Rabab Elnaiem is a Sudanese activist, labor organizer and former spokesperson for the Sudanese Workers Alliance for the Restoration of Trade Unions (SWARTU) currently based in the United States. She is a co-founder of the Ta Marbuta podcast: a feminist, anti-capitalist podcast. On April 2, 2024, she spoke to MERIP’s managing editor, Marya Hannun, about political organizing in Sudan during the 2018–2019 uprising, the transition period and in the war that has followed. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sudanese protesters traveling from the city of Atbara chanted “freedom, peace, justice” upon arriving at the Bahari station in Khartoum on April 23, 2019. Atbara was the site of one of the first protests against ousted president Omar al-Bashir. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images.

Marya Hannun: Could you start off by telling us about the Sudanese uprising of 2018, which eventually led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist government in April 2019. What drove the uprisings and what was your experience of organizing during that time?

Rabab Elnaiem: It’s hard to establish an exact force and credit it with triggering the December 2018 Revolution. Struggle is always a constant process, but there were several major events that led to a shift in the nature of the struggle that we saw in December 2018. Almost a year before, in January 2018, a huge march took place that was organized by the Sudanese Communist Party against the Bashir government’s budget. The communist party called on the people of Sudan to build a popular movement in opposition to the proposed economic austerity measures and the sharp increase in food prices and high cost of living. I think it was a turning point. I happened to be in Sudan at the time, and I saw this extremely popular movement.

In November of 2018, the SPA (Sudanese Professional Association, an alliance of alternative/shadow unions representing mostly white-collar workers that was initially formed in 2012) presented the findings of a wage study and put out a statement calling for raising the minimum wage. So, the political discourse started including talks about minimum wage, and this was across different labor movements. There were also several strikes in 2018, including teachers in White Nile state.

Also, something that doesn’t get enough coverage in the timeline is that the Sudanese Communist Party of Sennar state (in south east Sudan) put out a statement on December 4, 2018, calling for the reactivation of the neighborhood resistance committees and for a popular response to high food prices and to overthrow the Islamist regime. Then, two days later, high schoolers took to the streets in Maiurno, a small town, also in Sennar. And then on December 13 it was Ad-Damzin (also in south east Sudan). Then on December 19, it was Atbara, which is historically known as a labor city. That was major. They burned down the headquarters of the Bashir party in Atbara.

Until December 25, the SPA was mostly out of the picture, but then they put out a statement calling on people to go to the presidential palace. The SPA really positioned itself as the main leader, mobilizing the masses, which was needed as people didn’t trust the political parties. At the time, I was in the United States and started a group with the Sudanese diaspora. We were fundraising and trying to get in contact with the SPA to provide funds. But, like many, I eventually became frustrated with the direction the SPA (and the transitional government) was moving in.

It’s also important to note here that the Bashir regime was bound to collapse. There was no way for it to continue, and the question was, what type of change do we want? A so-called “soft landing,” which many of the establishment politicians were pushing for through a planned election, where we change the leadership of the regime while maintaining the same system, only within a “democracy” that is more appealing to the international community? Or do we allow this revolution to take its natural form? Already by November and December of 2018 there were negotiations between the Bashir regime and what I would call counterrevolutionary forces over potential elections in 2020. The same political parties involved in those negotiations eventually ended up in the transitional government.

Marya: You’re speaking about the Forces for Freedom and Change? For our readers who might not be familiar with Sudan and the political players, can you explain the FFC, its relationship with the SPA and why you think they lost popular legitimacy?

Rabab: FFC (Forces for Freedom and Change) was a two-page declaration, with very vague language, that started a political alliance of the major traditional political parties in January of 2019. It initially included the Sudanese Communist Party as well as the SPA. The FFC entered negotiations with the Military in April 2019 (after al-Bashir was overthrown).

The communist party broke away from the FFC in November of 2020 and actually issued an apology to the people of Sudan for its role in empowering the military through its membership in the FFC. The military partnership also eventually led to a split in the SPA into anti-FFC and pro-FFC factions.

They realized they needed a decentralized network to sustain the masses against the violence of the Bashir regime, and this in turn opened up space for the neighborhood resistance committees.
There seems to be a difference between the anti-FFC and pro-FFC SPA, but I think both factions failed the workers of Sudan. They didn’t take advantage of the revolutionary movement to really root themselves into labor. This is because they were more of a professional organization with some political tendencies and not a political labor movement. We need to remember the SPA is made up of alternative unions, who were mostly white collar workers. Although they were effective during the years of al-Bashir’s rule, they were limited in their reach to those who were already politically active within the structure of traditional political parties. During the height of the uprisings, the SPA had been thrown into a leadership role to sustain the movement. They realized they needed a decentralized network to sustain the masses against the violence of the Bashir regime, and this in turn opened up space for the neighborhood resistance committees. But they didn’t center labor in their political agenda. They should have built democratic labor organizations from below as a bulwark against the elitism within the political class, in general, and the FFC in particular. That was one of the major mistakes I think, and it’s very frustrating.

The FFC/transitional government ended up embracing austerity measures set by international financial institutions (e.g. abolishing Sudan’s fuel subsidies), and this alienated workers. You cannot wear two hats: on one end, speak about improving the living conditions of the working class and on the other join the FFC in passing austerity measures that are going to devalue labor. Even if you call for a better minimum wage, what about the health system? What about the education system?

I think this is an ongoing issue with labor organizing in Sudan: to draw on the labor movement in the mobilizing stages of an uprising but then grant workers no real say in the political agenda that follows. This happened in 1964. It happened in 1985. And it also happened in 2019.

That’s why we lost the SPA.  It had a major following, and at some point in early 2019, it was very responsive to critiques, especially from the feminist movement in Sudan. And again, it had played a major part in reactivating or expanding neighborhood resistance committees.

Marya: Talk more about the neighborhood resistance committees. They were so central to the revolution and continue to play a major role in Sudan today.

Rabab: The neighborhood resistance committee is a really old concept of organizing in Sudan, and it’s not unique to Sudan. It is a form of organizing within a geographic area (at the neighborhood level), rather than organizing in a workplace (as a union would). The idea is to create small revolutionary nodes. We can trace the new horizontal structure they took on to the uprising in September 2013.

Also Read: “The Evolution of Sudan’s Popular Political Forces” by Muzan Alneel.
During the 2018–2019 uprisings there was a real understanding that the movement needed to be decentralized but at the same time collaborative. The new wave of resistance committees in early 2019 were really creative in finding novel ways to operate and activate the masses. At some point we literally had a schedule: Saturday, you start carrying out an activity in the neighborhood intended to build a bridge between the resistance committee and the different sectors of the community (across age groups, gender, etc). You either cleaned a playground or painted a school or fixed a local clinic or a mosque. I think that was very smart because it redefined politics and kept the masses active, grounded and revolutionary! By the time Thursday at one pm hit, everyone was primed to go out, and the neighborhoods communicated with each other. This activism kind of slowed down with the sit-ins starting in April 2019. Things moved from a decentralized nature into a more centralized one. The sit-ins, in a way, took energy out of the neighborhoods and also hyper focused the revolution on the capital Khartoum (although there were sit-ins in other major cities across Sudan).

In early 2019, the NRCs weren’t operating with a political framework. They acted mainly as a mobilizing force and a force to keep the SPA in particular, and FFC in general, in check. There were several instances in the first six months or so, before the partnership between the FFC and the military was signed (in August 2019), where neighborhood resistance committees, even within the sit-ins, were able to voice their disagreements on the way the negotiations were going. And the SPA would take steps to respond. There was almost a two-way channel of being able to influence them (and through them the FFC). But that didn’t last, mainly because neighborhood resistance committees at that point were not politically developed, which created friction around the signing of the partnership, where some part of the neighborhood resistance committees supported the transition more than others.

I should say here, there was no unification of the neighborhood resistance committees. I don’t think it’s accurate or even beneficial to study neighborhood resistance committees as a unifying structure. A resistance committee is a reflection of the political and social class behind it. So, a neighborhood resistance committee in a poor neighborhood in Khartoum might have a lot more in common with a resistance committee somewhere in the periphery than another neighborhood in Khartoum. We saw some neighborhood resistance committees in Khartoum starting to build a structure and go through what they saw as a democratic process, to give them legitimacy or some sort of a legal status.

The transitional government tried to co-opt resistance and at some point even suggested a law to define their work. It did not really fly, but they tried it. The FFC wanted to keep them apolitical, which was not always difficult! The closer a resistance committee was to the center of power and wealth, the more “reformist” their political stances tended to be. Other NRCs, especially in the peripheries of Sudan, were taking the stance that what makes you legit and revolutionary is how close your struggle is to the daily livelihood of the people, demanding justice for the massacre (of demonstrators on June 3, 2019) and other martyrs of the revolution. In a neighborhood where there is an upper middle class there might be more time or resources to meet somewhere and do an election process, but that doesn’t make that resistance committee more legitimate or deserving than a neighborhood resistance that meets maybe on the route to work, or maybe a tea selling lady somewhere in the market, who wouldn’t necessarily have laptops or even electricity. I personally appreciate this lesson from the people of Sudan, the lesson of critically thinking about what is political and what is revolutionary. It also serves as a critique for liberal democracy and the effort of the international community to impose what they claim to be a “democratic transition.”

After the coup in October of 2021 (when the military overthrew Abdalla Hamdok’s government) that was when we started seeing resistance committees developing their political charters in a major way. In November 2021, a neighborhood resistance committee in Maiurno, the same small village where the uprisings began in 2018, drafted their first political charter. I think it was like three pages, and it mainly explained the steps for how they could reclaim power and build democracy from below. This was a major development because throughout 2018 until 2021, revolutionary slogans were not so explicitly political. There were demands for a civilian government without necessarily talking about what a civilian government entailed. But that evolved with time. Some of the NRCs progressed into an organizing role with a clear political stance, appointing spokespeople, developing political charters and being recognized by all players, including the international community.

It started with Maiurno, and then Kordofan and Wad Madani, which are again, peripheries. There was an alliance following the October 2021 coup. It was very powerful because the three charters came from the initial Maiurno charter, which was signed under a tree in a public playground near an elementary school. It made sure to build checks and balances, to make sure that the power dynamic will not create another elitist group within the revolution. The three charters came together and then Khartoum joined. In January 2023, they released an updated charter that was signed by an alliance of NRCs, in which they defined sovereignty as “consolidating a democratic power practiced by the people at all levels and power structures.”[1]

In a real sense, I think the failures of the transitional government really sustained the revolutionary moment and radicalized people.
In a real sense, I think the failures of the transitional government really sustained the revolutionary moment and radicalized people. When you see the transitional government adopting more austerity measures, paying debt to the US over terrorist activity that happened 30 years ago or trying to cozy up to the US, it makes you anti-imperialist. At the end of the day, life was getting more difficult. You’ve been through this traumatic event of the massacre and your comrades are being killed almost every Thursday, simply for protesting! You don’t see any justice and to see your government, the supposed revolutionary government, trying to justify its existence through cozying-up to the international community instead of improving the living conditions for the people of Sudan, you have no option but to continue the struggle.

Marya: During this time, you were also the spokesperson for an alliance of unions. Can you tell us about the work you were doing and what you see as the major achievements for labor in this period?

Rabab: In May of 2019, I spent 16 days at the sit-in in Khartoum. During the sit-in, I met with labor leaders from SWARTU (an alliance of different unions and labor organizers). Soon after that, I started doing a little bit of social media work and translation for them, which developed into me officially joining. My work with SWARTU was focused on centering labor in the political agenda of Sudan, covering labor news, publishing commentaries and providing analysis on major labor actions. SWARTU was very active on Facebook, and we published materials on how to build unions. I was also trying to engage with some of the NRCs to unify the struggle in the workplace and the struggle within the neighborhood.

I resigned from SWARTU in May 2022, and I can’t fully answer the question of what SWARTU achieved, but I can say that SWARTU was working to emphasize self-determination for workers. We were trying to avoid the process of having a state or any political power—even if it claims to be revolutionary and even if we do agree it’s revolutionary—to interfere in the process of building a union. Almost everyone who I worked with was either in the process of trying to build their union, or they were already forming an initial committee to take care of the election. SWARTU members were labor organizers, truck workers, dock workers, oil workers, bankers, administrative workers and security workers, especially in the periphery, for example in Darfur, where it has been one of the major jobs due to the number of NGOs and the level of insecurity there.

Marya: What is the status of these unions today? 

Rabab: At this point, it’s very unclear. I lost contact with a lot of people since the start of the war, and we have also lost a lot of people from the war.

Marya: This raises a question that I’ve been thinking about also when it comes to Gaza: In times of war and humanitarian crisis, how do you build? Can you build? That’s the note I want to end on: the question of what happens in this moment. What are you seeing or hearing in terms of politics? Or are people just surviving? What’s your read?

Rabab: I think I have a rather pessimistic take on things right now, but my answer is yes! We can build, we can always build and continue to struggle for a free Sudan/Palestine/Congo and all marginalized people.

I want to reflect a bit on the question of building, which I think comes a lot of the time with urgency and the need to go back, for example, to the day before April 15, 2023 (when the war started). I understand that urgency. My pessimism comes from the realization that there is no one magical way to build. Instead of searching for a magical solution, we should be consumed by the question of what we want to build. Looking at the revolutionary slogan, “Freedom, Peace and Justice,” I think of Marx defining the realm of freedom as beginning “where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.” This draws a direct link between freedom and the conditions of labor and production. I can’t even begin to answer, but I know we will have to tackle questions about organizing the informal sector in order to build.

A logistical support visit by the Karari emergency response room to a shelter center to ensure communication between the office and the centers, September 2023. Source: Khartoum EER report on their website.

My pessimism also comes from missed opportunities. We’ve seen the rise of emergency response rooms (community-driven mutual aid groups that have almost replaced resistance committees), which are mostly disconnected from politics. But war is political, hunger is political and security is political. We saw this with neighborhood resistance committees, when the traditional government was attempting to coopt them, one way they tried to do so was by disconnecting aid from politics: “You take care of distributing bread, gas and fuel, and we’ll take care of the political side.” For a moment during 2019, I think we were lost in that space of thinking we’re just going to organize day-to-day life without necessarily changing the political decision-making structures. The war, in some ways, has brought people back into that tense.

Although I realize the need and the urgency of providing food and shelter and medical care, I also see the missed opportunities. And I see the avenue of how imperialism could seep into post war Sudan. Post-war Sudan is vulnerable to the exploitation of the international community through NGOization or more privatization and other neoliberal measures. We need to organize ourselves, making mutual aid political by defining it as labor, and creating new life opportunities where we sustain ourselves and we save ourselves. We also need to critique ourselves and not lose sight of our struggle toward Freedom, Peace and Justice.

Marya: In a way, what you’re saying (and what you’ve described in this conversation) is that the groundwork wasn’t set properly. It’s a missed opportunity, but you can’t really criticize people who are in the midst of this horrible war for not seizing this opportunity.

Rabab: This is really counter revolution at its logical conclusion. Like the soft landing, the war is meant to reset Sudan. The result could be the disintegration of the social, political and economic fabric of the country and the removal of the political will of the people. We resist by taking part in the hard exercise of thinking critically about the war and how we stop it. Stopping this war (and future wars) is a result and not an action in itself, a result of us creating the conditions for the people of Sudan to live, produce and reproduce cooperatively.


Read the previous article.
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This article appears in MER issue 310 “The Struggle for Sudan.”



[1]The Revolutionary Charter For Establishing People’s Power,” January 11, 2023, p. 1.




How to cite this article:

Rabab Elnaiem, Marya Hannun "Sustaining Sudan’s Revolution–A Conversation with Rabab Elnaiem," Middle East Report 310 (Spring 2024).

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