Sudan's revolutionary struggle
A new book offers the best single account of Sudan's revolution and its aftermath
Willow Berridge, Justin Lynch, Raga Makawi and Alex de Waal. Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy: The Promise and Betrayal of a People’s Revolution. Hurst Publishers, 2022.
Eight months ago, Sudan’s military staged a coup against Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, ending its experiment with transitional democracy. It was an inglorious ending to one of the world’s most inspirational popular uprisings, one which had succeeded against great odds in pushing the long-serving President Omar Bashir from office. Few take seriously General Burhan’s recent promise to step down and return to civilian rule. But protests continue, showing a resilience and creativity which should be the envy of other would-be protest movements in the Middle East and beyond.
Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy, recently published in the stellar African Arguments series, is a collectively authored book by an all-star cast of analysts: Willow Berridge, an historian and author of one of the best books on earlier generations of Sudanese popular protest movements; Justin Lynch, a veteran journalist (no relation); Raga Makawi, a Sudanese analyst and activist who edits the African Arguments series; and Alex de Waal, one of the leading political scientists working on East Africa and the Horn. Together, they have produced a must-read work of real-time political history, one which seamlessly combines historical context and sociological background with deeply informed insider analysis of Sudan’s uprising and transition. I follow news and political analysis from Sudan as closely as I can (there’s a lot of great stuff online if you look for it), and I still learned a tremendous amount from this concise, readable book. It’s the first time I’ve seen it all pulled together in one place, so if you want to catch up on this complex, critical case study - or want to assign it in a class - this is the book for you.
In my review of Khalid Medani’s recent book, I noted Sudan’s oddly liminal status in Middle East Studies. There, I asked why Middle East scholarship on Islamist movements so often ignored the experience of the only country in the region actually governed for decades by a Sunni Islamist movement. Reading Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy raises similar questions about why a MENA political science field which has spent at least a decade consumed by the study of protest movements, civil-military relations, and the politics of transitions has so rarely considered Sudan’s experience. There’s no reason Sudan shouldn’t be studied as intensively as Egypt, Jordan or Morocco - no reason, that is, besides unproductive and often racialized questions about whether Sudan should be seen as “Middle Eastern” or “African.” After all, Sudan is as much a laboratory of social mobilization and political transition as it is a showcase for the limits of state-led Islamization. Long before the 2018 revolution captured the world’s imagination, Sudan had major, regime changing protest waves in 1964 and again in 1985. It experienced its own abortive protest wave after the regionwide fever of 2011, culminating in a major uprising and harsh repression in 2013 which set the stage for the 2018-21 period chronicled in this book.
Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy is packed with carefully reported details, and its discussion of recent events offers the best kind of political journalism, deeply informed by historical knowledge, insider access, and long reporting experience on the ground. It embeds the 2019 revolution within a richly informed political history which shows where Bashir’s regime came from and the underlying “political marketplace” through which is military regime governed. The authors show how Bashir’s regime squandered its oil windfalls, building a set of fiscally unsustainable subsidies while funneling huge amounts of money into the military. The secession of South Sudan accelerated the fiscal crisis, while international financial assistance was limited by the legacies of Sudan’s terrorist designation dating back to hosting Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, the International Criminal Court indictments over Darfur, and failures to reduce subsidies. In one telling anecdote, the authors note how people were shocked for the wrong reasons when $130 million was found in Bashir’s house after his overthrow: outsiders marveled at his corruption, while insiders marveled at how broke he must have actually been.
There’s far too much in the book to cover everything. Here, I want to highlight a few key themes which run through the book and which connect to broader theoretical questions in the ever-evolving literature on the Arab uprisings.
First, how did Sudan’s protest movement do it? The book offers fascinating detail on the organization of the movement and how it evolved into such a resilient, adaptive social movement. The core of the revolution was Sudan’s Professional Associations, itself an “assemblage of smaller groups.” As with activists in both Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, the SPA did not anticipate that its protests in late 2018 in response to a rapid economic decline would take hold and spread so rapidly and powerfully. In one telling anecdote about the SPA’s leadership of the revolution, the authors note that as a consensus seeking movement it had not been able to settle on goals for the critical December 25, 2018 march. Only when the leaders heard the crowds determinedly chanting for Bashir’s removal did they adopt this as their new objective.
The SPA’s strength was rooted in the urban professional class, but it helped to coordinate a vast network of neighborhood Resistance Committees, small local groups of young Sudanese which emerged and self-organized around the country. As the revolution developed, diasporic activists became involved in funding, publicizing and in some cases taking a lead role in the protests. Both the RC’s and the SPA operated through consensus, rejecting hierarchy in ways that proved deeply empowering and gave resilience on the streets, but became a handicap when the action turned towards negotiations and governance. Women, who played such a critical role in the street-level mobilization, were marginalized in the political leadership and their concerns largely ignored in the negotiations with the military. The book also shows in a fine grained way exactly how and when social media mattered for the uprising, moving well past tired debates elsewhere in the literature to show how these tools worked in practice to facilitate communication, organization and connections.
As in so many other countries, Sudan’s protest movement was far better suited to overthrowing Bashir’s regime than it was to the transition which followed: “the SPA focused on the one consensus demand: Tasgut, bas! Al-Bashir must go. This agenda was its strength in the short term and its weakness thereafter.” The SPA - and Prime Minister Hamdok, eventually - proved easy picking for a military ruthlessly familiar with political hardball and the “political marketplace” of corruption and co-optation. The RCs continued searching for a political roadmap, though, as they sought to keep the revolutionary spirit alive (Hamid Khalifallah has an interesting discussion here of those political charters).
Second, Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy goes inside the military, showing that it could not be treated as a unified, coherent actor. The tensions, real and potential, between the Sudanese military represented by General Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). One fascinating current running through the discussion of the military is the deep social interconnections between the leadership of the military and the political opposition. Sons and daughters of military officers marched alongside other protestors, creating some degree of restraint. That did not apply in the same way to Hemedti’s RSF, whose social origins lay in the provinces such as Darfur and who at key moments proved quite willing to unleash horrific violence on the protest camps. The book traces the intricate shifts in the relations between these different military formations in detail, shedding light on otherwise seemingly inexplicable military decisions in ways which very few books on Arab politics have been able to match. Salah Ben Hammou’s explanation of Burhan’s recent offer to step back from politics builds on such an understanding of intra-military dynamics.
Third, Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy neither overstates nor underplays the role of international and regional powers in the course of events. It makes clear that the main drivers of the revolution were domestic, driven by economic crisis, bottomless corruption, and exhaustion with Bashir’s rule. Sudan’s activists certainly took inspiration from the Arab uprisings, both the 2011 round and the contemporaneous Hirak in Algeria, but as the book demonstrates they took pride in their own long history of popular mobilization. While this isn’t spelled out in the book, they do seem to have learned something from the failures of other Arab cases, especially when it came to premature demobilization or trusting military-led transitions. They also highlight as well how the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) learned the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia’s 2011 uprisings and used their conclusions to repress and defeat an uprising in early 2012 and a wave of popular protests against subsidy cuts in September 2013. But nothing ever ends, and in an iterative process the protest organizers learned their own lessons from 2013’s failure and avoided making the same mistakes in 2019.
External powers weighed more heavily after Bashir’s fall. The authors are unsparing in their assessment of the confused and often misguided efforts of many of the external players, including the African Union, the EU, and the United Nations. Sudan’s revolution, they note, had the misfortune of arriving at a time when there was little interest in transformational political change from below. The Trump administration’s political transactionalism holding Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List - and thus its eligibility for desperately needed economic assistance - hostage to its normalization with Israel.
The actively anti-democratic forces in the region, especially the UAE and Egypt, supported the military against civilian opposition. This was in some ways tricky. The popular revolution had been against a nominally Islamist regime. One of the first priorities of the Hamdok government was an anti-corruption drive against the Bashir-era tamkeen projects which had established Islamist hegemony over the government and key sectors of the economy. The UAE and Egypt could get behind a crackdown on Islamists (even if the anti-corruption drive inexorably morphed into a tool for cracking down on other activists and independent civil society). While the military and pre-revolutionary would be the natural partners for the UAE and Egypt elsewhere, in Sudan those groups were tainted (in their eyes) by their Islamism. While Burhan proved quite amenable to cooperation with those states (and with Israel), Hemedti and the RSF offered them a clean slate - and one whose penchant for extreme violence resonated nicely with Egypt’s General Sisi, who had himself authorized the massacre of over a thousand Islamists in one day in central Cairo during his own seizure of power.
Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy is a great read, a model of theoretically informed and empirically rich comtemporary polital history. It’s the best single book available for making sense of the inspirational popular revolution, the turbulent transition which followed, and the mostly unhelpful role of external powers. I would highly encourage students of Middle East politics to read it — and to incorporate its lessons, and the case of Sudan in its entirety, into their models of regional politics.
Previous Abu Aardvark book review essays:
Imperial Mecca: Michael Christopher Low’s Imperial Mecca
Sexting Like a State: Maya Mikdashi’s Sextarianism; John Nagle and Tamirace Fakhoury’s, Resisting Sectarianism
A New Political Economy of Islamism: Khalid Medani’s Black Markets and Militants
Man, the State, and Bread: Jose Ciro Martinez’s States of Subsistence
Where, and Why, is North Africa? Majid Hannoum’s The Invention of the Maghreb and Megan Brown’s The Seventh Member State
Why Does MENA Transitional Justice Fail? Mariam Salehi’s Transitional Justice in Progress
Why did Egyptians Cheer a Massacre? Mona el-Ghobashy’s Bread and Freedom and Justin Grimm’s Contested Legitimacies.
Jordan, Forever on the Brink… of What? Jillian Schwedler’s Protesting Jordan
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