Sudan's Unfinished Democracy is perhaps the first book length treatment of the Sudanese Revolution. It's authors are activists, journalists and academics with an extensive acquaintance with Sudanese politics. It is, for any reservations that I will express, undoubtedly an important work that ought to be read by anyone trying to understand events in Sudan.
Recent Sudanese politics have been dominated by the 30 year rule of Omar al-Bashir. Bashir was a ruthless President, whose policies led to the mass killings in Darfur, and the departure of Southern Sudan from the north. A great strength of this book is to guide the reader through the myriad of individuals and overlapping political interests that form the backdrop to Bashir's reign. This also helps understand some of the military and paramilitary forces and organisations that continue to shape Sudanese politics. Usefully the authors root this recent history in the wider context of colonial rule.
The other strength of the book is its exploration of the background to the organisations that formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement. In this we must be slightly careful. Groups like the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) have deep roots in the country's politics, though their role in kickstarting the revolution was minimal. Activists and groups within the SPA however had played an important role in keeping anti-government protest alive, even if their immediate role in the December 2018 revolution was small. The authors argue that the SPA is a complex assemblage, "a mapping of the revolutionary associations would look like a tangled yarn ball", but it was key to the development of further revolutionary groups and particularly the resistance committees. Of these, the authors write: "Personal ties made them work: individuals' networks were used to bring protestors on to the streets when called, and to support them on march days".
The SPA was, out of necessity, secret. In fact the authors argue it made a virtue out of its anonymity and lack of leaders, "a faceless organisation". But this caused problems. When the revolution overthrew Bashir, the SPA was called in to negotiate with the government, but had no clear politics and no clear leadership with whom the military could negotiate. The lack of leaders and the lack of clear politics meant that the military was able to out manoeuvre the SPA, "the longer the talks went on the weaker the civilians became".
A key moment in the revolution was the establishment of a self-organised mass protest sit-in outside the Sudanese military headquarters. This involved hundreds of thousands and likely, in its participation, democracy and self-organisation, surpassed the achievements of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. The sit-in is a touchstone for the authors who see in it not just a revolutionary protest movement but an alternative model of Sudanese society. As such, the author's argue the sit-in posed an enormous threat to military rule. Its democracy, they say, was a direct challenge to 30 years of Sudanese government. The involvement of minority groups from different regions of Sudan and women in central roles had to end. Over time the military delayed negotiations and eroded the sit-in, helping to undermine the revolution's main strength. Eventually they were to unleash brutal force against it, breaking up the protest with killing and rape. There is no doubt that the sit-in was important and a massive challenge to the military's political framework, and could not be tolerated beyond the first months of the revolution.
But I think the focus on the sit-in misses more important revolutionary dynamics. The attack on the sit-in takes place after a general strike, a strike called by the SPA to try and drive negotiations forward (the slogan was for "full victory" to the revolution). It was a military response not just to the sit-in, but also to the growing power of the revolution as expressed by the mass strikes. This was the army's attempt to break the stalemate, just as the general strike had been the SPA's attempt. A follow up strike was quickly called off as the military entered negotiations and the SPA signed an agreement for Civilian and Military power-sharing in August 2019. This was a disaster and set the scene for the military coup that followed.
All of these twists and turns are described well by the authors and readers trying to get to grips with the politics of the Sudanese Revolution should study them. But I think that the framework used by the authors is inadequate. One particular gripe I have is that there seems to be a downplaying of workers' strikes in this account of the revolution. This means that the authors' do not see an alternative power to the military within the revolution. For them, the revolution is the sit-in. Of this they write:
This was a moment of Utopian revolution in Sudan, an inspiring promise that a different world was possible. For a few weeks, in one place, the fog of politics cleared enough for a remarkable congregation of Sudanese to create a space for a festival of a popular republic. It was euphoric: a generation’s worth of ideals and aspirations released in an explosion of pride, protest and patriotism. It was a moment and a place where everything that divided Sudanese citizens was set aside, when citizenship and participation took on a heightened sense... The sit-in coalesced around an egalitarian system of solidarity that stood in stark contradiction to the hierarchies and deal-making that still dominated the world outside its barricades. Anyone with human feelings was inspired. There was a democratic Sudan and it lasted 53 days - between the challenge to a dictator and a massacre.
The destruction of the sit-in, for the authors, was the end of the revolution. But that's inadequate - the revolution is not yet over. The question is where is the power to take it forward by challenging the military and offering a vision of a new way of organising Sudanese society. This has to be about the coming together of popular democracy from below, in the form of the resistance committees AND the power of workers at the point of production.
The authors' repeatedly dismiss revolutionary socialist politics, though they tend to associate this with the politics of Communist Parties. As such I think they miss the insights that the Russian Revolution might offer. There, for instance, the strength of workers' councils and Soviets during the period of Dual Power in 1917, was enough to break rank and file soldiers from the generals. A similar dynamic was seen as the start of the Sudanese Revolution, but the failure to develop this alternative power within society meant that the military could regroup.
The military spent the period after the fall of Bashir consolidating its power over the Sudanese state. The authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy emphasise the power of non-violence to bring down the dictator, but offer no roadmap for going forward with this. But that's because the strategy they advocate cannot challenge the power of the state. In particular their neglect of workers' struggles means they cannot envisage this power developing, hence the pessimistic conclusions quoted above. The question for revolutionaries in Sudan today is not just how they can win, but where the revolution is going. Is it simply trying to achieve the sort of pro-market democracy that Western powers would like? Or is it going in the direction of a more radical reshaping of society from the ground up?
The Sudanese Revolution has not ended, though its next direction is not yet clear. But one thing we can say is that the last three years has seen enormous bravery and élan on the part of ordinary Sudanese people. For all my criticisms of their book, the authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy certainly understand and celebrate this. Which is why it is a book that can help us all understand what is happening in this unfinished revolution.
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