Sudan: on revolution’s third anniversary, protesters vow not to be silenced
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Amany Galal lost her right eye to a tear gas canister fired by security forces as they tried to break up a demonstration in early 2019, making her one of the first casualties of Sudan’s long and faltering revolution.© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Three months later, the street movement had toppled the military dictator Omar al-Bashir but, three years later, millions of protesters are still fighting for a democratic government.
“It’s impossible that I will stop coming to the streets to protest,” Galal told the Observer last week as she prepared to head out on another demonstration, to be held on Sunday, that will mark the third anniversary of the protests. “What I came out for three years ago hasn’t been achieved. We called for freedom, peace and justice but none of them is actually here.”
Perhaps the biggest setback came this autumn, when an unreformed and unrepentant military tried to seize power again in an October coup. Officers were apparently afraid of losing power and decades of accumulated privileges, and of being held accountable for past abuses, if progress towards civilian rule continued.
They have partially backed down, after weeks of lethal protests and turmoil in the street and a near-total halt of foreign support for the country’s battered economy.
Last month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, emerged from house arrest to sign a deal with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. They agreed to set up an interim cabinet, made up largely of technocrats, after mediation by US and UN officials.
Protesters were furious at a deal they considered a betrayal. A rally last Friday by politicians from the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance (FFC), who had spearheaded protests and been put under house arrest, was broken up by demonstrators who had once been behind them.
They had repurposed unexploded tear gas canisters fired by security forces, setting them off to scatter the crowds. Police had blocked key roads into town, anticipating protests.
“I felt they stole the revolution. I was injured and we paid a very high price,” said Mo’men Abbas, an engineering graduate and artist who was shot in the knee by a sniper.
“We lost people: some people I know of were raped and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. After all that the FFC leaders sat down with the army and reached a deal?”
He stayed away from protests for a year after he was wounded, struggling with depression and fear of disability, but ultimately the trauma has only strengthened his commitment to protesting, which is now the focus of his life.
He set up a company to provide protection and employment to fellow activists, using traditional leather crafts. They make thick gloves that allow protesters to pick up teargas canisters fired by security forces and hurl them away, and face masks to stop the gas that escapes suffocating those on the front line.
“I stopped engaging with politics for over a year, but being traumatised or disappointed does not solve your issues,” he said. “The revolution is gathering speed and strength day by day, just like a ball of snow rolling down a mountainside.”
“I still need counselling but I don’t have time to waste on doctors – I am too busy with the revolution now. I can’t waste a single moment without doing something for the revolution.”© Provided by The Guardian A demonstration calling for a return to civilian rule in Omdurman last month. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The coup has changed the political dynamic in Sudan, consolidating military power. But it also showed that brutal security forces and the slow, stuttering nature of progress towards democracy have not sapped the political will for change.
“I never missed a single protest for the past three years,” said Galal. Like Abbas, she found her injury only intensified her commitment. Only 23, she founded an NGO to help other injured protesters get treatment at home and abroad, after she had a prosthetic eye fitted in Russia.
“We are now trying to send 470 injured protesters abroad for treatment. That number is only people from Khartoum, and unfortunately it has risen since the coup. Most were hit by bullets, and we would like to send them to India, Russia and Ukraine.”
The scale of medical assistance needed is further testimony to the commitment of Sudanese protesters to put their lives on their line in the long struggle to wrest control of their country back from the army.
“The military is in a stronger position than it was before the coup,” said Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, but protests have shown that “the most powerful force in the country is not the military – it is the people”.
“I think that both the military and the international community have been chastened in some respects. They cannot just cut a political deal for the sake of ‘stability’, and expect that the majority of people are going to accept that.”
He added that concern in the west that without military rule Sudan could fall apart into bitter civil war – as Libya and Syria did a decade ago – has led to a worrying tolerance for military-dominated government.© Provided by The Guardian People protesting against the military coup and deal that reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum. Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP
Generals have controlled Sudan for more than five decades of its 60-year history. Among events planned to celebrate the third anniversary of the revolution launched in December 2018 is an art show curated by photographer and painter Issam Hafeez, called “52”, referring to the number of years Sudan has been under military rule. “I mean by this to emphasise that Sudan has been ruled by the military since its independence,” he said. “It’s my form of resistance.”
Under the deal struck in November, elections are scheduled for 2023, and would officially end the security forces’ control of the country. Burhan stated earlier this month that he will exit politics after that vote.
Few people believe him: the actions of the past few months suggest a military determined to resist a real transition to democratic rule.
Critics of Hamdok among the protesters, and from inside his own ranks, fear that his deal with Burhan pays only lip service to their sacrifices and their democratic agenda, while leaving the generals with enough power to either rig a poll or prepare for another coup.
Yassir Arman, a veteran of Sudan’s civil war and former political adviser to Hamdok, resigned from his position after the deal was announced, while he was still being held in solitary confinement by the army.
“He abandoned the people who were his strongest base – the very people who made this revolution,” Arman said. “I could not discharge my responsibilities.”
“I came to support the prime minister in guiding Sudan to become a country led by a democratic government, and based on equal citizenship, I don’t think he will be able to do this now, he has succumbed to the military.” AdChoices
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