Hamid Khalafallah is a democracy activist in Sudan. He talked with Sacha Ismail from Solidarity.
The occupation of the streets around the army headquarters in Khartoum, which began on 6 April, was the spearhead of the revolutionary movement; on 3 June that was repressed and dispersed. However, protests are still happening in Khartoum and in other parts of the country.
This sit-in was very large; on the first day something like a million people marched on the army HQ, and the occupation grew out of that, to protest against the regime and try to at least neutralise the army. Its size fluctuated between hundreds of thousands and back up to millions at certain points.
Bashir was ousted on 11 April and the Transitional Military Council, as they call themselves, took power. They appointed one of Bashir’s allies, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, as effective head of state but there was such outrage that protests took him down in literally a day. They replaced him with another general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The movement has called and continues to call for the replacement of the military council with a civilian government.
Forces of Freedom of Change, which is the opposition coalition [see its declaration at bit.ly/2WPUmlo], entered negotiations with the TMC but the latter dragged it out and used the time to manoeuvre. There were some attempts to crack down on the occupation, but protesters resisted, and there was also some resistance from lower-ranking officers. However, on 3 June the army came with very large numbers, including from the Janjaweed militias which are now called the Rapid Support Forces, and they used very violent methods in a crackdown. There were over a hundred document deaths, and probably many more, as many bodies were taken away and hidden by the military.
The protests now are not nearly as big. There is a sense of shock and sorrow since 3 June and people are taking time to regroup. However, I think that people are already coming back and will come back stronger. There are calls for more protests next week. There is disappointment but there is also hope and a sense of determination; a feeling that we have come a long way - we ousted a president who was there for thirty years and then his successor after one day – and we can’t go back or give up now.
The new Vice President, Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemeti, is head of the Janjaweed and now he is trying to become the strongman. That has exposed the nature of the new military regime.
You touched on dissent in the military, has that gone any further? What about rank-and-file soldiers organising?
Most of the senior officers are pro-the old regime, for obvious reasons. It is very difficult to change that direction – junior officers can do bits and pieces, but they are very limited. I don’t know any sign of rank-and-file soldiers organising independently, and to be honest I would be concerned if that happened because you could end up with even more militias fighting each other, which could take the country to a very dark place. Look at Libya.
There was a general strike but it was called off – what happened there?
That was something frustrated a lot of people, particularly because there has not been very clear or transparent communication from the leader of the FFC [Freedom of Forces and Change]. I think there were some understandable reasons for the decision. We had two days strike, then a holiday period for Eid, and then the strike again, and it was a long time for people to be without their livelihood, particularly given the dire economic situation in Sudan. There was also an attempt by Ethiopia to mediate and a request to lower the political temperature. However, it’s clear that has not worked. A new campaign of civil disobedience is beginning and there are discussions about the possibilities for a new, longer general strike.
Is it right that unions have played an important role?
The FFC includes various political parties and coalitions but the main player is the Sudanese Professionals Association, which is an umbrella for a range of professional workers’ trade unions – including teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists and engineers. Many people have lost faith in political parties and were hesitant about responding to their calls, whereas the SPA is seen as much more representative and in tune with the people’s interests. The SPA unions had previously focused on economic issues such as wages and working conditions but from the end of last year especially they started to address things from a more political angle, saying that while this regime is in power we cannot achieve better rights for workers, so we must look at the root cause.
Now other trade unions have joined the struggle too – factory workers, tea-sellers, food-sellers – and signed the FFC’s declaration.
Many of these unions were created in the last decade as independent, parallel organisations formed by various groups of workers as an alternative to associations set up and controlled by the regime. During the recent movement independent unions and groups of activists took over properties and facilities belonging to the regime’s unions and after Bashir was ousted the TMC gave the order to dismantle the state unions. However, as part of the crack down, these organisations are being re-established.
What is the situation in Sudan with the right to strike?
If you strike within an institution, there is some protection, but not if it’s a more general strike or political purposes. In addition, a worker can be sacked after three days on strike. At the moment at lot of private employers are supportive of the movement and have not taken against their employees, but others are pro-regime and so it’s more tricky. Many workers are determined anyway, regardless of what their employers say – there is an attitude that people have lost their lives, so it’s worth risking our jobs.
There are also conversations about the laws on this under a new regime. Particularly in a transitional period when the government is not elected it is crucial that people have very strong rights to strike and protest. Workers’ mobilisations during the revolution must surely mean they have a chance of influencing these things in a positive way.
Why not an elected government?
The regime does not have much popular base but they do have all kinds of levers and organisations of power. The official government institutions are weak bodies but there are all sorts of parallel bodies through which the regime functions, which have a lot of resources and deep reach into society. For example the national intelligence and security services, bodies responsible for the media, economy, foreign affairs. If you want a genuinely civilian government you don’t just need different leaders or ministers, you need to deal with that parallel structure.
There is a consensus that we need a transitional period because unless you deal with these structures and the culture they are part of the regime could easily use elections to come back to power. It’s the same problem with the support they get from from various foreign powers, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, China and Russia and in effect the US. We need to create political counterweights to those influences.
Are the protests widespread outside Khartoum?
When the protests started in December they actually started in other cities – in 13 December in Damazin, which is the capital of Blue Nile State, on the border with South Sudan [independent since 2011], and then in Atbara in River Nile State, and then they reached Khartoum on Christmas day. Since then there have been protests in many parts of the country – Khartoum is the biggest for obvious reasons. There have also been protests in some villages, including in Darfur where the Janjaweed have re-escalated repression as a result.
Is there discussion about the issue of ethnic and national minorities within Sudan?
Yes, there has definitely been a lot of awareness raised around these issues. During previous protests Bashir’s regime tried to whip up agitation against people from minorities, particularly from Darfur, and they tried that again in January when they arrested some young Darfuris and called them terrorists, but it did not work at all. There were chants which were roughly “You are ignorant and stupid – all the country is Darfur”. There has been a lot of solidarity with people in different parts of the country and different communities.
Given thirty years of brainwashing with racist crap that is obviously not universal. When [Janjaweed leader] Hemeti was made Vice President, he presented himself as a friend of the revolution, and there was some acceptance of that, and a lot of activists were appalled, because this is a guy with an appalling record of crimes against humanity in Darfur. It was very disturbing to see. But it didn’t last that long because he helped lead the crack down on the protests, and suddenly a lot more people in Khartoum can imagine what it was like in Darfur. So in general the dynamic here has been positive.
Is this an anti-Islamist movement?
Definitely, because all the Islamist forces and parties were part of the previous regime and their ideology is what has brought Sudan to this terrible state. However, there are people in the movement who are not Islamist, but let’s say Islamic, as opposed to just Muslim, and they express concerns about whether the country will be sufficiently Islamic under a new regime. I share the view that we should pick our battles right now and focus on the need for an elected, civilian government. Once we have that we can agitate around the constitution and policies we want. We need more time to build awareness around the idea of secularism and separating religion and politics.
I can see potential problems there but I’m optimistic. Thirty years of Islamism in power has made it very difficult for many people to sympathise with them. Even now a large numbers of people are against mixing religion and politics, despite being religions Muslims – particularly in Khartoum.
There’s seem to be quite a few accounts of women’s role in the revolution?
From the start women have taken a leading and prominent role in the protests, leading the chanting, as organisers and so on. But the top decision-making circles of the FFC are not representative. The FFC is saying there should be a quota of at least 40pc women in all government bodies, but its organisations do not necessarily reflect that. It’s a source of frustration and there’s a struggle around it.
At a more grassroots level, women’s role has not led to many arguments, as it did in the past. The size of women’s role has made it very hard for even more socially conservative people to challenge it.
I would add that the sit-in was an amazing space for people to come together and tell their stories, individually and as groups in society, and learn from each other. The old regime kept people from connecting and learning about each other, and now that’s changing, so non-workers can learn from the workers, men from women and so on. I think that is what alarmed the military council about the occupation, not just the physical threat, but the exchange of ideas and the changing of consciousness.
The example of Egypt must loom large in your consciousness.
It does, it’s a big influence on why we are focused on continuing the revolution until we have ousted the military regime. The Egyptian regime is an inspiration for our regime and is directly linked to supporting it. On the other hand, the Egyptian revolutionaries have inspired us and provided us with warnings about what to avoid. There is widespread knowledge among our activists about Egypt and also some direct links, particularly online. “Either victory – or Egypt” is one of our slogans, one of our chants.
What kind of economic and social model would you like to see in a new Sudan? What do you think about capitalism and socialism?
There is some discussion about that. Socialist parties here have done some questionable things including support for previous dictatorships, and they no longer have much of a popular base. Religion is also a factor in why people might favour socialism. Most support is for centrist type of parties. There is a consensus for a moderate regime and many people are not keen on radical ideologies. There is certainly a desire for more social provision, welfare, public services, free education and healthcare. You could ask how that relates to capitalism, but the debate is not really on that level. I am on the left but I find it hard to see a left-wing regime coming into being in Sudan in the near future. It requires us to win democracy and more space for discussion and debate, so we can initiate a process of political education and experiment in what works and doesn’t.
I’d conclude by saying there’s a lot of international interests in Sudan, including from governments. We appreciate this but it’s also problematic because in terms of the governments they have particular agendas and are often quite hypocritical. The EU condemning human rights violations but cooperating with the regime to stop and repress migrants is a glaring case in point. So we need solidarity from people in other countries to be genuine and consistent.
* The printed paper has an abridged version of this interview.