By Mohammed Elnaiem
You may have missed it, “millions join general strike,” a headline not often imagined in a contemporary world where the power of the working class is often consigned, even by some leftists, to the 20th century. But this was how the Guardian accurately described what Sudanese workers were doing to bring a military council to heel. And you may have missed it, precisely because this industrial action came largely in response to a massacre that overshadowed it days before, on June 3rd, when a sit-in was horrifically dispersed, women were raped, hundreds were killed, and dozens were thrown alive into the river Nile.
The people of Sudan collectively felt traumatized by this onslaught. But while the world sympathized with Sudan, and dozens of celebrities raised their voice of support, not much commentary was made on how the Sudanese people resisted. Their weapon of action was the general strike, and the protagonist was the Sudanese worker.
A general strike involving millions in the midst of a revolution should have sparked the imagination of millions more across the world. The Sudanese people had already overthrown a dictator that was in power for 30 years and, had by then, moved their target to the deep state which survived him. That sympathy trumped solidarity instead, is the biggest tragedy of all.
The revolution in Sudan began in December 2018 in the town of ad-Damazin before spreading across the country. It was in response to the frustrations and trauma of living under a brutal 30-year dictatorship that operated ghost houses where dissidents would be tortured and disappeared; a regime which caused genocide in Darfur, led to the secession of the South, and brought millions to the brink of starvation.
But the most immediate problem was also closer to the stomach: the cost of bread. Under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendations, the Sudanese government cut subsidies on fuel and bread, which led to massive inflation, and food and cash shortages. Unable to recover from the secession of the South which took its oil export economy with it, the Sudanese government continued to only further impose austerity measures which made day to day life miserable.
The people were fed up. In city after city, the Sudanese people rose up, and the state’s security apparatus, funded by 88% of the country’s GDP, could not keep up. By the time the uprising hit the capital city of Khartoum, the underground Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) – an alliance of banned unions – came to the fore, and quickly became the vanguard of the struggle.
The SPA drafted the declaration of freedom and change and lent its newfound legitimacy to traditional opposition parties. On January 1st, the “Forces for Freedom and Change” coalesced into an official body. From then on, months would pass by with street protests occurring every day. The regime did everything, with each concession after concession, receiving the resounding response of “Just fall, that is all.” Even a state of emergency and thousands of arbitrary arrests could not stop the rebellion.
A Turning Point
A turning point in the revolution was when the FFC called for a sit-in outside the military headquarters on April 6th – a date that coincided with Sudan’s 1985 revolution that led to the end of the Neimeri regime. By April 11th, with millions occupying the headquarters of the military bases in their regions, Omar al-Bashir – a dictator of 30 years – was overthrown.
On the following day, Ibn Ouf, the man whom the former regime decided would stand in power, was overthrown as well. Bashir was succeeded by the Transitional Military Council, led by General Burhan to represent the military, and Hemedti to represent the Rapid Support Forces (a militia that grew out of Bashir’s mercenaries who committed the Darfur genocide), the latter had turned on Bashir in the last moment.
From that point, the political battlefield was redrawn. The Forces for Freedom and Change was supposed to represent the ideals of the masses (although often, they also represented the desires of its member parties) and the Transitional Military Council represented the political machinery that outlived Bashir’s rule. The former called for civilian rule and the latter for military rule. Both tragically felt that some compromise in between was inevitable, even if the streets often felt otherwise.
Throughout the negotiation process, the Forces for Freedom and Change relied on four strategies in order to have leverage over the TMC. Street protests; sit-in’s outside various regional headquarters of the military across the country; general strikes; and crafty, domestic and geopolitical meetings behind closed doors. Until an agreement could be made, those of us who attended the sit-in remained firmly entrenched with the dream of a civilian, democratic state. That is, of course, until that sit-in was viciously dispersed on June 3rd, 2019.
At 5:30 a.m., those in attendance of the sit-in began to broadcast what could be nothing short of pandemonium. Thousands of militiamen armed with weapons provided to them by the UAE and Saudi Arabia descended upon the sit-in with the desire for blood.
The Rapid Support Forces had been ordered, not only to disperse the sit-in but to do so in the most sadistic of ways. Tents were burned, women were kidnapped, hundreds were killed and dozens were thrown into the Nile. By the time the details began to be uncovered, even the TMC was panic-stricken and an immediate internet blackout had to be declared.
Traumatized, the revolutionaries of Sudan still valiantly persisted towards their goal. General strikes and a march that brought millions to the street brought the TMC to heel. In July, an agreement had come to fruition: a three year transition period, under the joint control of a sovereign council with six civilians and five military members. It was a flawed agreement, one I strongly opposed, but one which millions in Sudan celebrated.
Before proceeding to why, however imperfectly, the streets won. We must ask why the tragedy of June 3rd occurred.
Street protests occurred daily, but Bashir was still able to hold power for months before abdicating. The sit-in brought Bashir’s downfall, largely because lower-ranked soldiers joined the revolutionaries in the sit-in to fight back against the militias of Bashir and his ardent loyalist, Ali-Osman Taha.
With fissures in the armed forces, and various armed bodies aligned with the state fighting against each other; and with geopolitical pressure by UAE and Saudi Arabia, a cosmetic regime change was brought into being, one that the Sudanese people didn’t fall for after they promised to remain firmly entrenched in their sit-ins until the transition to democracy could be secured. The people seemed to have the upper hand. So why did the massacre happen suddenly?
The fulcrum was likely the industrial action; the strikes that brought the economy to a halt a week prior to the dispersal.
On May 28th, a two-day national strike brought the economy to a standstill. In Khartoum airport, pilots refused to fly, and the airspace was shut down after multiple airlines cancelled their flights. The roads were empty because buses refused to move.
In the Blue Nile state, various ministries – including the ministry of culture and social welfare closed office. In Elgezira and Sennar, the electricity company and water authority went on strike. In Port Sudan, workers broke operations, and only haj pilgrims to Mecca could embark from the Red Sea port of Suakin.
But what truly angered the Rapid Support Forces was the closure of the Central Bank. Outside of Khartoum central bank, workers within the bank joined hands with their counterparts in the oil ministry. Dozens of RSF trucks descended on the scene and tried to force the workers to return to work at gunpoint. And this was no surprise, for Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” had made the position of the RSF clear a week prior: the general strike was a red line.
By sunset of the 29th, on a night in Ramadan, Hemedti sat with fasting RSF soldiers to make clear the official position of the TMC. “We have been deceived by the slogans of the FFC,” he told them, “now they have confirmed the truth of their intentions.” By Eid it would be decided; the massacre would begin and the country would be terrorised into submission for daring to bring the economy to a halt.
Thankfully, this is not how the story ends. Certainly, it took less than a week for the next industrial action to take place. For the three days of Eid, Sudanese families were too afraid to leave their homes. Gunshots by the RSF could be heard even in the most affluent of neighborhoods.
It was probably the first year, in the history of Sudan, when families could not do their annual visits to friends and kin. But the FFC had proposed an ingenious plan. On the days of the general strike, one went to work and refused to engage. But if they were to be terrorized in their homes, then after Eid, they would engage in massive civil disobedience by staying at home. The RSF could force bankers to go to work, but even with its 50,000 strong force, it couldn’t force people to leave their homes.
By June 9th, millions reported across the country that they had refused to go to work. Including, crucially, the vast majority of Sudanese workers; peasants and informal workers. Slowly afterward, gaining confidence and taking advantage of even the TMC’s shame (which refused to admit ordering the attack until far later), the people took to the streets. The slogans were darker. It was heartbreaking. Either you or the nation, Prepare your coffin. Send ambulance after ambulance. They had seen the worst, and they let the TMC know they were prepared for more. It was a surprise that they still had the ideological commitment to non-violence.
By June 30th, the FFC had gained enough confidence to call for a Millions March. This time, it would coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1989 coup that brought Bashir to power. People were angry, and sure enough, a million took the street. It had been the biggest street protest – most likely – in the history of Sudan. And it happened all across the country. At least 10 protesters were killed.
Declan Walsh of the New York Times has also written about a secret meeting that coincided with the Millions March. On one side, the furious FFC still enraged by the massacre, and on the other Hemedti. On the table also was the U.S. Envoy to Sudan – Donald Booth – and officials from the UAE and Saudi Arabia who had seemed to be turning against the TMC after the catastrophe of June 3rd embarrassed them on the world stage also.
By this time, the general strike had been called off, the U.S. envoy had been sent to “Defuse the situation,” and it’s not hard to imagine why. Industrial action is terrifying enough. But a Millions March could be Sudan’s storming of the Winter Palace. What the mainstream media often describes as U.S. support for civilian rule in the Sudan is, in fact, the opposite; they are not the motor of democracy. In Sudan, in fact, they pulled the emergency brake. By July, the agreement had been set. The military and civilians have now commenced the transition.
A Learning Point
The Story of Sudan negates a bleakness of a global left overwhelmed by the neoliberal advance of a transnational capitalist class. It is also instructive for the African worker. Unlike their predecessors, who regularly disrupted the machinery of the colonial state by sabotaging railways, disrupting workplaces, and going on strike, African workers today find themselves facing the neoliberal economy alone. Their government’s look at class struggle with contempt.
The African post-colonial developmental state can do little but invite transnational exploitation as a fast-track to development. And as devastating as it may be, there was once a time when the black so-called middle class played a valiant role in decolonization, while today it invites colonization instead.
Sudan’s newest prime minister, brought to power with the consent of the streets, expresses this best when he exclaimed to foreign investors that Sudan is “the last frontier.” But frontiers are to be colonized, Mr. Prime Minister. And in that regard, the story of Sudan also expresses the limits of industrial action today. Will the general strike, and the unity of informal and formal workers always be limited to the liberal horizons and “democratic transitions” that do little to challenge capitalist exploitation?
Then there is the second problem: what working class? A Marxist would say that the existential condition of the proletariat is that they are doubly free, to sell their wage labor or to starve. In the absence of owning the means of production, they are forced to work for the capitalist and do the former. The privileged revolutionary subject has always been the contracted worker within the Marxist tradition.
But when it comes to Africa, this becomes a problem: According to the latest ILO estimates, 85.8 % of African workers are in the “informal” sector. It’s a vague word, but it means workers might be vendors, or they might work without an employment contract, they might be paid well below that which allows them to satisfy their needs, and may rely on more than one job.
Even a salary is not guaranteed and often work in Africa is a daily hustle. This provides a semantic problem, one that at least one scholar has tried to resolve by turning the Marxist definition on its head. “Capitalism begins not with the offer of work,” Denning writes, “but with the imperative to earn a living.” And African workers are often faced with that imperative to the extreme, often risking not getting paid for the working day if something goes wrong.
Under such circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how the working class, so atomized by the informal sector, can organize in the first place. In Sudan they did, but it was precisely because of the nature of informal work that – coupled with geopolitical pressure – the general strike of early June eventually had to be called off.
But if anything, the story of Sudan demonstrates that – just as the revolution in Tunisia proved beforehand – no revolution can be successfully carried out without class struggle.
Mohammed Elnaiem is a member of “400+1”, a black liberation organization based in the United States. He is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, where he studies the relationship between capitalism, slavery and patriarchy.
Caption: The sustained and determined people of Sudan mounted a strike that toppled the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.
photo credit: Hind Mekki