By Katrin Kuntz in Khartoum
In a working-class neighborhood of Khartoum, six friends helped topple Sudan’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Now, as they hope for a transition to civilian power, they are afraid their protest is devolving into a street party, and that the military will remain in control.
Just a few minutes before the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who spent 30 years treating Sudan as his own private vassal state, faded into history on April 11, 2019, Mohammed Abbas was lying in bed in the capital of Khartoum. He was recovering from the last several days of street battles.
Abbas is 29 years old, meaning the dictator was already in office when he was born. For his entire life, Bashar has been his president. And his oppressor.
Abbas grabbed his smartphone, put in his earbuds and tuned into an internet-radio station. Speaking about that day three weeks later, he recalled that his eyes slowly fell shut and he nearly went back to sleep. He only jolted out of bed when the radio station began playing military music around midday, the soundtrack to almost every military putsch. When the music ended, he heard the voice of the country’s defense minister at the time, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, say that the military had removed the leader and placed him under arrest.
Abbas could hardly believe that his protests had made the unthinkable possible. He ran into the living room, where his parents and siblings were already hugging in celebration. “He has fallen!” Abbas yelled. “He has fallen,” his mother yelled. She says today that she screamed so loud she was afraid that she had lost her mind.
Omar al-Bashir had fallen.
That day, the members of the Abbas family weren’t just normal citizens of Sudan who wanted to live in freedom. No, they were also victors.
Because their small house, with its corrugated metal roof, three rooms and multiple wooden beds — with no television inside or car parked outside — had for years been a cell of resistance. Here in the working-class neighborhood of Burri in the city’s northeast, Mohammed Abbas and five long-time friends had planned the protests in Khartoum. The mass demonstrations that ultimately led to the end of the Bashir regime were fueled by widespread popular anger over the country’s catastrophic economic situation. Desperation was mounting: ATMs no longer issue money, gas stations are frequently closed and long lines form in front of bakeries where the price of bread is continually rising.
But the protests would not have happened without people like Abbas.
Abbas is the leader of a “resistance committee” in the city quarter of Burri-Lamab. And his small cell aided the primary organizers of the large marches from the very beginning, back in December 2018. It is a small unit, but intricately linked to other similar cells in the city. It has a core comprised of a security chief, a poster coordinator, a chant leader, a lead fighter and a negotiator.
There are at least five of these committees in the Burri district. When the protests started, there were around 30 active groups in the city. The cells have been loosely organized under the Sudanese Resistance Committee for the last six years. Once the marches began, many new cells popped up. Indeed, the country’s recent revolution is very much a story of these cells. Never before had protesters in the country organized themselves to such a degree.
A Small Group with a Goal
On Monday of last week, Abbas opened the front door of his home in Burri to DER SPIEGEL, to recount his part in the revolution. The house is just a few kilometers away from the Blue Nile, which lazily flows through the city. The yard features a scraggly tree withering in daytime temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). His mother rests on the bed in the living room, which is full of children. Neighbors drop by. All of them want to tell the story of how they helped bring about the end of the Bashir regime.
Abbas is a tall man with a serious countenance. It can quickly and surprisingly turn into a broad smile when he is talking. He is wearing beige, cotton pants, a purple T-shirt and sandals.
It is the first day of the Muslim fasting months of Ramadan and it’s not easy for Abbas to do without water during the day. But he says fasting makes him feel especially close to god. He and his pregnant wife live in the backroom of his parents’ home and they have little hope that they will be able to afford their own place any time soon. As an opponent of the government, his law degree isn’t worth much and he works in sales for a sweets factory.
The last four months have been challenging for him and his family. And even now, they don’t know what Sudan’s future might hold – whether their country will be able to make the shift to democracy or whether Bashir’s established power apparatus will ultimately emerge victorious. “The tree is gone,” says Abbas, “but the roots are still there.” His mother says: “The scorpions are hiding in their holes. They only come out when you sprinkle poison on them.”
This is the first opportunity for change in the country for three decades. For the last month, protesters have occupied streets and squares surrounding army headquarters in the dusty center of Khartoum. And thousands of people make a pilgrimage to the site each day. During sit-ins, they chant slogans, hold up signs and paint Sudanese flags on their faces. On a train bridge, young men pound on the tracks with rocks – the sound of this revolution, which reverberates through the streets.
Some young women walk around without headscarves, couples furtively hold hands and on every street corner, artists are painting murals or holding performances. Occasionally, the sweet scent of a water pipe floats by, the public smoking of which had been banned under Bashir’s Islamist regime.
But Mohammed Abbas says he thinks it is dangerous to get too caught up in the euphoria of the protests. He is concerned that the sit-ins might degenerate into a kind of festival and that the demands of the opposition might thus become diluted. Because the task that lies before them is immense. The Bashir regime, after all, was propped up by a kind of Deep State, a deeply rooted patronage system including the security apparatus, the oil industry, government ministries and Muslim clerics supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. It is a system that will be extremely difficult to dismantle.
Sudan is currently under the leadership of a transitional military council led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo. Both of them have made efforts to show understanding for the demonstrators, but they were loyal to Bashir for years. Daglo commands a special unit – the Rapid Support Forces – of around 30,000 men that currently holds all strategically important sites in Khartoum. As the former leader of the notorious Janjaweed militias during the Darfur conflict, Daglo is responsible for serious human rights violations.
Unclear Path Forward
The generals are negotiating with opposition leaders behind closed doors, with hardly anything leaking out. The military has, however, promised to relinquish power to a civilian government following a transitional period, but in early May, they rejected a core element of a draft constitution presented by the opposition. Until this week, it has also been unclear how long the transitional period might last – six months, as the military was demanding if no agreement is reached, or four years as the opposition had insisted. This week, however, it was announced that the two sides have reached agreement on a three-year transitional period, with the opposition receiving two-thirds of the seats on the legislative council, according to the BBC. But the two sides have not yet agreed on the make-up of the supreme council, with both demanding a majority.
Mohammed Abbas and his family are furious about it “We need a new beginning,” they say. The opposition, though, is concerned that the military may want to simply emulate the structures of the old regime and there has been talk recently in Khartoum of a general strike by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which includes around a dozen labor unions and has been one of the main organizers of the protests. Such a strike could quickly escalate.
Still, Mohammed Abbas and the people of Burri are used to struggle. The economic situation here has long been poor, and residents have long been rebellious. They took to the streets in 2011 during the Arab Spring when the regime shut off their water so they could water the grounds of their villas. They also protested in September 2013 when fuel prices skyrocketed – protests that were brutally quelled by the Bashir regime. In Khartoum alone, some 200 people were killed within just a few weeks and hundreds were arrested. Some of Abbas’ friends died in those protests, and other supposed friends denounced him, leading to his arrest and interrogation by the secret service.
For the six years that followed that catastrophe, the Sudanese didn’t dare to organize another mass protest. But they learned a lot in the interim.
“In 2013, we were completely uncoordinated,” Abbas recalls. The neighborhood cells existed back then, because all regime opponents knew that the secret service agents would immediately infiltrate larger gatherings and arrests could follow. But the cells back then were hardly more than cliques of three to five friends who met every now and then. They only actually became a force to be reckoned with when the SPA joined the game. The association turned to Facebook and mobilized thousands for marches in Khartoum — and they also built up the cells in secrecy.
When the most recent Sudanese uprising broke out on Dec. 19, 2018 in the city of Atbara and people furious at high bread prices set fire to the local headquarters of Bashir’s National Congress Party, many Burri residents were galvanized. Six days later, the SPA called for the first protest in Khartoum. And on that same day, one of the organizers got in touch with Abbas, who then gathered his five closest friends from Burri-Lamab.
It marked the first time in six years that thousands of people marched through Khartoum, chanting “down with the regime.” That evening, the cell gathered in Abbas’ home and he recalls how they all crammed into the living room, each eager to be assigned a task.
The group included Ahmed, who was given the task of monitoring the safety of the marches. And Akram, a charismatic man with a loud voice who would pen slogans for the rebellion. Young Salah volunteered to lead the way and throw the teargas shells back at the security forces. Faiz, an introverted photographer, volunteered to take responsibility for social media and for producing clever posters.
A young woman named Rowa ensured cell members were provided for at the house. Her friends in the neighborhood also helped produce posters and around a dozen volunteers joined the cell.
The initial protests took place without much significant violence. The cell’s security chief helped put up barricades at the entrances to Burri-Lamab and asked his aides to sit on chairs in front of their homes and play with their mobile phones as they surreptitiously kept an eye on trucks belonging to state security forces.
The young men who were charged with intercepting the teargas shells at the front lines were provided with a kit including goggles, gloves, a mask and a clay paste to protect their faces. They were flanked by others who constantly checked the wind and chose which streets to blockade to ensure that the security forces would always have to fire against the wind. Still others were charged with writing revolutionary songs and rewrite traditional resistance poetry to fit the year 2019. Coordination with other cells was taken care of by older protesters with more experience.
On January 17, the protests escalated. That day, armed security personnel loyal to Bashir searched homes in Burri while threatening, injuring and arresting several people. Four demonstrators in the neighborhood were killed.
The friends in his cell, Abbas says, grew angrier and angrier, but they remained calm and they added the position of negotiator to the cell. It was given to a psychologically skilled man who would speak to security officials when the situation threatened to get out of hand and explain why they were protesting. “We are Sudanese, just like you. Don’t kill us. We’re doing this for you, too.”
In February, when al-Bashir reshuffled his government in a panic and imposed a state of national emergency, the cell continued its work. The night before the big march on April 6, Abbas could hardly sleep. He knew: “There is now no way back. Either we are going to die, or there will be change.”
At the end of that day, organizers asked the gathered protesters sit on the ground outside of military headquarters. And thousands of people refused to be driven away when the security forces fired their weapons and deployed tear gas. The army, for its part, refrained from attacking the protesters and lower ranking soldiers even sought to protect them.
The sit-in in front of the Defense Ministry began over a month ago, but the protesters are still there. They have set up more than a hundred tents on the sides of the roads where different groups represent their own interests. Some came all the way from Darfur in 17 cars to inform visitors about the regime’s crimes there, about the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed in the region by the janjaweed militias. In another tent, those who have survived torture in the regime’s prisons tell their stories. The mothers of those who have been killed mourn together in another tent. Laboratory technicians have joined together, as have academics and revolutionary feminists.
At the sit-in, the country’s diversity becomes visible. Many have come because they have a vision for their country. Some also just come to take selfies, to find a wife, or to drink a bit of illicitly brewed alcohol.
For the pro-democracy protesters, it will be a huge task to find a way to reflect the sit-in’s diversity in parliament. And it’s possible that the process could take years or decades — if the regime even cedes power in the first place. And because the size of that effort is so daunting and because the euphoria they feel is so pressing, the sit-in has increasingly transformed into a kind of celebration.
A Protest Turns Into an Event
On a recent Tuesday evening, Mohammed Abbas arrives at the tent of the “Lions of Burri,” located at one end of the largest street of protest. There, friends from the cell are gathering during Ramadan to break the fast and develop strategies for the future.
With three dates in his hand, he is waiting for the call of the muezzin that will herald the end of the day of fasting and the beginning of the meal. “We cannot forget the reasons for our protest,” Abbas says. Of the three central requests made by the opposition in the “Declaration for Freedom and Change,” not even the first one has been fully fulfilled: the end of the Bashir regime.
Ramadan is a critical time for the protesters. Abbas knows how weak one can get after abstaining from food and drink for an entire day in the heat and he has seen that the atmosphere is growing tenser. He heard on the news about militias in Darfur having brutally subdued a protest. The deputy head of the military council in Khartoum informed the public at a press conference that chaos would not be tolerated.
Nobody in the Burri tent knows what the military is planning, but the cell is determined to politicize the sit-in as much as possible – to ensure that the fight continues.
Abbas seems distracted, constantly jumping up from his stool, disappearing into the crowd, returning, speaking on the phone. In moments when he does fall briefly silent, he gazes emptily out over the masses. Abbas looks past a young Sudanese boy wearing a monkey mask and trying to startle passersby. He doesn’t hear the youths bellowing funny songs. A drunk man grabs the Burri tent to keep from falling over as passengers on a truck behind him argue loudly.
“We want European standards when it comes to health, environment and education,” he says suddenly. “Sudan should become one of the best countries in Africa. Competitive, with a robust industry and without war.” He says that in a new Sudan, he dreams of working as a lawyer and standing up for people’s rights.
He hopes his family will have a dignified life with a small house and a car. If the child he and his wife are expecting is a girl, they plan to name it Salima, the peaceful one.
One of these evenings, the Burri cell organizes an event together with another cell in an effort to remind everyone of why the protests began.
At around 9:00 p.m., hundreds of people from all corners of the camp suddenly move towards the Defense Ministry, which is illuminated by yellow spotlights. They stop three meters from the fence. Men and women silently raise their arms to the sky and, for several minutes, remain that way. Then the rhythm starts. “Tasgot bas! Tasgot bas!” they yell, louder and louder. “It must fall! It must fall!”
The armed soldiers standing guard in front of the ministry briefly look over at the crowd. Then they sink their gazes again and continue playing disinterestedly on their mobile phones.