50 years on: Remembering Sudan’s October Revolution – By W.J.Berridge
Many Sudanese intellectuals watched on with wry amusement as, in 2011, the global media announced that the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were the first civilian movements to overthrow military autocracies in the Arab world. Sudan is often overlooked because of its status as a gateway between the Arab and African worlds, but it has already experienced two such events – the October Revolution of 1964, which overthrew the first military regime of Ibrahim Abboud and ushered in a four year period of parliamentary democracy, and the April Intifada of 1985, which overthrew Jafa’ar Nimeiri, the country’s second military dictator.
Since Umar al-Bashir’s coup of 1989 overhauled the short-lived democracy that this uprising established, there has been no “˜Third Intifada’. This Tuesday will mark the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution. However, in spite of a semi-liberated media churning out numerous opinion pieces linking Sudan’s past uprisings to the 2011 Arab Spring, today’s protestors have not yet been able to emulate the glorious past.
Why has Sudan been unable to reproduce the feats of October 1964 (or April 1985) in a post-Arab Spring world, despite its particular historical experience? Part of the reason is that the current Sudanese regime learned just as many lessons from 1964 and 1985 as its opponents did.
First, unlike the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan regimes, it has seen the consequences of the regular army choosing to “˜side with the people’ – and has thus learned to deploy it far away from the capital, which is safeguarded by security forces linked to the ruling party. These same security units mowed down over 200 demonstrators during the September 2013 protests – far more than were slain during the 1964 and 1985 uprisings put together.
Moreover, it also knows the dangers that professional activists pose to regimes in Sudan. In 1964, the Doctors’ Union, Bar Association and Khartoum University Teachers’ Union joined together to lead a general strike throughout Sudan, which led to the dissolution of General Abboud’s November Regime a mere two days after it was declared. The elevated social status that Khartoum University educated professionals held amongst the capital’s closely interlinked network of affluent families safeguarded them against regime oppression – in fact, the Bar Association used Thursday evening wedding parties to garner support for the general strike.
After a similar action led by the professional unions also toppled the next military regime in 1985, the government that emerged under Umar al-Bashir resolved to be less afraid of using brutal measures against polite society. When the Doctors’ Union went on strike again, Mamoun Mohamed Hussein, its president, was executed. Meanwhile, all professional unions were dissolved government controlled replacements created. Activists were sent to infamous “˜ghost houses’ to be tortured and over 70,000 government employees were dismissed.
It was the student body that the new regime had to subdue. On 21 October 1964, it was members of Khartoum University Student Union (KUSU) who famously clashed with the Khartoum Police as they met in the university to discuss the political situation, and yielded the Revolution its first martyr, Ahmad al-Qurayshi. Ibrahim Abboud reportedly wept when he heard the news that al-Qurayshi had been shot dead – one cannot imagine that Umar al-Bashir shed similar tears when anti-government students were killed by the Islamists who controlled the university on behalf of the Salvation Regime in the 1990s. Nevertheless, both student and professional unions have begun to emancipate themselves from government control in recent years.
There are two reasons for this – first of all, ideological confusion within the Islamic Movement following Hasan al-Turabi’s rift with Umar al-Bashir in 1999 has made it harder for Islamists to dominate civil society. Second, the 2005 Interim Constitution that followed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement should, at least in theory, have liberated the unions. Whilst the lawyers have done little to challenge the regime, the reinvigorated Doctors’ Union launched very successful strikes in 2010 and 2011, forcing the government to meet a number of its demands. Meanwhile, anti-government forces controlled KUSU between 2003 and 2008, electing Sudan’s first female student union present in this period.
Nevertheless, opposition politics has changed somewhat since the 1960s. The National Consensus Forces, the new opposition umbrella, are led by Farouk Abu Eissa – a prominent member of the Bar Association during the October Revolution. The “˜New Dawn Charter’ promoted by the NCF echoes the National Charters of 1964 and 1985 – but the professional unions have played a far less significant role establishing it.
Regional rebel movements, such as the Justice and Equality Movement, Sudan Liberation Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North, are all prominent signatories. The political environment today is thus far more fluid than it was in 50 years ago, when Khartoum was a much smaller and more homogeneous place.
The war that was raging in the south in 1964 would have seemed very far away to Khartoum’s urbanites. Since then the inhabitants of Sudan’s regions have migrated to the capital en masse, often fleeing war, poverty and famine. Aging representatives of the educated elites who spearheaded previous revolutions sit drinking tea and lamenting the risk of toppling the regime when Khartoum is surrounded by armed gangs “˜with no national feeling’.
Even the Umma Party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, who led the prayers at al-Qurayshi’s funeral in 1964 and rallied the population of Omdurman against Nimeiri’s laws in 1985, has been wary of advocating regime change, warning that if the regional rebel groups were to take power it might lead to a repeat of the Rwandan genocide in Sudan.
The increasing visibility of the rebel movements becomes all the more significant when we consider the role of the military in both past transitions and potential future one. In 1964, a cadre of senior and middle ranking officers emerged that acted as the “˜caretakers’ of the Revolution, simultaneously assistingand deradicalizing it. It was these men who delivered a memorandum to Abboud demanding he dissolve they government, and managed the talks between the former president and the professionals and parties that had formed the United National Front.
At the same time, they were keen to prevent the kind of recriminations in Khartoum that might radically transform the social and political order while the military was still waging a campaign against rebels in the south. They demanded that clauses be inserted into the transitional constitution preventing the trial of members of the November Regime for acts conducted during their period in power.
Meanwhile, the transitional government set up courts to deal with abuses perpetrated by army and police officers during the war in the south, but then shut them down after protests from police bodies before any prosecutions could be achieved.
Today the senior echelons of the military are likely to be far more cautious. In principle, they might not be opposed to the removal of the current government. Although, as Alex de Waal has pointed out, the top ranks of the armed forces are dominated by senior Islamists, the Islamic Movement itself is divided and it is plausible, if not necessarily likely, that they might decide to sacrifice al-Bashir as well as such figures of popular odium as Nafie and Taha so that the Islamist project itself can survive. The challenge is that, with regional rebel groups playing a far greater role in the opposition movement, they would struggle to negotiate a transition as harmonious as the one that occurred in 1964.
The New Dawn Charter proposes criminalizing denial that al-Bashir’s government perpetrated genocide in Darfur, and demands that those responsible be tried both locally and in the International Criminal Court. Senior generals will struggle to compromise with the National Consensus Forces over these points.
Whether or not the revolutionaries of today are able to repeat the feats of October 21st fifty years on, nostalgists for the 1964 Revolution must be aware that simply reproducing its feat of overthrowing an autocratic regime will not guarantee the emergence of a more democratic or liberal system. Indeed, the legacy of October itself is far from straightforwardly democratic.
The heroes of the 1960s became the villains of later periods. It was Hasan al-Turabi’s speech in Khartoum University Examination Hall condemning Abboud’s autocracy that is regarded even by many present detractors as the initial spark of the Revolution. And yet al-Turabi – who claims to have been inspired in 1964 by studying the French Revolution whilst completing his law doctorate at the Sorbonne – is also the man who collaborated with Sudan’s present dictator, Umar al-Bashir, to overthrow the country’s third parliamentary democracy in 1989.
One of the lecturers who helped al-Turabi mobilize the university staff against the regime was a young economist, Abd al-Rahim Hamdi. Yet it was Hamdi’s neglect of Sudan’s marginalized peripheries as al-Bashir’s finance minister that led to the coining of the term “˜Hamdi triangle’ to refer to the central regions that profited from the oil wealth of the late 1990s and 2000s whilst the west, south and east suffered from poverty and conflict.
Jafa’ar Nimeiri was a member of the Free Officer organization that helped ensure a relatively bloodless Revolution in 1964 by refusing orders to fire on demonstrators. Yet it was also he, in collaboration with the same group of military radicals, who overthrew the democratic regime that it established in 1969. Many of those associated with 1964’s professional movement joined his new government, and each of the surviving political parties that participated in the October Revolution would ally with it at some stage. And, ironically, Nimeiri was the next military autocrat to be overthrown by a popular uprising, the April Intifada of 1985.
Why did so many of those who helped topple autocracy in 1964 help preserve even more autocratic and economically exploitative regimes in future years? The reality is that October failed to bridge the social, political and ideological gulf between the educated urban elites that pioneered it and those who resided outside the major cities of the riverine North. For instance, the urban revolution excluded the majority of ethnic southerners. Khartoum University Student Union, which led the famous campus confrontation with the security forces on 21 October, was being boycotted by southerners at the time amidst charges of racism by northern students.
The “˜Southern Front’ established itself separately from the “˜Professional Front’ after the Revolution, and whilst southerners were appointed in the interim regime, neither that regime nor its parliamentary successor was able to end the civil war between north and south.
The urban revolutionaries also struggled to reach out to the population of the rural north, which would have the greatest say in a one man, one vote democratic regime. The left wing and secular professionals and labour activists who featured prominently in the transitional regime attempted to strengthen their own position by demanding sectoral representation for the “˜modern forces’ – but the religiously orientated Umma Party thwarted them by summoning thousands of their Ansar supporters from the northern provinces to force the interim government to abandon this principle (although they did establish 15 “˜graduate’ seats).
The subsequent Umma dominated parliamentary regime targeted the secularists by outlawing the Sudan Communist Party – and a section of the “˜modern forces’ retaliated by assisting Nimeiri’s military coup in 1969.
There are uncanny parallels with Egypt’s experience between 2011 and 2013 – for “˜Abboud – Umma Party – Nimeiri’, read “˜Mubarak – Muslim Brotherhood – al-Sisi’. In the 2012 Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood relied on rural support to reap the rewards of a Revolution spearheaded by urban political forces – just as the Umma did in 1965. In both Sudan in 1969 and Egypt in 2013, military coups conducted by officers who had previously supported popular revolutions were initially welcomed by secularist opponents of the religious parties, who they felt had exploited democracy.
However, we should beware preaching a narrative whereby educated secular liberals are consistently thwarted by Islamists exploiting democracy – in 1964, Sudan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had a far greater presence in the “˜modern forces’ than it did amongst the population at large, and its student wing held more seats in the KUSU Executive Committee than any other party. The success of any future uprising will depend on the ability of both the secularists and the Islamists within the “˜modern forces’ to compromise with each other and prevent the military exploiting the divide between them.
We should not malign the October Revolution. Whilst it may have been led by a narrow elite, it created the opportunity for formerly marginalized social and political groups to mobilize themselves. Sudan’s first female MP, Fatima Ahmad Ibrahim, was elected in the polls that followed in 1965. The first regionalist movement in Darfur, Ahmad Diraige’s Darfur Renaissance Front, was founded in the wake of the Revolution after the citizens of al-Fashir followed Khartoum’s lead in taking to the streets to condemn the November Regime, and two demonstrators were shot dead by the armed forces.
One of the Darfur Renaissance Front’s first acts was to demand the trial of the officer responsible for these shootings. However, the emergence of these new groups was overshadowed by the conflict between the Umma Party and Sudan Communist Party, and that between north and south, both of which undermined the country’s fledgling democracy.
The question, therefore, is not so much whether Sudan can “˜repeat’ the October Revolution, as whether it can escape the slide back into dependency on the military if it does. To do so today’s revolutionaries will need to reconcile the centre and periphery, and religion and secularism in a way that those of 1964 (and 1985) failed to do.
Dr W.J. Berridge’s book, Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The “˜Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 will be published in January 2015.