Why Sudan’s protest movement has toppled one but not yet two dictators
What has changed between the 2019 protests, when the people rose up to remove al-Bashir, and today’s movement?
On 30 June, at least tens of thousands of protestors marched across Sudan against the country’s military leaders. It was one of the largest demonstrations since the 25 October 2021 military coup and shows that opposition to the army’s rule remains strong despite months of oppression.
Yet so far, protestors in Sudan have not been able to topple their authoritarian regime, as they previously did when they helped remove Omar al-Bashir in 2018-2019.
There are three key differences that are worth exploring between the 2018-2019 protests and today’s demonstrations.
— James Copnall (@JamesCopnall) June 30, 2022
From specific goals to broad politics
The core of Sudan’s protest movement was not originally created to push for regime change. The driving force behind protests in 2018-2019 was the Sudanese Professionals Association, or SPA. It was formally established in 2018 when underground unions banded together amid economic crises. The association’s membership was overwhelmingly middle-class urban workers – teachers, journalists, doctors – even though 90% of Sudan’s economy occurs in the informal sector. Accordingly, the SPA focused on laws regulating the formal economy and its initial goal was to increase the minimum wage.
It was in December 2018, as demonstrations against rising bread prices broke out, that the SPA changed their tactics. It became the main group organising the fast-growing protests that were soon calling for the removal of al-Bashir.
The SPA’s origins show how many social movements form. As sociologist Charles Tilly noted, they often begin with special interests because their constituents are more motivated by a specific goal. The SPA, for instance, initially struggled to attract followers promoting lofty concepts like justice or peace but had more appeal campaigning for a living wage. As Muhammad Yousif, a professor and SPA leader told me in the summer of 2019, “always focus on the specific and immediate concerns of issues”.
Why couldn’t the SPA ignite protests again in 2021? One reason is that its identity changed. When the group’s goals switched from focusing on the special interests of union workers to much bigger political questions, its internal dynamics inevitably shifted.
From leaderless to leadership
The change in internal dynamics led to a second reason the SPA was unable to protest as effectively following the 2021 military coup.
When the SPA was first created, its organisational structure was flat. There was not a hierarchy of strong leaders but a grassroots movement of groups within groups. This structure had profound benefits during the protests in 2018-2019 because it meant that al-Bashir could not co-opt the movement. When his regime arrested many SPA leaders in early-2019, it did not have a great impact. A group of new leaders replaced the ones who had been detained.
However, once al-Bashir was overthrown, the SPA’s flat leadership structure became an albatross around its neck. Charged with making political decisions instead of protesting, the group struggled. Leadership battles commenced and egos clashed. While senior figures tended to believe they had no choice but to form a partnership with the military junta that had removed al-Bashir, the association’s rank-and-file rejected the idea of “compromise”.
During the transition period as SPA leaders took up positions in the civilian-military power-sharing government, rifts in philosophy only grew. Internal disagreements continued and a new leadership was elected that changed the core makeup of the group. As the SPA’s power started to decline, localised “resistance committees” grew in strength and came to represent Sudan’s grassroots movement.
The arc of the SPA echoes that of the OTPOR! student movement that led to the downfall of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. It too succumbed to infighting, which contributed to the group’s decline, after it took on political responsibilities. In the 2003 parliamentary election, the OTPOR! party didn’t even manage to reach the 5% minimum to win any seats.
From soldier solidarity to mistrust
A key date in the 2019 protests was 5 April. On that date, the SPA called for the Sudanese army to abandon the president. The military had been the dictator’s most reliable source of power and the SPA used it against him. On 11 April, al-Bashir was overthrown.
As political scientist Gene Sharp has explained with his notion of “pillars of support”, even a powerful leader like al-Bashir cannot rule a nation alone. Rather, he relied on the armed forces to coerce the population using violence. However, when the SPA called on the army and specifically low-level soldiers to abandon him, the armed forces went from the Sudanese leader’s greatest strength to his greatest weakness.
Why didn’t Sudan’s protest movement repeat its tactics after the 25 October military coup in 2021? Because, according to activists I spoke to, they simply didn’t trust the army anymore. The armed forces had broken too many promises in the protestors’ eyes and, instead of wanting to just remove military leaders, demonstrators wanted the entire army out of politics. These concerns were entirely justifiable, but it meant Sudan’s 2019 playbook was no longer available.