In late 2018 early 2019 activists across Sudan rose up in protest at the living standards in the country, before escalating their demands to removing the regime that has governed the country for 30 years. In late May 2019 we caught up with an activist involved in the protests, to find out more about the actions that led to Sudanese activists removing the head of the regime. The regime responded extremely violently to the protests, with the Rapid Support Forces militia accused of killing over a hundred protesters in early June. Since then, the protesters have regrouped and regathered, began marching again demanding the end of the military regime, and in early July 2019 announced an agreement between the opposition leaders and the regime leaders.
Here is one activists experience of this inspiring campaign.
Empowering Nonviolence: What was the context around the protests? What prompted the protests to begin?
MA: The protests began on the 13th December 2018, in the east of Sudan, and they started because the country has been run by a military regime for 30 years. The dictatorship had been misusing the country’s resources, people were not able to participate in ruling the country, and we faced a lot of economic problems. For example, there was no currency in the banks so people could not get their money, there was a lack of fuel in the petrol stations, and people did not have access to bread. The prices outside of the capital [Khartoum] were very high, people there were suffering more, that’s why the protests began.
EN: Which groups were involved in the protests, and how did they come together?
MA: The protesters came from the schools and the universities – young people and activists from all over Sudan joined. After that, the Sudanese Professionals Association [an illegal umbrella group made up of labour unions] joined the protests against the regime. The Professionals Association is made up of doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, and they took steps to lead the protests in different parts of Sudan. There was also a coalition called “Freedom and Change”, which the Professionals Association is a part of [As well as the Professionals Assocation, the Freedom and Change coalition also includes a number of opposition political parties, including the Umma Party, Sudanese Congress Party, Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the Sudanese Communist Party and the Sudanese Ba’ath Party].
EN: How did people mobilise for the protests? How did they communicate?
People used social media, and this was the main source of communication among the protesters. The Professionals Association used social media to mobilise the people, and to organise the demonstrations, to send messages and maps for the protesters. All of the young people have a smart phone to use social media. Women’s organisations were also involved, and some of the smaller organisations guided them and helped, too.
EN: You’ve mentioned the violence of the regime – did that happen straight away, or did it intensify?
MA: Because the regime had no option to respond to the protests, because they were taking place in different parts of Sudan, the authorities responded very violently. They shot the protesters and used tear gas, and sometimes they pushed them with their cars. They arrested them and punished them. Sometimes they stopped people who were working in the offices and kicked them out, and beat them. More than ninety people were killed, especially young people and children. More than 2000 people have been arrested and tortured.
Most Sudanese people tried to help the young people, hosting them in their homes when the military used gas, they were supporting them when they used guns, giving them water.
EN: Was there a strong understanding of nonviolence?
MA: The protests were always peaceful and nonviolent, and people had a strong understanding. When the Professional Association sent messages they advised them to not use violence, to not respond violently, to not react violently to any action from the government, from the authorities, from the military. That is why the protests were nonviolent.
EN: At some point the protests shifted, from being about demanding better prices, to demanding regime change, is that correct?
MA: Yes. Because when they were asking to change the situation of life, the government were not responding and was using violence, the Professional Association called for a march to the military office to submit a protest note asking for regime change, because the regime was not responding to their call for a change of life. When they went to the general military office they submitted the note but the military did not respond to them. The protesters started asking for a change of regime because the regime was not responding to their call for a change of life.
EN: So presumably at first this was a very risky thing to ask for?
MA: It was a big risk! But because most of the military were not part of the regime the people had some trust in the military, so when they sent their protest note, they were asking the military to stand by their side, to help achieve their demand. When the protests started the security forces were very hard and killed many of the protesters, but the military started to defend the protesters, to push the security back, because the security forces were using their guns against the protesters, and the military was trying to defend the protesters.
The decision was made to stay there, until there was a response from the military. The military itself has some people who are part of the regime, that is why they did not respond to the note from the first day. At that time the people decided to sit-in there and remain there until they achieved their demand. And they started to call for people from other places to come and join them. I was one of them, I was one of the people to join them, me and many Sudanese people started to join the sit-in in front of the military general office. The sit-in began on the 5th April 2019.
Now some of the military officers have been arrested also, because they stood by the protesters side, and so now they were arrested by the security and the military intelligence force, and they have been put in jail, because they were supporting the protesters.
EN: What was your personal experience of the protest? How did you feel?
MA: I joined the protest from the second day because the first day all of the streets were blocked. We were in a very difficult situation but because of the help of the military who were not accepting the violence from the security forces, because the security were very violent, we succeeded to remain there until today. After my work I will go back to the sit-in at the protests.
EN: In the media here we saw a very famous image of a woman, stood on a car, singing. Could you say a bit more about the role of women in the protests?
Actually the women were playing a main role in the protests, because the women have suffered a lot from the previous regime, and the Sudanese women are very brave, they have lived with violence against them for a very long time. Sudanese women are very aware, they are well educated, so that is why they have played a big role in the protests. They were in the front line of the protests with the men. The lady in the photo is called Alaa Salah, and she was playing a big role in the protests. She was mobilising the people, encouraging them to remain there, to raise their morale, to be peaceful, to be nonviolent, and to tell them about their rights. If there were no women in these protests we wouldn’t have succeeded. A lot of women have lost their lives because of the regime violence.
Women are also playing a role in the negotiations. They are a part of the Professional Association, and they are part of Freedom and Change.
EN: And the negotiation team is trying to achieve open elections?
Yes. At the moment the government is run by the military. The people have achieved part of their goal but not all of it. They succeeded to kick out the head of the regime [Omar al-Bashir, removed from office in mid-April 2019], but up until now the regime remains in place, in the offices, in the ministries, in the military. The military council which are in the negotiation with the opposition are part of the regime. That is why the people are resisting and remaining sitting in in the protests. They are asking for a civil government.
The military itself is divided – some of the military belong to the regime. Most don’t, but the regime is trying to “Islamise” and “Arabise” the military. The military refused because they are meant to be a national body, to belong to any Sudanese. Sudan is a multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic country. In Sudan we have different ethnic groups, but the regime was trying to Arabise the military. Most of the military officers refused this. Now the high leaders of the military belong to the regime, which is called the military council, but the rest of the military did not belong to them, which is why they have been divided. More than 50% of the regime are wanted by the International Criminal Court and perpetrated violence against Sudanese people. They’ve killed thousands of people across Sudan.
EN: You mentioned the multi-religious, multi-ethnic nature of Sudan. Were all of those groups involved in the protests?
During the regime, the Christians were put in a very bad situation. When the protests took place the Christian community was happy about it, and they engaged in the protests. The Professional Association invited the churches to come and join the protests and the sit-in, in front of the military office, and they came there to pray on Sunday. And on Friday the Christians come to the sit-ins and help the Muslims to offer their prayers while the sun is very hot by making a shelter for them.
Many churches came to pray there. On Friday, the Muslim groups came to pray, and the Christians came and helped them, and now we are in Ramadan month the Christians are there, helping their Muslim brothers. People have joined together and are doing a great job at the sit-in in front of the military office.
EN: Have the protests helped that sense of community? Have they brought people together more?
MA: The protests helped the people to be one community. In Sudan before the regime they were very peaceful people, they used to help each other, welcome each other, host each other. Now in the sit-in you can find people from all the parts of Sudan staying together, and sharing their food. Now they are even sharing their money together. Now if you have money you have to give it, and if you don’t you can take it. If you don’t have money for transport someone will pay for you. In the protests they used to bring food and water, but now they bring money as well. You can sleep wherever you want, you can talk to whoever you want, no one is scared of the others. The protesters are are expressing solidarity for the people in the conflict areas, like in Darfur. They are saying sorry for what happened, that they are protesting to change the situation - this is the message that is coming from the sit-in protest to the people in those areas. And the people in the conflict regions are sending messages to the protests, and thanking them for what they are doing to change the regime.
EN: What would you say you have learned from the mobilisation?
MA: I learned that people are sometimes ready to take nonviolent action, but they need someone to lead them. Because the people were very ready to take action, but they were missing the leaders. That means that the communities need leaders, so communities need to be prepared with nonviolence tools, nonviolent activists, and to have good leadership programmes, that they can use to change the lives and the situation.
Also I learned that every community has its own nonviolent tactic. In Sudan, we have our own approaches to nonviolence, which is different from what we have learned from other experiences, like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. They all have their own nonviolent tactics, and in Sudan we have developed our own nonviolence tools. It was very creative, and very successful. We have discovered many new nonviolent means. We want to document them, so they can be used in the future, we can exchange them with others, it can be like a Sudanese contribution to the nonviolent movement all over the world. People can support the Sudanese protests by documenting it, interviewing protesters, and through the media.