional political opposition chose reconciliation without accountability for the government’s history of violence and did not address the socioeconomic grievances at the heart of the revolution. The weakness of that compromise became clear with the coup of October 25, 2021, when the military deposed their civilian partners and put the prime minister under house arrest. The popular forces that gained strength from 2011 until 2019 are again out on the streets in protest, activated and organized by the many neighborhood revolutionary committees.
The Political Map Leading Up to 2011
The inability of political activists to mobilize large numbers of Sudanese to demonstrate against the government in 2011 was due largely to the Bashir government’s oppressive rule, economic liberalization policies and use of identarian rhetoric to sow division or rally support. Sudan in 2011 was grappling with new borders after the secession of South Sudan, a traditional opposition in disarray, a dismantled labor movement and a political debate deliberately diluted and polluted by the promotion of identarian misconceptions.
By 2011 Bashir had been in power for 22 years since the coup of 1989. Bashir’s regime and his political party, the National Islamic Front (NIF), survived several attempts by opponents to oust them. In the year of the coup, leaders of the traditional opposition parties signed the declaration of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) vowing to oppose the new dictatorship. For the next 15 years, the NDA called for a popular uprising and—in certain periods—the organizing of armed resistance against Bashir’s rule, which was marked by oppression carried out by the security state. For example, during the 1990s, Ghost Houses—the term used for the government’s unofficial torture centers—were at the peak of their activity.
In the early years of Bashir’s rule, labor unions organized strikes against the coup and the NIF government’s policies, which landed several union leaders in the Ghost Houses. The union movement was later systematically dismantled through the creation of Entity Unions, where all the employees of an entity—from workers to management—were grouped into a single union, led by members of the ruling party. All independent labor unions and professional syndicates were then banned.
University students were another demographic that fueled the opposition during the 1990s, as well as making up a significant percentage of the victims of the Ghost Houses. In response to student activism, the NIF initiated its project to co-opt and reshape the student body, a strategy called the Higher Education Revolution. The strategy clearly stated as one of its goals “the rephrasing of university curriculum to align with values of the state, especially in social and economic aspects.” By 1994, and in accordance with the announced strategy, a university was established in every major city. The new universities were underfunded, poorly planned and lacking in facilities and staff. Nevertheless, universities remained to a large extent the only public areas that were able to host political debate and dissent inside the cities throughout the 30 years of Bashir’s rule.
Beyond the non-violent resistance of the political parties, unions and university students, there was “the forest,” a term used in Sudan to refer to armed rebellion. For the first half of Bashir’s rule, his regime was at war with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a rebel group formed in 1983 against the government’s unjust distribution of resources. This war started long before the NIF’s coup. It was not unusual for previous governments in Khartoum to cast the war as an identarian conflict—Arabs vs. Africans or Muslims vs. infidels—to avoid any discussion of the real roots of dissent. The NIF government, however, took the war to a new extreme: It was presented as jihad. School students in green fatigues sang war songs and state television streamed endless shows of martyr’s weddings celebrating the death of young men at war. Bashir mastered this use of identarian messaging over the years, using the specter of “vengeful southerners”—the region where the SPLA was strongest—to ensure loyalty through fear. The Gharaba population of west Sudan, specifically Darfur, was also labeled “vengeful” in a similar move. In the early 2000s, Bashir and his regime fueled the conflict over resources in the Darfur region with weapons and tribal alliances, leading this conflict to be erroneously cast as one between Arabs and Africans, an absurd distinction in an African country. Although the war crimes committed by the Sudanese government in Darfur earned Bashir an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009, he was able to utilize the same identarian narrative to turn it into a tool for galvanizing local support.
In 2005, Bashir signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the SPLM leader John Garang that mandated presidential elections and a referendum on South Sudan’s secession. In the 2010 elections, the traditional opposition parties that made up the National Democratic Alliance supported the candidate of the SPLM against Bashir, who was now the candidate of the National Congress Party (NCP), the latest iteration of the NIF. Less than two weeks before voting began, however, the SPLM announced it was withdrawing its candidate in what seemed like a last-minute agreement with the NCP on the terms of secession. Bashir and the NCP thus won the 2010 elections and in January 2011 southern citizens voted for the independence of South Sudan.
The Twists and Turns of Economic Liberalization
During the years of Bashir’s rule leading up to 2011, the government repressed political dissent and dismantled sources of opposition. Concurrently, the state used its policies of economic liberalization to enrich and solidify its political base. In 1990 the NIF’s first budget highlighted its openness toward the private sector and its intention to sell off government assets. These new economic policies generated prosperity for no one other than the members of the ruling party who bought the public assets or sold services previously provided for free by the government. This process of rechanneling public resources to private entities was a repeated pattern in the government’s economic policies. By 2011, to justify policies of increasing austerity, Bashir’s regime resorted to the familiar tactic of identity politics, this time in the form of anti-Western narratives, despite the fact that those policies were at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Upon losing access to the oil in the lands of South Sudan with its secession in 2011 and facing the threat of the ICC warrant for its president, the government in Khartoum turned to securing the interior front by recycling the old identarian calls. The country, according to its rulers, was now 100 percent Arab and Muslim and facing international conspiracies. The public, prepped by years of similar narratives, responded positively. Bashir’s popularity rose and macho rap songs against the ICC public prosecutor were sung by university students. At the same time, the government started following the austerity recommendations of international financial institutions with the hope that they would provide a path out of its crippling foreign debt of over $30 billion. The World Bank recommended partial removal of subsidies as early as 2011 and continued through the following years, leading to the doubling of fuel prices by 2013. In the ensuing years, the Sudanese regime’s dependency on investment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Qatar, Turkey and other countries) increased.
The government managed the announcements of subsidy cuts and austerity measures carefully, balancing oppression with acquiring allegiances and reviving the base. Those who opposed the policies were often described by Bashir as traitors intent on ousting the symbol of sovereignty and surrendering him to the ICC. Continued US sanctions lent support to those claims in the eyes of the public and tamed public opposition to the implementation of economic liberalization. Opposing Bashir was equated to supporting foreign interference and an attack on national sovereignty.
New Forms of Organizing, New Forms of Oppression
In the years after 2011 and following every wave of austerity measure that was met with protests, both the government and the opposition learned and adapted their methods. Social media became the primary platform for organizing protests and while political activists understood its potential, so did the government. The protests of 2011 led to the establishment of the government’s electronic jihad units that were tasked with monitoring social media platforms and using them to defend the government and maintain the political base.
When Bashir announced the implementation of several austerity measures in June 2012, including cutting fuel subsidies, protests broke out in universities across Sudan’s major cities. In addition to rejecting overall austerity measures, university students highlighted issues specific to them, including their crumbling dorms and the corrupt “looting of student funds,” as they called it in their chants. For weeks to come the protestors recycled the methods—and sometimes the terminology—of the Arab uprisings. Weekly protests were announced and named: The Friday of the Kandaka, The Friday of Anger and The Friday of the Haboob were among the days when protesters marched from mosques into the streets. The marches continued for as long as the security apparatus allowed it, which rarely exceeded half an hour. The government launched violent crackdowns and long detentions to end this wave of protest. With low organizational capacity, the protest movements could not continue under the state’s violence.
The protests were led, announced and promoted by the newly formed youth movements that were all less than three years old at the time and which publicly advocated for the values of protest and nonviolent resistance. The members of the movements were mostly politically active university students, frustrated by the deteriorating quality of life in the country, as well as by what they perceived as the failure of old politics represented in the SPLM’s withdrawal from the latest presidential elections. Their chant of “Freedom, peace and justice, revolution is the choice of the people” was a new take on the post-secession chant “unity is the choice of the people.” Civil actors focusing on specific sets of demands or community needs also made use of social media to organize campaigns, such as the Sharie Al-Hawadith initiative to provide medications that were no longer available in hospitals, or disaster management as in the case of the Nafeer initiative during the 2013 floods.
The government viewed both political and civil actors with similar suspicion for their explicit or implicit criticism of the regime. But by 2013, the NCP had decided that the students were the main obstacle to full control of the streets. Accordingly, a vacation was suddenly imposed for all universities and schools. Bashir then announced a new wave of austerity measures and further slashed subsidies, causing a cascade of street protests. Bus drivers went on strike the following day demanding either lower fuel prices or increased bus fees. These privately owned buses were the main form of transportation for Khartoum’s working class. Workers marched toward the city demanding affordable transportation in protests that did not resemble the chanting student protests Khartoum was used to. The protesters were angry, their lives and livelihoods were directly threatened by the new economic policies. Elements of the middle class joined the protest the following day, represented by networks of students and youngsters mobilized by civil initiatives and online communication. Protesters attempted to form revolutionary committees to guide the demonstrations but without significant success at this time.
Over the following years, the increasingly fragmented ruling NCP adopted several policies of survival, such as new allegiances and quick financial gains, that only resulted in more organized resistance. Along with the godfather of the 1989 NIF coup Hassan Al Turabi, the previously ousted Islamists formed the Popular Congress Party and joined the opposition. New groups of citizens were politicized: The rapid increase of lands sold to foreign investors—mostly from the Gulf states—antagonized indigenous owners in many areas and pushed them to organize and take collective action inside the court room or in the streets. The large number of universities established by the Higher Education Revolution continued to lose resources, and sometimes assets, with every wave of austerity measures. They became a source for continuous protests that demanded funding for student dorms and better university facilities while also opposing the sale of university assets. The reduction of government spending on health services and the increased prices of medications triggered the doctors’ strike of 2016, which led to the formation of the parallel, unofficial, doctors’ union. Other white-collar professions followed the same path and created parallel unions composed mostly of members of opposition parties who were exploring new areas for mobilizing against the violence of the security state. A coalition of these unions later formed the Sudanese Professionals Association, which led the protests of the December 2018 revolution in Sudan.
From Dialogue to Revolution
The dialogue model was the backbone of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan, the opposition NDA and rebel groups. This model promoted a form of coexistence based on a split of wealth and power. The concept was again promoted by the United States and adopted by Bashir in 2013 to restore political stability after austerity measures and major protests. But the process was designed to achieve reconciliation without addressing the issues at the root of war and economic suffering in the country, a clear betrayal of the goals and values that galvanized the opposition’s base. For this reason, and because no tangible change to the material conditions of life for the Sudanese population was achieved, there was a total loss of faith in the process of dialogue and those participating in it.
At the same time, a new managerial activist class was formed when international aid and development agencies began to engage the youth movements and other nontraditional civil society actors. It was not difficult to attract the young and enthusiastic to the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and grants in a country with a high percentage of university graduates and an even higher unemployment rate.
By 2019, the resistance had adopted methods of organization and communication that were the evolution of success and failures of several previous waves of protest. The utilization of social media from the Arab uprising, the resistance committees formed in 2013 and the parallel unions of 2016 were the most significant developments. The protests started in late 2018 as an organic reaction to austerity measures and the increase in prices of basic goods, mainly bread. These protests were welcomed by unemployed youth, the indigenous owners of seized land and the many victims of economic liberalization. The Sudanese Professionals Association led the protests, thereby sparing the public the question of whether they can once again trust the traditional political parties with their history of repeated compromises.
The amount of violence inflicted by the state on protesters was increasing, but due to the formation of neighborhood resistance committees, protests became more decentralized than the government could simultaneously attack. The Sudanese people were simultaneously more unified as they learned the names of each other’s villages and neighborhoods from protest documentation videos and social media posts. This decentralized mode of organizing both guaranteed the continuation of the protests and made it harder for the government to reuse the stigmatizing narrative that cast the opposition as traitors beholden to the west or “vengeful” Gharaba. Bashir’s regime tried to revive the tactic of identarian messaging by framing a few Darfuri students on national television as a terrorist cell promoting protests and terrorism. This move backfired immediately and enflamed demonstrations the next day where protesters around Sudan chanted for the first time, “You Arrogant Racist, We are All Darfur!” The country had clearly changed and the old ways were now obsolete.
Over the following weeks and months, the protests continued with clear demands of ousting Bashir and ending military rule. By the end of May 2019, the protests were in their sixth month, sit-ins around military headquarters in 14 cities—including the capital—were, for a second month, demanding a handover of power from the military to the civilian leadership of the opposition and a two-day political strike against the military was evidence of a strong and united front behind the demands of the revolution. It was no surprise that under such circumstances, the military, in a final attempt to protect its control over power, would resort to the tool they have mastered over the years: extreme violence. On June 3, 2019, state forces simultaneously attacked the 14 sit-ins in a massacre that left over a 100 civilians dead, including some found tied to bricks and thrown in the Nile River. The victims of the massacre included tens raped, hundreds injured and hundreds missing. Yet in less than a month, on June 30, another historic march of millions took place in the cities and villages to reject the military, chanting again, “100 percent civilian.” Despite a country-wide internet shutdown since the day of the massacre, the millions march was a clear sign of the benefits of decentralized leadership and the persistence of the Sudanese protesters and their commitment to ending military rule in their country.
Unfortunately, the global powers of counterrevolution also learned from these lessons. International and regional actors, including the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, actively participated in imposing the power-sharing agreement, the new manifestation of the National Dialogue. The same international and regional players had previously orchestrated and supervised similar efforts in the region in countries that experienced revolutionary movements. The Yemeni national dialogue of 2013–2014 was one of the first and most obvious examples of this failing model. Through mediators and funding, parties interested in avoiding radical change in Sudan supported a power-sharing agreement between the leaders of Bashir’s military forces and the leaders of the traditional opposition. The agreement, just like Bashir’s earlier dialogue, promoted reconciliation without accountability as a path to stability and “stopping the bloodshed,” a justification repeated by the opposition leaders.
The long process of NGOization of resistance that followed the Arab uprisings, and the previous destruction of Sudanese organized labor, facilitated the distribution of reformist messages and led to the compromise that ushered in a globally celebrated civilian-led government to rule the country after the revolution, at least for a while. International and American peacebuilding dialogues, envoys and NGOs—aloof from the actual terrain of politics—pushed for the power-sharing model in total denial of its fragility and inability to address the socioeconomic root causes of the revolution. The international community continues to promote its model of fake stability even as the contradictions of the partnership are further exposed by its deviation from revolutionary demands—the military coup of October 25, 2021, being only the latest example. The model of decentralized resistance emerged before the coup. In the weeks leading up to it, the resistance committees saw the signs of what was to come and called for a million-person, anti-coup march on October 21. Simultaneously, the banker’s union issued a proactive strike statement to become effective the moment a coup occurred. These preemptive actions prepared the Sudanese population to take to the streets in the early hours of October 25 in the hundreds of thousands, building barricades and chanting against the military.
In the following weeks, the resistance committees matured quickly in organization and political demands, reflecting the political capacity they had developed during the two years they spent engaging in the political process as the voice of the people. During that time, the transitional government had blocked all forms of democratic participation by the public and veered from the revolutionary goals for the benefit of the military and the international community’s interests. Unfortunately, labor organizations and unions did not exhibit the same level of maturity, thereby highlighting the next critical task of the Sudanese revolution: building the labor front. The demands put forward by the resistance committees and their slogans against military rule and a second compromise reflect the lessons learned from the two-year counterrevolutionary transitional period. To ensure commitment to the revolutionary path as the battle gets more complicated—whether now or in the future—geographically structured grassroots resistance organizations without an established ideological revolutionary framework cannot suffice on their own. The need for a revolutionary party becomes clearer with every stage of the revolutionary movement in Sudan, as it does around the globe.
[Muzan Alneel is cofounder of the Innovation, Science and Technology Think Tank for People Centered Development (ITSinaD)—Sudan and a nonresident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) focusing on a people-centric approach to economy, industry and environment in Sudan.]
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