As the region—and indeed the world—comes towards the end of a decade of mass protests on issues surrounding the environment, regime change, and human rights in general, Sudan’s protests today offer a chance to incorporate and entrench mass mobilization and consensus-building on the street into official/formal mediation and crisis mitigation, and potentially other political processes.
Indeed, this is a must: in the absence of formal processes, popular sentiment remains little more than fodder for partisan groups to leverage in negotiations, often without the public’s interest. For Sudan, a power-sharing deal negotiated in 2019 saw the street largely ignored, both in terms of representation in resulting structures and in the negotiation process. This came even after nationwide popular protests that galvanized broad swathes of discontent into a functional resistance machine, leading to the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship two years ago.
Afterwards, six months of mass protests and a sit-in outside army headquarters organized by neighborhood resistance committees and the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), al-Bashir’s fall, as well as that of his immediate successor, left a vacuum. Ensuing negotiations took weeks and were mediated by the African Union and then-friend of Sudan Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The negotiation was no small feat: the June 3 Massacre—for which there has been no accountability—and the street’s response in a “March of Millions” at the end of that month, had led to a bitter stalemate.
This year’s October 25 coup saw parallels to these previous events—with mass protests, mass detention (this time, including of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, members of his cabinet, political actors, and activists), the return to mass civilian resistance, and massacre on protesters. The resulting political impasse, as before, was broken by a compromise from civilian elites. But, this time as in 2019, this was a mistake. PM Hamdok, after his month-long house arrest signed, on November 21, an agreement that was both detrimental to the ideals of the revolution and, relatedly, unilaterally negotiated with political elites.
The post-coup mediation tracks, of which there were at least six —the African Union, South Sudan, the UN’s Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the Troika (US, UK and Norway, plus the UAE), the Arab League, and the Sudanese Wise Men Initiative—quickly whittled down to scarcely two. Initially facing an issue of too many cooks with little staying power, Sudan continues to entertain mediation tracks that have largely reproduced the orthodoxies seen in 2019 and therefore have, again, ignored the voices of the street. Today, despite the Burhan-Hamdok agreement, the political impasse continues with an isolated Hamdok unable to push for transformational changes and pro-democracy demonstrators continuing to protest, calling—once more—for full civilian reform.
Recognizing the role of the street
“The street” is an amorphous amalgamation of youth groups, civic initiatives, women’s groups, student movements, labor unions and associations, ordinary citizens and neighborhood resistance committees. The mobilizing engine of the resistance movement, since 2013, has been the resistance committees. They have proven to be the most effective counterweight to the regime, as their rotating leadership helps them evade crackdowns, their analogue mobilization techniques help them weather the internet blackouts, and their basic demands are able to unite the broadest constituents—pictures from demonstrations continue to show people of different ages, backgrounds, and ideologies, from women in niqab to Rastas, all repeating the slogans of resistance committees consistently and enduringly, making these committees more resilient to the fracturing that is endemic in Sudanese political movements.
The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the civilian political umbrella that signed the power-sharing deal in 2019, is no stranger to this fracturing. As a political support structure for the PM, the FFC was formed to decrease in-fighting amongst political parties—in reality it likely incubated it. Before the coup, it was the FFC’s perceived failure to demonstrate its inclusivity (despite it maintaining otherwise) and its subsequent “split,” that gave military leaders the ostensible pretext to undertake what they call a “corrective measure” to heal the transition. Domestic political actors and activists—FFC included—recognize October 25 as a coup, engineered with the support of the former rebels-cum-politicians within the ‘breakaway’ FFC faction.
Definitions aside, the multitude of arrests, killings, intimidation, and purges by the coup regime show a striking resemblance to the same securocrat apparatus that resistance committees brought down before. Even after the harried November 21 agreement, which does little other than codify the coup, the appointment of Islamists and Bashir loyalists to key positions, along with the Islamist takeover of the Sovereign Council post-coup, make it essential that the resistance committees—having already nominally brought down an Islamist regime—are included in current processes towards a solution to this enduring political crisis.
One must, of course, be careful not to over-romanticize resistance committees. Their uncompromising stance makes them easier to admire, especially in the face of continued and escalating violence by the coup regime. But while they face their own issues related to the ways in which they function, they have continued to evolve to meet the resistance needs of the political moment. And though the broad and unaffiliated nature of the members of resistance committees made organizing initially difficult, the lack of a dominating ideological or partisan outlook has made the resistance model a bulwark against hierarchies, co-optation, and internal hegemonies.
Further, they have remained loyal to peaceful resistance, even in the face of increased state violence. During the first stages of this coup, the number of arrests continued to rise (particularly outside of Khartoum) and the numbers of protestors shot at protests increased. The work of the resistance committees within neighborhoods means that across Sudanese civilian voices there remains steadfast unity in demanding the withdrawal of the military and, crucially, militias, from the political scene.
The release of the PM and the signing of the 21 November agreement, after cynical miscalculations by the military to ensure the return of international funding, have produced a new resistance landscape. This is where resistance committees excel: resisting an emboldened military lacking credibility and legitimacy. The agreement has promised little to the civilians, except the potential—but not guarantee—of less violence from the putschists and their forces, a potential that exists more in assumptions and speculation than in any codified fashion. And while the military test the limits of their new agreement, through appointments of loyalists, new and well-tested repression tactics and the like, resistance committees will likely find more common ground upon which to build their resistance, including with Sudan’s fossilized political parties.
The demands of resistance committees remain the same: full civilian government and accountability for crimes committed by military and militia leadership. The anti-Bashir set up in 2018/9 saw the resistance committees mobilize, the SPA organize, and the FFC negotiate. Learning from their experience in 2019, when their mobilization efforts were used to power the negotiating position of the FFC (and little more), resistance committees have been working on their outreach. They have elected spokespeople, written announcements communicating that they will not negotiate, partner, or bargain with the military, and indicated that they would be open to meeting with stakeholders (aside from the military) to discuss ways out of the political crisis. The much-publicized agreement between the military and Hamdok unsurprisingly failed to galvanize a movement that worked to upend, not consolidate, elite bargains. Yet for many mediators, the lack of a clear leader from the street (Hamdok no longer, if ever, represented this), makes the street illegible and easily dismissible.
The resistance committees’ maximalist approach has continued to frustrate mediators and international stakeholders, who are wedded to the conventional ways of mediating: with named individuals representing a position or a party, sitting around a table and hashing out their positions and interests before coming to a conclusion where invariably, one side, often the unarmed side, has to make a greater compromise. The street has understood this. It was only two years ago when the same approach mandated that pro-democracy groups compromise and share power with the same regime they had just ostensibly bought down. November’s agreement, even less broadly negotiated, unsurprisingly led to a greater civilian compromise, laying the foundation for even deeper instability and a continuation of the political crisis.
Of all the political groups, the street has procedural memory, pragmatism, and leverage on its side. Yet, international stakeholders plan to apply the same orthodoxies to today’s crisis mitigation and mediation. While some efforts have been made to reach out to resistance committees, if it’s not done as an after-thought, current practice is to shoe-horn them into mediation modalities, that very much have the terms and modality set up already, rendering them little more than a legitimizing factor to the, otherwise stale, crisis mitigation efforts.
Given recent history and the continued failure of such efforts, this is illogical: mediation modalities need to shift to recognize and meaningfully include amorphous street positions and take solutions from the revolutionaries on the streets themselves. Mediators need new thinking that establishes outreach to the streets as the point of departure, rather than an afterthought. In 2019, the FFC had commandeered the mediations, then the negotiations. Today, they have been effectively written out of the Constitutional Declaration and targeted by coup plotters. While tragic and unconstitutional, this nevertheless avails the space for the street’s voices to permeate higher-level efforts, unencumbered by the political wrangling of parties vying for seats in a new dispensation. As a political model open to evolve to meet political needs, resistance committees have now announced that they will fill the vacuum by providing a political roadmap in the new year. International actors interested in broad based politics should absolutely support this roadmap to the fullest extent possible and encourage political elites to back it.
What the streets lack today is a mediation and negotiation platform that recognizes their broad representation of the popular will and does not prioritize speed over meaningful inclusion and process. They need a platform so that the developments in the resistance committees’ functionality—electing coordination bodies, spokespeople, creating solid communications strategies and rapid internal consultation pathways, across states—that enable them to undertake consensus-driven politics, build coalitions, allow them to actively engage with today’s crises, and come up with solutions. Further, polling, media engagement, and focus groups on key issues will all add legitimacy to an otherwise elite exercise.
Like 2019, this would mean facing key issues such as transitional justice head-on and starting meaningful conversations with the recalcitrant military on engaging with accountability models and not kicking such processes down the road. Instead of a failed hybrid government model, in-roads should be sought to create a governance model that truly has the buy-in of the very revolutionaries that brought in into being.
The military’s advantage at the negotiating table is not merely its weaponry and monopoly of violence, but also its legibility to mediators and international stakeholders. The army’s hierarchical nature, clear leadership structure, and its subsequent entrenched presence in the minds of many as a legitimate actor, lends it an assumed credibility in orthodox mediation processes it rarely has to earn and often squanders. This ‘mind-forged manacle’ is one that many young Sudanese people no longer share. And conversely, and glaringly, amorphous groups such as resistance committees have none of these advantages and assumed privileges.
In addition, whereas almost every other political group in Sudan, including the military (with perhaps the exception of militias) have been fossilized in a by-gone political imagination, resistance committees represent a new form of political organization that has come out of this particular political moment. This is partly due to demographic shifts—roughly 70 percent of Sudan’s population is under 35, with around 40 percent under 18—but it is also a result of the shifting nature of resistance to militarism, and indeed Islamism.
As the nature of the military project changed, so too did the nature of resistance. In the 1964, short-term strikes and a narrower mass mobilization that lasted a few days was all it took to unseat Ibrahim Abboud; in 1985 it was a week of mass protests and strikes—led by elites and official civic bodies —that culminated from sporadic protests from the late 1970s – that unseated Jaafar Nimeiri’s changeling government. 2018’s December Revolution was a much slower culmination of a wider range of resistance formats: protests, strikes and civil disobedience from 2013, from a wider range of politicized but non-partisan and unaffiliated protestors. This time, the anti-autocracy movement required infiltrating neighborhoods —much in the same way al-Bashir’s resistant and entrenched regime had—as well as resisting the internationally-imposed push towards “soft landings”, to mobilize against the Islamo-military regime. The tendency to pursue a soft landing today, whether underpinned by unfounded beliefs in the military as a harbinger of stability, a lack of familiarity with the broader political context, or the increasing securitization of Sudan as a foreign policy from Gulf and Western actors alike, must be resisted in favor of pursuing potentially far more rewarding and transformational changes, stewarded by a robust domestic and astute movement.
Implications for future
The resistance committees’ exhilarating appeal to the masses has made it ripe for co-optation by political parties, hungry for the younger constituents that they had long forgotten to recruit. The resistance committees are aware of this and some do welcome greater engagement with political entities as Sudan is positioned towards elections, following the coup. Considering that the Islamists are no strangers to “winning” elections, they will now have to contend—and compete—with the mobilizing capabilities of resistance committees, some in the ranks of other parties, whom the Islamists will try but may find it difficult to co-opt.
By definition resistance is the result of aggression and the 21 November deal is not likely to decrease state aggression. The more aggression this coup regime demonstrates, the more resistance and organization they will continue to face. The resistance committees, having chosen to not become traditional political entities, will be better equipped to shift according to resistance needs during the next crucial period and into the purported elections in, possibly, 18 months. The ways in which resistance committees are engaged in resolving the current crisis, lays the foundation for grassroots civic movements to engage in other official processes, informal as well as formal, such as local and national elections, state-level and national parliament, community transitional justice mechanisms (formal mechanisms may not produce the desired results) amongst others.
In the absence of many institutions not yet built after a fragile and, thus far, interrupted transition, today’s crisis mitigation processes are the first and so far, only official process that the wishes of the street can make an appearance at and help shape. The success of this will be a litmus test for the potential success of Sudan’s democratic processes regardless of the longevity of the coup regime. It could also provide a new, timely, and globally-relevant format for the meaningful inclusion of mass movements in political processes and a much-needed break away from old, and ineffective, mediation, and mitigation orthodoxies.
Kholood Khair is managing partner of Insight Strategy Partners, a think and do tank in Khartoum that works on transitional policy priority areas.