The People’s Protest

The protests that began just over a year ago, in September 2013, marked a departure from uprisings past. Far from the rustic charms of central Khartoum, the protests unfolded in the impoverished shantytowns and markets located at the edge of the Sahara desert.

Sudan from the margins

image by محسن الفكي via Wikipedia

Khartoum is swathed in a dense heat when I check into a room at the Acropole hotel, the city’s oldest, located a short distance from the confluence of the Nile and a stone’s throw away from several gaudy regime buildings. It is a humble place, one that clearly has seen better days, but it’s not without its charms. Built in 1962 by a Jewish family, the hotel is now run by a trio of Greek brothers born and raised in Khartoum, part of the dwindling Greek community that once proudly built a church and a school for its members but now struggles to survive in a country no longer willing to accept its presence. George and Thanasis, two of the brothers running the hotel, regale me with stories of their childhood, when Khartoum was a cosmopolitan city filled with residents drawn from around the world. Their family ran bars and wine shops that were shuttered when the former military leader Jaafar Nimeiri embraced Islamism, leaving the hotel as their only connection to their adopted homeland.

The bygone era they remember is a vision I’m familiar with. My uncle and his family left South India to live in Sudan in the early ’80s. Their son excitedly hits me up on Facebook after I post a status about my trip, explaining that he went to high school in Omdurman, Khartoum’s sister city across the Nile. I remember meeting him at our flat in Bangalore during one of his family’s visits to India. His westernized dress and demeanor stood out starkly in our pre–free trade Indian neighborhood. At the time, his Casio watch struck me as the epitome of modern technology, a token from a version of Khartoum hard to reconcile with the isolated city I find myself in now.


The people of Sudan embody a Pan-Africanist dream. From Nigeria in the west to Ethiopia in the east, from Lebanon to the north to Uganda to the south, the faces I see across Khartoum reflect the diverse populations that have been drawn to the country. It is an ancient land forged into a modern nation with little thought beyond the colonial urge to control the meandering route of the Nile. Like the great river, it swirls together bits of its ancient Egyptian, Nubian, Ottoman, British, and Arabic pasts.

Sudan was the site of the first major anti-colonial revolt in African history, when the followers of Muhammad Ahmad, known as the Mahdi (or Redeemer), overthrew the Anglo-Egyptian regime in 1885. Yet the Mahdist revolt is not the only or even most consequential of Sudan’s historic uprisings. In 1964, countless Sudanese took to the streets to overthrow the military regime of Ibrahim Abboud. At the forefront of the revolt was the country’s emerging civil society—students, trade unions, and members of the vibrant Sudanese Communist Party. But the protest wave quickly swelled beyond civil society, drawing in ordinary people as it flowed towards the presidential palace. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but some engendered bouts of rioting. The regime opened fire, killing twenty-eight and scattering protesters. Its victory was short lived, however: the next day, facing pressure from junior military officers unhappy with the violent crackdown, Abboud dissolved the military government and stepped aside. The triumph of the protesters, now remembered as Sudan’s “October Revolution,” represented the first time in post-colonial African history that a popular movement overthrew a military regime, preceding the Arab Spring by nearly half a century.

But few other post-colonial nations have struggled as much to remain a viable national community. Just two years ago, the southern region was cleaved off, following a civil war that had stretched on for decades. As with an amputated limb, many Sudanese cannot shake the sensation of its phantom presence.


In September 2013, protests broke out in some of metropolitan Khartoum’s poorest neighborhoods. A fuel price hike was the trigger, but the pressure had been building for years: deteriorating conditions facing the city’s poor were compounded by devastating floods in the months prior to the outbreak. Wealthy Gulf governments donated relief supplies that were promptly found for sale in local markets, a result of the endemic corruption characterizing Sudan’s longstanding military regime under Omar al-Bashir.

The government’s greatest fear, an uprising by the people living in these neglected regions, was realized.

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While most protesters remained peaceful, others decided to target symbols of government corruption. Gas stations, many owned by those with ties to the regime, were attacked and burned. The government did not hesitate in maligning the protests, claiming they were “riots” organized by violent “nigger gangs.” The crackdown was brutal. Conservative reports place the number killed at over two hundred.

I arrived in Khartoum some months ago for a short visit occasioned by an invitation from a local university. I had visited the country five times before, each time circumventing the visa process by crossing the southern border with Uganda. But this was my first time in the capital, and I had come seeking perspectives on the popular protests that had perplexed both the government, which had bungled its crackdown, and the opposition parties and civil society at large, which had looked on with equal puzzlement.


In a drab office complex in Khartoum, I’m ushered into a small room and seated on a stiff couch for a meeting with Muhieldin Awouda, an octogenerian former Communist Party member who marched in the 1964 Revolution. His mind is sharp, lending clarity to his memories of the day the protesters marched on the Presidential Palace. “I don’t think it has a deep influence on the consciousness of the present generation,” he tells me. “A lot of young people don’t know there was a revolution.” Awouda offers trenchant critiques of contemporary Sudanese politics. “The structure of Sudanese society is tribal and regional. The parties are based on this. They serve the people who got them in power.”

Later in the day, I head to a fashionable café in Khartoum to meet a local journalist. He sums up the situation neatly: “In Sudan, politics is all about who governs, not how to govern.” The café is filled with young, middle-class Sudanese men and women chatting and laughing easily. For a moment, it is possible to imagine that this is the path the city will inevitably take, a vision of a globalized Starbucks future. But Khartoum has no Starbucks. There is only a single “Starbocks,” a mocking response to the widely despised American sanctions.


In the two years before the uprising that spurred my latest visit to Sudan, 2011 and 2012, Sudanese students took to the streets hoping to capitalize on the energies spreading through the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. Student organizers, operating through a number of different organizations including Girifna (“We are fed up”) and Change Now, coordinated a series of strikes and creative protests that sought to build a popular movement against the military regime. When the first wave of protests failed, activists shifted strategies, holding weekly themed protests to sustain the movement. “Kandaka” was one theme, a reference to the warrior queens of ancient Kush. “Licking elbows” was another, borrowed from the president’s favorite response to his critics: “go lick your elbows.”

Many activists openly invoked the long history of popular uprisings in the country. But in contrast to the success of the 1964 revolution, or the popular uprisings of 1985, which again overthrew a military dictatorship, this time student energies seemed to have been stalled by the crackdown by Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which left several dead in its aftermath. Bashir had come to power in 1989 in the midst of the post-revolutionary hangover following Sudan’s second successful popular uprising, which had failed to produce a viable civilian government. Historically in Sudan, when popular uprisings have failed to improve the political dispensation, the door has always been left open to a military takeover.


The protests that began just over a year ago, in September 2013, marked a departure from uprisings past. Far from the rustic charms of central Khartoum, the protests unfolded in the impoverished shantytowns and markets located at the edge of the Sahara desert.

Khartoum is in effect three different cities connected by a series of bridges that can be easily shut down to keep protests from spreading among the three areas: the White Nile flows north from Uganda and separates Omdurman from the rest of the metropolis, which itself is bisected by the Blue Nile flowing west from Ethiopia. North Khartoum, or Bahri, sits above the Blue Nile. Once a series of agricultural villages, it now features construction sprawling in every direction. Khartoum proper, which sits below the Blue Nile, was the seat of colonial power and still features architecture that reflects its Anglo-Egyptian and Turkish origins. Newer construction is often less elegant. Towering over the city is the Corinthia Hotel, a garish five-star built by Muammar Qaddafi at the meeting point of the two Niles. Designed to evoke a sailboat, it looks more like a blimp struggling to lift off.

Across the White Nile, Omdurman extends westward, blending into the Sahara. Dark-skinned Sudanese from the country’s rural peripheries are crowded at Omdurman’s edges. Having fled brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, South Khordofan, and Blue Nile, they eke out a living in the city’s vast informal and illicit economies. By some accounts, these internally displaced Sudanese constitute two-thirds of the population of the metropolitan area. But their existence at the outskirts of the city parallels their position at the margins of Sudanese consciousness.

They did not use the tear gas usually brought out against student activists, he tells me. Instead, they used snipers.

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I decide to venture to the far reaches of Omdurman, into Umbedda, the site of some of the worst violence during the protests. The populations here are noticeably darker skinned and far more desperate than the people I meet on the streets of Khartoum proper. At the makeshift Caroor Market, young men crowd into jury-rigged rooms to plays cards and dominoes or watch Hindi films. I catch a glimpse of Amar Akbar Anthony with a young Rishi Kapoor charming his real-life sweetheart, Neetu Singh, with a song.

But the stench from the market cuts through my reverie. The area is disconnected from the city grid, so water is purchased from donkey-drawn carts and electricity arrives via noisy diesel generators spewing noxious fumes. The start of the rainy season transforms the muddy streets into fetid streams. The pungent odors and the heat, breaking a hundred degrees, make me light-headed. I sit down in a stall for a cup of tea and a cigarette with my translator Hameed, a poet from Khordofan with a gnarled finger—his reward, he says, for engaging in protests during his own student days.

Twenty people were killed in this market last September. I ask the tea lady about the circumstances of the disaster. She looks away, justifiably uncomfortable with my questions. As she quietly fiddles with an assortment of spices—cardamom, cinnamon, cloves—Hameed explains that security could be anywhere. The government’s greatest fear, an uprising by the people living in these neglected regions, was realized during the recent protests. Since then, it’s simply been assumed that security operatives have silently blended in with the crowds. I try asking her, more benignly, what she thinks of the government. Her amused expression reveals the ignorance of my question. “There is no government here!” she declaims. As if on cue, a pickpocket runs by, several young men in pursuit. Undisturbed, the dominoes players resume their game as the tea woman shakes her head and removes her blackened kettle from the fire.


The Sudanese nation has been imagined as exclusively Arab and exclusively Muslim, erasing the vast majority of the people I encounter on my evening walks through Khartoum. This crisis of nationalities has been compounded by the tendency of the central government to view the country’s extensive peripheral regions as unworthy of attention—except, of course, when these areas possess oil or other natural resources. Darfur, South Sudan, South Khordofan, Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains—all have faced violent retaliation from the country’s military for challenging the status quo. In Khartoum, the refugees from these regions are easy to spot: their colorful dress sets them apart from the white tunics favored by the city’s older inhabitants.

A group of young people from Darfur and the Nuba Mountains studying in Khartoum—five dark-skinned young men in slacks and button-downs and one similarly complexioned young woman in a black abaya with a colorful trim—speak with me in earnest, broken English. They tell me dispassionately, as if recounting a dream, of the government abuses their family members endure back in their home villages: indiscriminate raids, aerial bombings, and a litany of other crimes. Of their lives in Khartoum, they complain that they face racism and harassment at the hands of security forces.

When I ask them about their connection to the student movement, they express support but tell me that they do not think that it can address their concerns, or those of the peripheral populations crowded in Khartoum’s expanding slums. They have no internet and no smartphones and have had little say in the student movement’s direction. “We are suffering from the arrests by security,” one tells me. “We cannot move freely . . . our women are suffering from sexual violence in Khartoum.” One young man who participated in the protests near Umbedda calls Sudan an “apartheid” state whose regime is “racist against black people.” To illustrate his point, he contrasts the response to the September 2013 uprising with the crackdowns on student protests the two years prior. When the regime shut down the protests in 2013, they did not use the tear gas usually brought out against student activists, he tells me. Instead, they used snipers.


I’m invited to the home of a friend to celebrate the return of an uncle from Saudi Arabia. Among the middle and upper classes there is a vast Sudanese diaspora whose financial support has transformed narrow slivers of Khartoum into miniatures of wealthier Gulf cities. N, whose mother’s ancestors founded the villages that now comprise North Khartoum, studies in the United States; we met in Boston shortly after we both graduated from college in the late 1990s.

A lamb has been slaughtered for the party. Its ribs now lie elegantly atop a mountain of gloriously yellow biryani rice; a massive circular tray has been placed on a narrow table in the family’s living room. I join the other men for a communal feast as a WWE wrestling match unfolds on a TV in the background.

This is my first time meeting N’s extended family. In the US, I’ve always known her as an activist, a black activist. But here in Khartoum, my conversations reveal that her mother’s family identifies as Arab, though well aware of the African blood that flows through all of Sudan’s diverse populations. After dinner, we proceed to the family’s humble courtyard for some fresh watermelon and sweet tea. The conversation turns to race in Sudan. A friend of N’s who is active in the student movement eloquently challenges the older generation in rapid Arabic.

The members of the older generation recognize Sudan’s recurring troubles with nationalism but doubt that most people would be willing to redefine the nation in non-racial, non-religious terms. They share little of the faith in nonviolent action expressed by the younger activists, dismissing the possibility of the regime falling to nonviolent pressure and expressing doubt that the students would know what to do if they did succeed. They doubt, too, the potential of the movement to bring together the disparate populations that now call Khartoum home, a feat that even N and her friend acknowledge will not be easy to accomplish.

The one thing that most Sudanese agree on is that change is imminent. What they disagree on is whether the future promises democracy or dystopia. The current military dictator, Omar al-Bashir, is rumored to have an unnamed and grave illness; some suggest it is cancer of the throat. A transition plan is in place, with most guessing that Bashir’s vice-president will succeed him in the elections scheduled for 2015, or soon after. There is little optimism to be found: opposition parties lack credibility, and the violent movements that threaten to overrun Khartoum have little to offer in the way of concrete improvements in governance.

Popular movements are similarly stymied. Disconnected from the rural migrants crammed into Khartoum’s expanding periphery, the student protests have failed to generate mass support. When the protests broke out in the poorer sections of the city in September 2013, student activists were initially suspected as the organizing force. The regime shut down the internet and arrested student leaders, to little avail. The poor, driven by rage, did not take direction from anyone, and they did not understand their actions as related to those of the student organizers. The desire for total political upheaval that animated their protests could not be squared with the comparatively meek reformist visions offered by student activists.


On my last day in Khartoum, I meet a young female activist in jeans, with thick silver bangles—from Kenya, she tells me—dangling from her wrist. With roots in the rural periphery and a job with a human rights organization, she straddles the two sides of the divided protest movement. Her take gets to the heart of the quandary facing Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. “Civil society has approached the people with a language of rights,” she offers, referring to the students and the few non-governmental organizations operating in the country, but they “did not think about the feedback from the people.”

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