Sudanese protesters lift national flags as they rally on 60th Street in the capital Khartoum, to denounce overnight detentions by the army of government members, on October 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
Explainers

Resistance Committees: The Specters Organizing Sudan’s Protests

If you are following the news on Sudan, you know a military coup took place on October 25 and the country hasn’t stopped protesting, even since the recent deal between military leaders and the prime minister. The protests were covered by regional and international media, the Washington Post described them as “part of a sustained effort by Sudanese professional organizations, political parties and ordinary citizens.” Other media outlets presented them as protests answering the calls of the civilians in the government currently detained by the military, the calls of the Forces of Freedom & Change or the vague term pro-democracy activists. Such reporting might lead one to think that the leadership of the ongoing protests is a mystery—the truth is very different, the specters organizing Sudan’s protest have made themselves known.

Neighborhood resistance committees started mobilizing against the anticipated coup as early as September, calling for a protest on October 21. The protest was an impressive anti-coup march that preceded the coup itself, motivated by early foreshadowing of the evident actions and speeches of military leaders. This preparation allowed the masses to march to the streets starting in the early hours of the day of the coup—October 25—while building barricades and chanting against the military.

Neighborhood resistance committees (RCs) are grassroots organizations with extended origins in Sudan’s modern political history going back to the 1990s. They were revived and promoted via a call in a public statement from the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the association that led the protests of 2018-2019. In an effort to counter violent state tactics against centralized demonstrations, the SPA had called for the formation of the RCs to organize on the ground in a more decentralized manner. During the protests that ousted Sudan’s deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir, RCs were formed in every neighborhood in Sudan, and they became known for their night protests that always took police by surprise. These protests did not stop in the two years that followed, during which Sudan was governed by a power-sharing agreement between the civilian opposition and military leaders. As the fragile partnership forced the civilian part of the government to withhold accountability against their military partners and comply to the demands of international community (issues such as economic liberalization policies or normalization of relations with the Israeli occupation of Palestine) , in the hopes that it would protect the transition from a military takeover—when it came to both priorities, popular demands were deprioritized. In this time, the committees evolved into the voice of the ignored masses and organized repeated protests calling for justice for the victims of June 3 massacre, along with other violations perpetrated by the military. It was also the efforts of the committees that delayed plans of full economic liberalization encouraged by the IMF, forcing the government to postpone de-subsidization of basic goods as well as hold an economic conference to discuss the country’s fiscal priorities. The RC’s political role, capacity to mobilize, and achievements were no secret to the people of Sudan.

During the weeks that followed the coup, RCs led resistance on the streets. These committees are made up of predominantly young revolutionaries who have gained experience over the past two years in amplifying the demands of their neighborhoods. Their decentralized structures and strong ties to their neighborhoods’ populations allowed them to effectively mobilize despite security threats and a countrywide internet shutdown. Responding to the need for quick action, RCs started forming coordination networks so that neighboring ones could issue joint protest schedules as well as joint slogans and demands.

The first “March of Millions” after the coup was called for and scheduled by the RCs on October 30. The demands that protestors marched for were proposed by the Karari RC, a neighborhood in the city of Omdurman, one of three cities that form the tripartite capital. These demands were gradually adopted over one day by all the RCs in the capital and later reflected in the protests around the country. The demands included the removal of armed forces from the political process, no dialogue or negotiation with any of the members of the Military Council, and rejecting any interference by foreign powers. The RCs continued to protest and develop their demands and tools—including but not limited to different forms of protests & strikes—over the following weeks while facing extreme violence including 40 confirmed deaths at the hands of the coup forces and more than 500 injuries.

Unaware of the new political reality, international diplomats continued to call for dialogue with the popularly rejected military leaders and a return to the partnership that legitimized military rule in Sudan. This model of prioritizing stability over accountability and justice is one that is often promoted by international mediators, and it is also the basis of the failed power-sharing agreement that was violently terminated by the military coup on October 25. The recent public statements from the RCs regarding meeting invitations from the then-detained prime minster and special representative of the UN secretary general to Sudan are valuable wake up calls. In these statements the RCs repeated their demand for ending military rule, rejecting closed room politics and compromises. These stances were clear indicators of how the Sudanese public under the leadership of the RCs will react if the attempts of the national ruling class, coup leadership, and the international community force another compromise on the country. Stability cannot be achieved in Sudan without satisfying public demands as reflected by RCs —and not just with power sharing arrangements. This fact was ignored by political players who supported a new agreement signed between the civilian prime minister and the leaders of the military coup on November 21. Hundreds of thousands of protestors rejected the agreement with chants against the prime minister in a protest that had been previously called for and organized by the resistance committees and happened to place at the same time as the announcement. Within hours of the agreement, resistance committees released statements denouncing the agreement rejecting all who participated in it. This is how the prime minister joined the coup and lost his popular support—due to a move that failed to read the level of organizing and commitment to protest in the streets. 

Media coverage and policy makers have been incapable and unwilling to reflect the actual role and weight of grassroots organizing in Sudanese politics. By ignoring and blurring this vital role that neighborhood resistance committees play in the current protests in Sudan, media and international diplomats pave the road for a political arrangement with no popular support, making it even more fragile than before. Serious efforts towards stability in Sudan must include a path towards realizing the demands of the people, including though not limited to the total end of military rule in the country. The voices of the people of Sudan are amplified and reflected by their resistance committees, and it is about time for the world to listen.