Civil Uprisings and Islamism in Sudan: Some thoughts on a review of my book

I went to work today and picked up my subscription of Sudan Studies (number 60, July 2019), which included a review by its editor Gill Lusk of my book Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan. I am grateful for the many compliments in the review, although I note the author disagrees to an extent on the presentation of my arguments regarding the role of the Islamists during the October Revolution in 1964.

I see in one passage that the reviewer takes issue with is where I write that al-Turabi, who participated in the 1964 October Revolution and was a vocal spokesman for a shift to a democratic system at the time, shared the same ambiguous attitude towards democracy many others with the ‘modern forces’ of Sudan who participated in the 1964 and 1985 transitions. The reviewer finds this point ‘hard to swallow.’ Specifically, I wrote that to understand the motives behind his 1989 coup we need to appreciate that he shared the attitude of ‘more secular branches of the modern forces’, in that he maintained ‘that ‘democracy’ would be implemented after suspending ‘democracy’ for a period to prevent ‘anti-democratic forces (the ‘sectarians’ being the culprit in both cases) from exploiting ‘democracy’ to prevent ‘democracy’’.

As any political theorist will tell you, democracy is a nebulous concept and Sudanese politicians have advocated different forms of it throughout Sudan’s post-colonial past – liberal representative democracy, illiberal representative democracy, direct democracy, multiparty democracy, no-party democracy, sectoral representation and so on. Al-Turabi justified using force to remove the 1989 parliamentary democracy by maintaining that the multiparty one-man one vote system was exploited by neopatrimonial religious orders (the Khatmiyya and Ansar) who used networks of patronage and familial influence to manipulate the public vote. He also maintained that with these networks removed, a genuine direct democracy based on the prototype of the 7th century Islamic state would emerge. Al-Turabi was the classic opportunist maverick, but even opportunistic mavericks need some intellectual framework and effective political discourse to justify themselves. I fully accept the author’s point that the Islamists’ rise to power was facilitated by their exceptional organizing skills, financial strength, adoption of Marxist-Leninist front tactics and infiltration of security networks – this is discussed in some detail in my subsequent book on al-Turabi. However, they did also need to create an effective political discourse for their ideology to gain the traction that it did. Al-Turabi’s musings on the merits of no-party democracy in his al-Shura wa’l-Dimuqratiyya (Consultation and Democracy), published in the 1980s, draw on debates about the pitfalls of multiparty parliamentary  that emerged during the era of the first transitional government in October 1964.

 It is often maintained, somewhat simplistically, that the first October government was dominated by the Sudan Communist Party. In fact, a select group of communists, alongside members of the Popular Democratic Party influenced by Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union, gained control of the first transitional cabinet and fought for the institution of a mixed electoral system whereby the number of ‘geographic’ or ‘one man, one vote’ seats would be reduced and direct sectoral representation of various economic groups – workers, farmers, etc – would partially replace them. After other political groupings –  particularly the Umma Party, which benefited the most from one man one vote democracy – thwarted their efforts, a number of the communists who were particularly active during the October period like Farouk Abu Eissa and Ahmad Sulayman were also backers of the next military coup in 1969, which eventually introduced a system of sectoral representation within a one party system based on Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union – the Sudanese Socialist Union. Their perspective was based on a vanguardist approach rejected by the mainstream of the Sudan Communist Party under Abd al-Khaliq Mahjub, which lamented that October  was a revolution of the ‘petit bourgeois’ and also distanced itself from the 1969 coup on the grounds that it was impossible to pre-empt via military putsch the structural changes needed to facilitate economic and social revolution. After his rift with Abd al-Khaliq, who was later executed by Nimeiri’s regime, Ahmad Sulayman – one of the most powerful communist figures in the transitional October cabinet – went on to join forces with al-Turabi and play a major role in planning the Islamist seizure of power in 1989. This is why I wrote that al-Turabi shares the ambiguous perspective regarding what democracy constituted of many within the ‘modern forces’ who shaped October.

It may come across as surprising to those more familiar with him on account of the crimes perpetrated by his regime since 1989 that al-Turabi in 1964 acted as a champion of democratic transformation in the country, delivering a speech to students at the University of Khartoum that galvanized them against the regime. He later maintained that this speech was inspired by the principles of the ‘egalité, liberté, fraternité’ which he had embraced during his time studying the French Revolution at the Sorbonne. Of course this does not mean that we should endorse the statements of the likes of the Turabist al-Wan editor Hussein Khogali, who has used this legacy to maintain that the Islamists represent the true democratic heritage of the October Revolution, and encouraged Islamists to demonstrate on the 21 October anniversary on that basis. The leading Islamists are pushing for a quick return to elections today precisely because they do not want the transitional government to undo 30 years of Islamist rule. However, as a historian I cannot escape the fact that al-Turabi and the Islamists  were leading protagonists during October, along with the other main Khartoum based political forces of the day – the communists, Arab nationalists, Umma and so forth. The Islamists adapted to civil politics just as much as their rivals. If anything, the fact that the leadership of the October Revolution was dominated by al-Turabi and other graduates of the University of Khartoum, which was at the heart of Sudan’s ‘developmental state’, should remind is that revolution was shaped by a much more narrow elite in comparison to today. Al-Turabi’s journey from democrat to coup-planner, more than anything else, is indicative of the limited distance between civil society and state in Sudan’s history.[i]

It is one of the ironies of Sudanese politics that al-Turabi at that time was closer to being a supporter of liberal democracy than some of his secular opponents in the Sudan Communist Party and Popular Democratic Party, on the grounds that he believed that ‘sectarian’ parties who benefited from it – especially the Umma Party – would act as a bulwark against the communists. He increasingly became a champion of illiberal representative democracy in the late 1960s, when he used the principle of absolute parliamentary sovereignty to justify the banning of the Sudan Communist Party, and then when the Sudan Communist Party was less of a threat following its fatal showdown with Nimeiri in 1971 moved towards appropriating the communists’ arguments against liberal multiparty democracy and using them against the ‘sectarians’. He also drew heavily on anarchic models of direct democracy, in which decentralized committees would bypass party politics, that were advocated by old colleagues in the Marxist-influenced Islamic Liberation Movement such as Abdullah Zakariyya.

This political discourse was genuinely effective in elite circles at the time – al-Turabi’s Islamists frequently dominated student union elections in the 1970s and 1980s, and won 23 out of the 28 ‘graduate seats’ reserved for the educated classes in the 1986 elections. It is tempting to present al-Turabi as a cartoon villain – ‘eccentric and chilling, with his high-pitched giggle’, as the author notes in her review. However, the risk is that if you associate all the failings of Sudanese politics with one man and his movement, you risk overlooking broader structural failings at the heart of the Khartoum-centered state and may assume that removing the Islamists will solve all the problems that have beset it since well before 1989. The social and economic gap between the riverain centre and marginalized regions predates 1989, as does the damaging legacy of British colonial exploitation, as does the political and economic hegemony of the military, as do the wranglings over the merits of multiparty politics.

Al-Turabi may have been an opportunist whose regime committed appalling abuses against its population, but he was able to get into the position that he did because he formed a political discourse that offered a hope of an escape from ‘sectarian’ and patrimonial politics, state centralization, and the cultural legacy of colonialism. That his regime subsequently failed to rid Sudan of any of these malaises, and that al-Turabi like many populists elsewhere was a part of the system he purported to rail against, should not distract us from understanding his appeal at the time.  He was able to co-opt elite Darfuris, such as those who launched the 1981 regionalist Intifada and his successor as leader of the Popular Congress Party Ali al-Haj, by promising a political model that would prevent domination by the Khartoum. Of course it was the nature of al-Turabi’s hubris – or ideological opportunism, depending how you read him – that he insisted that the establishment of direct and decentralized democracy must be tied to the politics of religious revival, since his official position was that he was striving to create a political system that had already obtained in the 7th century past. But when the reviewer writes that ‘disciplined cadres outdid the Sudan Communist Party in Leninist techniques’ she is herself acknowledging that the line between secular and Islamist politics in Sudan’s pre-1989 history is at lot more blurry than at first seems.

[i] For a useful analysis of the relationship between ‘civil society’ and the ‘developmental state’ in the context of post colonial uprisings in Sudan and the rest of Africa, see Branch and Mampilly, Africa Uprising


Berridge, W.J., Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Berridge, W.J., Hasan al-Turabi: Islamist Politics and Democracy in Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Branch, Adam & Mampilly, Zachariah, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change (Chicago: Zed Books, 2015)

Ibrahim, Abdullahi Ali, “The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa”, Comparative Studies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East 16 (1996), 98-114

Warburg, Gabriel, Islam, Sectarianism and Politics in Sudan (London: Hurst, 2003)

The Sudan Uprising and its possibilities: regional revolution, generational revolution, and an end to Islamist politics?

This is the text of my panel contribution at the Prospects for Democracy in Sudan event hosted by LSE’s Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit on 11 October 2019.

I am talking today with my historian hat on today, so drawing on my book Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan I will be discussing the parallels between today’s popular uprising and Sudan’s two previous popular uprisings, the October Revolution of 1964 and the April Intifada of 1985. Now, as we all know, the leaders of those two uprisings were ultimately unable to establish a democratic political order in the long term, as the parliamentary systems they created were ultimately overthrown by military coups in 1969 and 1989 respectively. These military coups were launched in the name of ideologies that perceived parliamentary democracy as either too Western, too chaotic or too elitist, but ultimately lost their ideological character and brought about rampant corruption and authoritarianism, intensifying the exploitation of the periphery of Sudan and replacing public institutions with the ‘political marketplace’ that Alex is discussing.  So how do you avoid this trap? Well, what I wrote at the end of the Civil Uprisings book, which came out in 2015, is that the two most important divisions in Sudanese politics that had to be resolved for a transition to democracy to succeed were between centre and periphery, and between the secularists and the advocates of religious politics.

Let us take the famous centre-periphery divide in Sudanese politics. The key failing of the past two uprisings was that they began in the urban riverain areas and they failed to transcend the divide between the centre and the marginalized regions, the pattern of exploitation of the periphery by the centre continued, and the civil wars along with it. This is not to say that these uprisings did not offer moments of possibility. In 1964 the man who brought Sudan’s judges onto the street was Abd al-Majid Imam, a co-founder of today’s Sudan Congress Party who hailed from the periphery. The revolutionary government that followed October appointed Clement Mboro, a southerner, Minister of Interior, and he immediately set about trying to reform what was admittedly then a much less inflated security apparatus. However, the core of the revolution was in Sudan’s urban centre, but because the leftists and liberals of the cities were unable to revolutionize the periphery as well at the same those moments of new social possibility were lost, and the more conservative forces in Sudanese politics were able to mobilize the periphery against their opponents in the cities – whether that be Sadiq and Ahmad al-Mahdi marching the Ansar in Khartoum to strongarm the first transitional government into submission in 1965, or the Islamist governments bringing various militias trained in the periphery to crush urban dissidents since 1989. Now, what is different in 2019? Well, the most important point is that the revolutionary moment has gone on longer. In 1964 it took 5 days for the Abboud regime to fall, in 1985 it took the Nimeiri regime 11 days, and today it took the al-Bashir regime 4 months to fall. Now that shows how entrenched the al-Bashir regime was, but it has also mean that there has been much more time for today’s revolutionary activists to call for more representation for marginalized groups within the transitional arrangement. It has also created more time for those marginalized on the basis of gender and age to demand representation – the transitional government, although far from being fully gender balanced, has more representation of women than any other in Sudanese history, and just yesterday we saw the appointment of Sudan’s first female chief justice.

Another factor to consider is that the rebellious periphery is a lot closer to home now that was the case in 1964 and 1985. Back then, armed opposition to the government was mainly restricted to the now seceded south, with the war in south Kordofan only just beginning in 1985. Today, the rebellion has extended further into the north including of course Darfur, and the departed regime’s perpetration of mass atrocities in that region has ensured that the issue of justice for the periphery is now one of the foremost slogans of the demonstrators even at the riverain centre. Yet at the same time, General Himeidti, the pseudo-champion and arch-nemesis of today’s revolution, has still been able to mobilize forces within the periphery – his notorious Rapid Support Force militia- to act against today’s urban revolutionaries, most notably of course during the awful massacre that occurred on 3 June this year. When in April the urban political forces began to negotiate with the Transitional Military Council independently of the rebel groups within the Forces of Freedom and Change and Sudan Call, it looked like the classic scenario where regimes fall but regional divisions continue might repeat itself. However, the transitional government and rebels have now begun to implement peace talks. We still need to be cautious for two reasons – first of all, because post-uprising peace talks have happened before, as at the round table conference on the south in 1965, and failed to stop the ongoing conflict, and secondly because the rebels in Darfur and the other peripheries is made up of an array of different movements and factions, some of which have a more genuine commitment to democracy and social progress than others. As Alex’s research shows us, there has been a long term pattern of marketized politics whereby rebel agendas begins to mirror regime agendas, and peace talks are simply used to divide wealth and resources between the government and its armed opponents. Rebel politics are also very male dominated, which sits awkwardly with an urban uprising that is trying to prioritize the representation of women. So in this context, it is important to note that groups such as the Darfur Women’s Protection Network and the General Coordination of Displaced People and Refugees are demanding that they participate in the talks. More broadly, there is a question of whether the disjuncture between civil opposition in the urban centre, and armed opposition in the periphery, will continue. Back during the 1964 October Revolution there were major urban protests in the leading cities of Darfur like Nyala and al-Ubayyid, and there was a famous train carrying protestors from Eastern Sudan to the capital. The issue back then was that events developed very rapidly in Khartoum, and without the forms of electronic media we have today it was harder to the citizens of the urban centre to be as rapidly aware of what was going on in the peripheries, and vice versa. The fact that both the uprising and the transition are happening in slow motion today, at least in contrast with the events of yester-year, is actually to the advantage of the periphery. And we are seeing peaceful protest having an impact on the periphery. Just a few weeks ago the resistance committees in Nyala begin to set up camps to educate the youth on peaceful demonstration, and following clashes in Nyala there were solidarity marches for Darfur all over Sudan. Similarly, parties like the Sudan Communist Party announced their solidarity with the recent protests against toxic gold mining in Talodi in South Kordofan, and ultimately these protests led the cabinet yesterday to outlaw the use of mercury in gold mining. So there are positive signs of protest on the periphery feeding back into political action at the centre.

Coming to the second point here, can the rift between secularism and religious politics be overcome? At the moment, this looks unlikely- given the Islamist character of the regime, the mass popular hostility to Islamism displayed during the urban protests, and the ambivalent reaction of the various non-NCP Islamists to the uprising itself. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that in the great democratic wave that occurred slightly further north in 2011, the one country which escaped a return to authoritarianism was Tunisia, where both Islamists and secularists were willing to embrace parliamentary politics, and as research by the likes of Cavatorta and Merone has shown, Rashid Ghannushi’s al-Nahda party have moved away from the old rhetoric of hakimiyya and Islamic states towards an approach that is accommodating of pluralism and everyday politics. Elsewhere, in Syria, Libya and Egypt, military dictators and warlords exploited the divide between Islamists and secularists to justify returning to or keeping an authoritarian mode of politics. Now, I want to avoid straightforward comparisons here – the case in Sudan is different, not just because Sudan has a very different cultural makeup to those other countries but because unlike the various movements associated with the Arab spring, of course the Sudanese uprising was an uprising against an Islamist regime.  We have seen the scenario both in Sudan’s history and during the Arab Spring where there is a popular uprising against a secular or semi-secular regime, the Islamists give it lukewarm backing, and then win out in elections, but we have not seen whether this scenario can repeat itself when the regime that was overthrown was itself Islamist in character. It is worth observing that unlike Tunisia, Sudan has other religiously oriented, business orientated parties that might occupy the political space the Islamists vacate, such as the National Umma Party and Democratic Unionist Party which have acted as centre right in previous parliamentary systems in Sudan.  Yet the Islamists still have considerable financial and media power, as well as influence within the security services, important foreign allies and in the case of the Popular Congress Party an ambiguous relationship with the most powerful of the Darfur rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement. At the moment they are, in Johnsonesque fashion, pushing for early elections in the hope that they will be able to capitalize on their existing financial and media power before the revolutionary transitional processes reverse the effects of 30 years of Islamist rule. So can they moderate, or will they just try to bring back the old system? The leadership of Popular Congress Party who represented the Islamist opposition have often been fond of highlighting their relationship with Rashid al-Ghannushi, so as to associate themselves with the moderation of the al-Nahda party that he brought into democratic politics in Tunisia. Unfortunately, the Islamist opposition in Sudan have a somewhat more tainted history than al-Ghannushi in Tunisia. The leaders of the largest Islamist opposition groups, Ghazi Salahaddin and Ali al-Haj, were both major players in 1985 when the National Islamic Front refused to join the opposition National Alliance opposition umbrella during the last Intifada and they were leading figures in the National Islamic Front when it engineered the coup that brought Omar al-Bashir into power in 1989. The pattern in Sudanese history is that politicians who participated in military regimes have been barred from participation in the subsequent parliamentary regimes, and already Ghazi Salahaddin and Ali al-Haj, along with others, have been the subjects of a lawsuit on account of their role in the overthrowing the 1989 democracy. So, for the older generation of Islamists, the problematic issue is not so much the question of whether they have moderated on a philosophical level as much as their association with the old regime, its networks and its crimes. And that is why, when the PCP vacillated throughout early 2019 over whether to back the uprising or not, that very much reflected a divide between the leadership under Ali al-Haj and the youth of the party, who embraced the generational character of the revolution, ignored their party leadership, which was composed purely of Islamists over the age of 60, and went to the streets. In the case of the Popular Congress Party, we can only hope that this generational divide will lead to the emergence of a far less exclusivist mode of religious politics. That brings me back to the generational revolution. This same generational revolution has been happening within some of the other parties of the more conservative opposition over the last decade, with the youth of the National Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party protesting against the soft approach towards the regime of their aging patriarchs, both of whom have been in control of the party since the 1960s. One of the reasons that the popularity of the Sudan Congress Party has risen so much during the Intifada is because it has relatively young leaders – it is the party of the last Intifada, in effect. The 1964 October Revolution saw a generational transition within a small elite – hopefully this time it will be more comprehensive. The university students today are more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and regional origin than was the case in the 1960s. They are not encumbered by the old way of doing politics that binds the older men, and they may well move away from the strict dichotomy of Islamism and secularism. But even if they do that, still need to extend their revolution beyond the urban centres. Coming back to the points about the Islamists and the regional politics of the revolution, it is also worth noting that Ali al-Haj has threatened to topple the transitional regime by setting up a ‘shadow government’ in the regions, and that returns me to the original point that the urban democrats need to bring the peripheries into the new order if they are to prevent those peripheries being manipulated to challenge their revolution.

The Sovereignty Council: Does it Represent the Marginalized Regions?

Yesterday, the military and civilian representatives who have spent months negotiating Sudan’s transition finally agreed on the constitution of the Sovereignty Council that will act as the country’s interim presidential body. Being comprised of both soldiers and civilians, today’s Sovereignty Council represents a hybrid of the civilian Sovereignty Council formed during the 1964-1965 transition and the Transitional Military Council that served a similar function in 1985-1986. Both those institutions used their presidential power to undermine more radical political actors calling for a more comprehensive social revolution – in 1965, the Sovereignty Council dissolved an interim cabinet dominated by leftists and the rise of the Transitional Military Council in 1985 sidelined Sudan’s radical trade unionists. The radical left do not appear to have much presence in the Sovereignty Council today. However, the Khartoum media has celebrated its increased representation of marginalized groups, pointing to the presence of two women in a ruling council for the first time in the country’s history – one of whom, Raja Nicola, also hails from the Coptic Christian minority – as well as that of individuals from the country’s eastern, southern and western margins.

So does the Sovereignty Council of today mark a sharp break with its predecessors? Among the military participants in the council, the most problematic figure in General Himeidti. As the one of the two representatives of Darfur, he is also the head of a militia that while representing a powerful private army in its own right also served as the former regime’s principal counter-insurgency arm in the region. At present, there is no representative of any of the rebel groups he fought against to counter-balance his involvement.

It is true that the many of the civilian members do hail from the peripheries, incusing Hasan Shaikh Idris (the East), Muhammad Hasan al-Ta’ishi (Darfur), and Siddiq Tawoor al-Kafi (South Kordofan). At the same time, they are all closely tied to political parties that some in those regions identify with a historic Khartoum elite – the National Umma Party in the case of Idris and al-Ta’ishi, and the Ba’ath Party in the case of al-Kafi. The National Umma Party (historically just the ‘Umma Party’) is more than simply a Khartoum party – through its ties to the Ansar religious order, it has historically been able to mobilize many supporters in the eastern and western regions  where this movement formed such a strong base during the Mahdist revolution of the late nineteenth century. Since the 1950s, the Umma Party established itself as the premier political player in Sudan’s parliamentary eras, alongside the Democratic Unionist Party that is represented on the Sovereignty Council via Muhammad al-Faki Suleiman.  However, the prominence of these parties outside of the riverain centre has been increasingly challenged by regionalist movements such as the Beja Congress in the East, and the Darfur rebels movements in the West. This has particularly been the case since al-Bashir’s coup of 1989 curtailed parliamentary politics and further stoked regional rebellion. The rebel movements aligned with the Sudan Revolutionary Front rejected the political agreements that brought about the Sovereignty Council, and will not be happy that the representatives of these regions on that council are so closely identified with parties like the National Umma Party which helped to engineer the agreement with the military.

Siddiq Tawoor al-Kafi, meanwhile, is ostensibly one of the most radical actors on the sovereignty council. In March he used the Ba’ath party newspaper al-Hadaf to condemn the efforts of Sadiq al-Mahdi and the US government to engineer a ‘soft landing’ for al-Bashir’s regime. Yet Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, leader of one the rebel factions most sceptical of the developments in Khartoum, has threatened to halt the current ceasefire following al-Kafi’s appointment. Al-Hilu was particularly angry about the Arabist ideology al-Kafi’s Ba’ath party espouses, seeing it as incompatible with the cultural history of the Southern Kordofan region. Meanwhile, much social media criticism has focused on the participation of al-Kafi’s brothers in the now departed Islamist regime. Arabism and Islamism are not one and the same, and in their heyday during the Khartoum street politics of the 1980s the Ba’athists played a major role in fighting the Islamists who were backing the last military regime of Jafa’ar Nimeiri, equating them with the Iranian Ayatollahs that their Iraqi patron Saddam Hussein was locked in combat with. However, from the perspective of the rebels of the marginalized areas, Arabism and Islamism are both ideologies which emerged in the educational institutions of the riverain centre, and were imposed by the graduates of those institutions like al-Kafi and his brothers on a region they do not really represent.

When the Transitional Military Council of 2019 was first formed, it had a very different composition to the body which is now being officially dissolved and absorbed into the Sovereignty Council. Civilian negotiators successfully pushed for the removal of figures they deemed unpalatable, mainly Islamists. It may be that as peace talks with the rebel movements develop the composition of the Sovereignty Council (and other interim institutions) also shifts for similar reasons. If the leaders of the new government are not able to bridge the gap between the marginalized regions and the riverain centre, their opponents could well exploit that. Yesterday Ali al-Haj, the leader of a major Islamist party with ties to Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement, announced a regionally based opposition government to topple the new order, using the presence of Himeidti on the Sovereignty Council in particular to call its legitimacy into question.  In this context, the leaders of the Forces of Freedom and Change will need to work hard to bridge the gap between the historic political parties and the rebel movements if their transition is to succeed.

Civil-military negotiations: the core sticking points

In early July, Sudan’s Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) announced that they had reached a power sharing deal with the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the junta that replaced Sudan’s long-term dictator Umar al-Bashir on April 11. However, this initial news was followed by nearly two weeks of wrangling between civilian and military negotiators over the political and constitutional declarations that would finalize the deal. The negotiators finally completed the political declaration in the early hours of yesterday morning. However, this document has left a number of contentious points to be resolved either by the constitutional declaration, which the negotiators have promised will be finalized on Friday, or by the interim government itself. While a basic framework may have been agreed on, the details still being negotiated may be crucial to determining the interim government’s capacity to undo repressive legislation, reverse regional inequality and provide transitional justice.

The deliberations have exposed some of the internals tensions within the FFC – the Sudan Communist Party, for instance, issued an independent statement rejecting a draft constitutional declaration put forward by the AU-Ethiopian mediation team, and along with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front has also now rejected yesterday’s political declaration as well as the principle of TMC involvement in the interim government. Meanwhile, the National Umma Party, probably the most conservative of all the major political forces in the FFC, has in this period openly praised the role of the military in ousting Umar al-Bashir. Both parties are re-enacting debates that occurred in Sudan’s previous transitional periods in 1964 and 1985.

In those previous transitions, comparatively short transitional periods prevented the more left-wing actors using the interim governments to generate radical social and political change. As I predicted in my recent African Affairs crisis briefing, the length of the transitional period has again proved to be a core area of contention. Immediately after the breakdown in TMC-FFC negotiations that followed the 3 June massacre of protestors camped within army headquarters, the Transitional Military Council insisted that the length of the transitional period would be reduced to nine months. However, under the pressure of US, African Union and Ethiopian mediation, they have now consented once more to a three year transitional period. Nevertheless, while they may have agreed to the lengthier period, they are still trying to mitigate against its most radical consequences.

One reason that the TMC are so concerned about the length of the interim period is that the FFC have pushed for the transitional government to include an interim legislative assembly, 67% of which will be constituted by the FFC itself. A transitional government with such a robust legislative arm would have much greater scope than its predecessor in 1985 to revise the former’s regime’s arbitrary legislation – whether that be oppressive labour laws, the Islamist penal codes or the bills put through the NCP dominated parliaments to bolster the powers of the National Intelligence and Security Services. This is why the TMC first of all tried to restrict the representation of the FFC in the legislative assembly to 50%, and have also pushed for its role to be purely advisory. The Sudan Communist Party rejected the document put forward by the Ethiopian mediators on the grounds that abandoned the principle of awarding 67% of the legislative seats to the FFC. One of the reasons that they are rejecting the political declaration is that it has deferred the formation of the legislative council till 90 days after the formation of the interim government, and has left it to the sovereignty council – where the military will have the strongest presence – to resolve the dispute over the percentage of seats to be allocated to the FFC.

Another area of contention is the legal immunity that TMC are demanding be granted to its membership as part of the constitutional statement. Given that the TMC vice president Himeidti – widely regarded as complicit in mass atrocities in Darfur as both a member of the Janjaweed and leader of the Rapid Support Forces – could emerge as a key player in the interim government, such a law could anger many of those who want to prioritize transitional justice. There is certainly a precedent for a political immunity clause in the 1964 transitional  constitution, which granted an amnesty to senior soldiers who had served in the previous regime. The 1964 transitional government dominated by leftist professionals went on to put former regime generals on trial regardless, only for those trials to be abandoned by the Umma Party dominated parliamentary regime that followed it. Unsurprisingly, it is the communists who are pushing back mostly strongly against the immunity clause today. They are also concerned that the current draft of the constitutional declaration will give the Sovereignty Council – the rung of the interim government in which the military are to be most represented – the initial right to appoint the interim Chief Justice and Attorney General. This would also give the military the opportunity to influence processes of transitional justice in a manner favourable to them.

At present, it is also unclear how likely the deal is to resolve the regional inequalities that have undermined the Sudanese body politic since independence. The FFC have placed great emphasis on the fact that balanced representation will be given to each of Sudan’s regions in the interim legislative council. However, this does not in and of itself achieve anything more than previous assemblies in both parliamentary and one-party systems have achieved. What is more concerning is that there appears to be no provision to ensure that the first and second tiers of the interim government – the sovereignty council and the cabinet – will represent a balance of regional interests. The emphasis on choosing cabinet members on the basis of technocratic merit risks over-privileging the central riverain areas of Sudan, where the bulk of the educational infrastructure is located following over a century of uneven development. In the 1964 and 1985 the transitional regimes attempted to appease supporters of the rebellion in the now seceded south by allocating a number of portfolios in the interim cabinet to citizens of that region, but the majority of positions allocated to the ‘north’ (now the rump Sudan) were filled by individuals from the riverain centre. There is, therefore, no immediate precedent for giving ministerial representation to the marginalized regions that are at the centre of today’s conflicts in Sudan – Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan – though one desperately needs to be created. To resolve the problem of regional representation, the rebel groups fighting in the marginalized regions have proposed forming a second transitional cabinet once they have agreed peace terms with the government. This will make the question of regional representation a central element in the peace talks that will represent the first priority for the interim regime.

Transitional Military Councils from 1985 to 2019: Why the intransigence today?


During Sudan’s last major civilian uprising in 1985, the military leadership overthrew the established army-backed dictatorship of Jafa’ar Nimeiri and established a Transitional Military Council (TMC) under the commander in chief Abdel Rahman Siwar al-Dahab. Siwar al-Dahab’s TMC oversaw a one-year transitional period before convening multi-party elections in 1986 that were dominated by the same political forces which had dominated the last era of parliamentary democracy in Sudan. The rise of the Transitional Military Council of 2019 seemed to bear a number of superficial parallels with the events of 1985. Its head Abd al-Fattah Burhan is regarded as a broadly apolitical and unambitious figure, just like Siwar al-Dahab was in 1985. The TMC ousted the incumbent president and declared that it was siding with the popular uprising, just as its predecessor had done in 1985. Yet while in 1985 the TMC and the urban political opposition rapidly agreed on the structure and personnel of the interim government, in 2019 they failed to come to terms after well over two months of talks. On 3 June 2019, the TMC – or at least forces within it – launched a devastating counter-revolution, forcefully bringing an end to the three-month sit-in at army headquarters and massacring well over 100 defenceless protestors. The Transitional Military Council is now being referred to in some media organs as the ‘Military Revenge Council’ (al-Majlis al-Askari al-Intiqami) or ‘Military Coup Council’ (al-Majlis al-Askari al-Inqilabi).

So why are things different this time? It has been widely acknowledged that one of the factors enabling the counter-revolution was the lack of effective pressure by the International Community on the TMC in the era of Trump, Putin and Brexit. But then the 1985 transition occurred with relatively little support from the International Community, in the era before the end of the Cold War led Western nations to push for democratic transformation in Africa. Evidently, Burhan represents the military establishment, but so did Siwar al-Dahab and his generals in 1985.

However, the military establishment may have a much greater deal to fear from a democratic transition in 2019 than they did in 1985. In 1985, they were quickly able to marginalize the more left-wing voices in the professional movement, and were happy to agree to the Islamist chief of the Doctors’ Union, Jizouli Dafa’allah, as interim prime minister. The transition to one person one vote parliamentary democracy predictably enabled the rise of the Umma Party of Sadiq al-Mahdi, which although genuinely committed to parliamentary democracy was close enough to vested financial and military interests that it did not excessively challenge the status quo.

Today – given the Islamist character of al-Bashir’s 30 year regime – there are few Islamist voices in the Sudan Professional Association (SPA). Jizouli Dafa’allah has himself formed his own separate ‘Reform and Peace Initiative’, but has failed to come to terms with the SPA. Meanwhile, although Sadiq al-Mahdi remains prominent and has been attempting to de-escalate the uprising in his role as the formal head of Sudan Call – the most substantial political coalition within the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change – it is unlikely that his Umma Party would emerge as the dominant political force in free and fair elections. More radical political voices among the signatories of the Declaration of Freedom and Change pushed successfully for that declaration to stipulate a four year transitional period before the return to multi-party democracy. This would give the opportunity for new political parties that could speak to Sudan’s crucial demographic – the urban youth – to emerge and challenge both the old parties from previous democratic period and the political forces represented by National Congress Party, the de facto ruling party in the era of pseudo-democracy under Umar al-Bashir. A party like the Sudan Congress Party, formed by university students who participated in the 1985 uprising, might do well out of such a scenario. It was the generals, not the Force of Freedom and Change, who maintained that elections should be held after negotiations broke down following the massacre in early June.

A four-year transitional period would almost certainly entail a much more rigorous process of transitional justice than that which occurred in 1985. Then, only those generals who were active members of the political establishment were put on trial, and they were tried for corruption and overthrowing the previous democracy rather than for war crimes perpetrated during the country’s civil war. The civil war was then being fought predominantly in the now seceded region of south Sudan, and the then rebel leader, John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), refused to travel to Khartoum to enter into talks with the TMC of the day. The transition failed to end the war, which marginalized the more left wing voices in the urban opposition who had hoped to formed a coalition with the Marxist-orientated Garang. Today, rebellion has spread to regions of Sudan that are less socio-politically distant from the riverain centre of the country than the south was in 1985 – notably, the region of Darfur where the regime’s murderous counter-insurgency has drawn so much international attention since 2003. A few weeks ago Yasir Arman arrived in Khartoum to represent the SPLM-North (the faction of the movement which remained in Sudan after the secession of the south) in talks with the TMC. As student communist from the riverain centre who rose through the ranks one of Sudan’s most prominent rebel factions, Arman’s political history represents a convergence of urban-based and periphery-based forms of dissidence that is extremely threatening to the established military order. After repeated demands by the TMC that he leave Khartoum, Arman was arrested and then forcibly deported to South Sudan. Evidently the TMC was too afraid of the potential demands for justice and redress of regional inequalities that talks with Arman’s group might entail.

Another major factor today is that regional powers have encouraged the intransigence of the TMC by providing it with funding and arms. Al-Bashir’s regime had played both the anti-Islamist Saudi-Egypt-UAE and Islamist-orientated Qatar-Iran-Turkey axis off against each other, giving a variety of regional powers the motive to compete over Sudan’s economic resources and diplomatic support. Since 2014 he appeared to bring Sudan closer to Saudi Arabia, by allowing the participation of Sudanese troops in the Saudi led coalition fighting against the Houthis in Yemen. The general overseeing that troop deployment was Abd al-Fattah Burhan, and a substantial bulk of the Sudanese military contingent was formed by the Rapid Support Forces militia that appears to have been the principal perpetrator of the 3 June massacre. The Rapid Support Forces themselves in effect represent the private army of TMC vice president Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Himeidti, a former commander of the Janjaweed militias that perpetrated mass atrocities during the Darfur conflict. Both men have been travelling to Saudi and the UAE to secure support for the TMC, and it is being reported that the 3 June massacre at the sit in was ‘greenlighted’ by the Saudis following a recent trip by Burhan to Riyadh.

The Saudis in particular are now far more regionally ambitious than they were in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Umar al-Bashir may have departed but the vast array of parallel security services and militias that he created has not. This parallel security infrastructure – including groups like the Rapid Support Forces – is far more substantial than was the case in 1985 and is hungry for the kind military and financial investment that Saudi Arabia and competing regional actors such as Qatar may be willing to provide.

Dr Willow Berridge is the author of Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Revolutionary Dilemmas in Sudan

A few weeks ago, I taught an undergraduate seminar based on Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim’s excellent article ‘The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa’.[i] The piece addresses the dilemmas that the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) – at that time the foremost voice of Sudan’s progressive urban elites – faced in the wake of the country’s first post-colonial uprising of 1964. In the years following the famous October Revolution, the party was torn between liberal democracy and radical socialism. The leadership under Abdel Khaliq Mahjub suffered a setback when religiously orientated parties with a strong regional base came to dominate the multiparty democratic system that existed between 1965 and 1969, and used their formal majority in parliament to label the communists as atheist and ban them. Yet Mahjub in particular feared that, given the narrow social base of the SCP within urban riverain Sudan, any effort to resort to revolutionary means to introduce a radical socialist order would be pre-emptive, and end up empowering ‘opportunists’ within the urban elite. When a faction of the SCP backed the military coup led by Jafa’ar Nimeiri in 1969, Mahjub was reluctant to get involved. He attempted to scale back the participation of his party in the new regime, and reached out to Sadiq al-Mahdi, whose Umma Party had opposed the communists on religious grounds in the parliamentary years. The Oxford-educated Sadiq had been attempting to reform his party along more progressive lines, and Mahjub presumably believed that he might act as a bridge between the urban revolutionaries and the rural masses.

In 1971 Mahjub was executed by Nimeiri, becoming a victim of the military vanguardism he had feared so much. The SCP suffered enormously after its leader’s death, and though it participated in the uprising of 2018-2019 along with the other parties it has never recovered the vigour of its golden era in the 1960s. Its radical mantle has been taken up by the Sudan Professional Association (SPA), a coalition of left-leaning union activists opposed to the Islamist regime of Umar al-Bashir that had dominated Sudan for 30 years. The SPA is modelled on a similar organization that played a leading role in the October Revolution of 1964, and which itself had ties to the SCP (among other parties). Yet it suffers from a similar problem to the SCP, in that it is at its strongest in the urban riverain centre. Its class composition is limited, by definition, to the professional elites of the major cities. If it is to avoid a narrow and opportunistic politics of revolution, therefore, it will need to work in partnership – just as Mahjub attempted to do – with political factions that have a strong presence outside the urban riverain centre.

But with who? Sadiq al-Mahdi has been a remarkable political survivor and still plays a prominent role in today’s opposition, but at the age of 84 has largely seen his reputation as an up and coming reformer discredited by his failures as prime minister between 1986-1989 and ambivalent opposition to the al-Bashir regime. However, the rise of a newer generation of leaders in his National Umma Party (to give it its new name) and within the other more religious oriented parties might create new possibilities. Another major political player is the Sudan Congress Party, which emerged out of the professional groups that led the second civilian uprising of 1985. It struggled to launch itself as a political party in the democracy that followed the 1985 Intifada, but re-emerged in 2005 and has been attempting to develop a base in Kordofan in particular. They SPA might also align itself with the rebel groups operating in the marginalized regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The urban leftists of the 1985 Intifada had hoped to form an alliance with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of John Garang – then operating mainly within the now seceded south – which itself espoused a Marxist ideology. However, their hopes were thwarted when Garang decided he did not trust the 1985 Transitional Military Council enough to come to Khartoum. Today one rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North faction headed by Malik Agar, has already sent an advance delegation to Khartoum. Meanwhile, one of the more prominent figures in the SPA, Muhammad Yousif Ahmad Mustafa, is himself a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North and has spoken of the parallels between the regime’s marginalization of cotton farmers in his own region of central riverain Sudan and its marginalization of the country’s other peripheries.

During the 2019 Intifada, the SPA has already established a formal alliance with most of these political forces via the Declaration of Freedom and Change. If the country is to avoid a return to the opportunistic politics of military intervention and domination by Khartoum elites, they will need to agree a common blueprint for both the transitional period and subsequent democracy.


[i] Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, “The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa”, Comparative Studies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East 16 (1996), 98-114.