With long swords and 1,000 spears glinting in hard sunlight, the Sudanese Arab warriors rode camels toward the airstrip, cracking hide whips to honor Sudan’s military ruler Omar al-Bashir.
It was a scene meant to exude power, and it largely did in 1992, at a rally on the southern edge of the Sahara, 500 miles southwest of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The stocky president, who had seized control in a military coup less than three years before, was triumphant amid the swirling clouds of dust.
General Bashir roused the mob with promises of victory over rebels in the south and held aloft the dual badges of his junta: a copy of the Quran and an AK-47 assault rifle – the proverbial book and sword.
“Whoever thinks of subjugating us, they will find a nation that loves martyrdom!” Mr. Bashir declared.
Yet amid the trappings of military bravado, a bright paper clip held the tongue of the president’s belt to the uniform covering his belly – a small sign, perhaps, of the pragmatism that enabled Mr. Bashir to reign for nearly 30 years.
But the paper clip was also an early indication, perhaps, of only transitory control by a presidency that came to an end on Thursday – tainted by multiple wars, indictment for crimes against humanity in Sudan’s western Darfur region, and street protests against tripling bread prices last December that grew to topple the dictator.
On Friday, as Sudanese protesters absorbed the news that the military had finally removed Mr. Bashir the day before and declared a state of emergency and two-year transition period, the lessons of the 2011 Arab Spring loomed large.
Crowds are dismissing what they call the “clone” of renewed military rule, as they saw in Egypt. But at the same time, they want to avoid the chaos and civil war that has shaken post-uprising Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
It’s a high-risk moment in a society already riven by decades of war and violence, with multiple armed groups and a military apparently determined so far to cling to its own levers of power.
Many protesters hoping to steer their revolution toward civilian control are staying where they’ve been for months: in the streets. Their first step Thursday was to defy a new curfew, with thousands continuing their sit-in overnight in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum. They changed their chant – with many lower-ranking soldiers joining in – from “Fall, that’s all!” to “Fall, again!”
“We’ve reached a tipping point where this is beyond breaking the fear barrier; people are just very angry right now,” says Isma’il Kushkush, a Sudanese American journalist contacted in Virginia.
“No one wants to see a repetition of the failures of the Arab Spring, whether it be establishment of an authoritarian system like we see in Egypt or a civil war in Libya,” says Mr. Kushkush. “And I would say for a long time the Sudanese government was able to manipulate fears that Sudanese had of falling into that kind of scenario. They would point to Egypt or Libya or Yemen if people took to the street.”
EIGHT YEARS OF EXAMPLES
With two long-reigning north African autocrats deposed in the space of nine days, in Algeria and Sudan, the successful fervor of current street protests does resemble the heady, regime-toppling days of the Arab Spring.
Popular uprisings that started back then ousted despots in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but with decidedly mixed results. And in Syria, protests led to a devastating civil war, with the autocrat the victor.
With those recent examples as cautionary tales, Sudan’s opposition has challenged the military council’s announcements, demanding a civilian government.
“What happened was that the masks merely changed, it is the same regime that people revolted against, seeking to remove it from its roots,” the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the protests, said in a statement Friday. “We are still in the path of true revolution … our martyrs have shed their blood in pursuit of freedom and justice.”
One lesson protesters look to – which may herald a much longer showdown on the streets – is that of Tunisia, where continued street pressure for weeks after the toppling of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, after 23 years in power, finally resulted in the kind of civilian-run, democratic outcome that Sudanese activists want to achieve.
The normal narrative is that Tunisia’s strong civil society made that possible – a characteristic shared by Sudan. But in fact it had more to do with continued street pressure on “old elites” weeks after Mr. Ben Ali fled, says Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Yale and an expert on the collective dynamics of revolutions.
“This idea that the balance of power only exists when it’s shown on the street is really well understood by Sudanese opposition parties,” says Mr. Gallopin, contacted in Berlin.
“Democratization doesn’t just happen when a leader is pushed out of power. It happens when the opposition remains mobilized in the aftermath of authoritarian breakdown and makes a show of strength on the street,” adds Mr. Gallopin, citing the Tunisia model.
In his first statement announcing that Mr. Bashir had been arrested, chairman of the military council Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf – the deposed president’s deputy and former defense minister, who is sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in the Darfur war – acknowledged Thursday that Sudan had been afflicted by “poor management, corruption, and an absence of justice,” and apologized for the “killing and violence.”
But his moves were rejected by the opposition, which has seen at least 35 people killed in the past week, and dozens more deaths since December. In January, pro-regime paramilitaries opened fire as they chased protesters inside a hospital, according to reporting from Khartoum by Britain’s Channel 4 news.
The top brass took a more conciliatory tone on Friday, saying the army had “no ambition to hold the reins of power” and that it was “for the demands of the people.” Omar Zein al-Abideen, head of the council’s political committee, also called for dialogue with the opposition.
The military was “ready to step down as early as a month” if a civilian-led government could be created, Mr. al-Abideen said.
“The tone is positive, because it signals the military council really lacks the confidence to crack down heavily,” says Mr. Gallopin. “It signifies that the street pressure that we’ve seen continuing in the past 24 hours is working, and it’s really compelling the military council to – at least for now – take a posture of conciliation.”
Some observers have raised concern over the potential for Sudan’s multiple security forces to fracture, however, sparking further conflict if some remain loyal to the previous regime and some do not. Earlier this week, soldiers reportedly intervened to prevent security forces from breaking up protests.
The commander of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohammed Hamdan Dalgo, has said the paramilitary group opposes solutions that don’t satisfy popular demands and called on opposition leaders for dialogue. On Friday he also reportedly announced that the RSF would not join the military council.
‘WE TAKE OUT THE TRASH, AND YOU BRING US MORE?’
Protest organizers are determined to keep up the pressure, Hajooj Kuka, a film director and member of Girifna, a nonviolent resistance movement in Sudan, told Al Jazeera English.
“We’re not going to negotiate with this government, we don’t hold this government as our government, and we’re going to fight against it. It has to fall,” said Mr. Kuka.
“This is not a government that wants to negotiate,” he said. “The way they started, the way they took over power, and the way they didn’t negotiate – they didn’t talk to us – it means we can’t deal with them.”
While some chanted on the streets of Khartoum that the “revolution has only just begun,” other Sudanese activists voiced their rejection of military rule online, with rhyming couplets.
Wrote one activist on Twitter:
“We take out the trash, and you bring us more?
Hell we’ll take it all out, like we’ve done before
Peace, justice, freedom for Sudan
Not just the fall of one wicked man
We want it all, and bring it we will
If not for our kids, then for the innocent you kill”
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